YEARS OF CONSOLIDATION (1955-1960)
Early in 1957, President Belt and other officials of the Chamber of Commerce concluded that by the time any airport site could be selected and the city could get bonds approved for its purchase it would cease to be available or the price would become prohibitive. The only answer seemed to lie in a "group of our friends", as Mr. Belt expressed it, buying land for such a site, and then holding it for subsequent resale to the city at its cost to them. He discussed the idea with Mayor Holcombe, A. Dee Simpson, J. S. Abercrombie, H. R. Cullen, and J. A. Elkins.
Houston’s civic leadership met the challenge. A group of eighteen citizens quietly set about acquiring lands for the site that is now being developed as the Houston Intercontinental Airport. They were: J. S.Abercrombie, Edgar W. Brown, Jr., George Brown, Herman Brown, J. F. Corley, Roy H. Cullen, J. Brown Cutbirth, W. H. Francis, Jr.,W. J.Goldston, E. J. Gracey, J. A. Gray, Claud B. Hamill, W. N. Hooper, Rex E. Hudson, Ralph A. Johnston, Douglas B. Marshall, R. E. Smith and William A. Smith. The ownership of some 3,000 acres was accumulated by these through a holding company known as the "Jet Era Ranch Company". Because of a typographical error, the site became identified as the "Jetero Airport", subsequently being officially named Houston Intercontinental Airport. In 1958, this property was offered to the city at the $1,900,000 it had cost those who acquired it, but it was not until 1960 that the city moved to purchase the land at this price, with a requirement that the land would be developed into a major municipal airport before 1970.
The other major aviation development of 1957 came on November 21, when 33 Houston leaders met with the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington in a session of far-reaching importance to Houston’s future. The conference had been arranged by Congressman Albert Thomas, and it gave Houston leaders an opportunity to emphasize informally to the Board this city’s most pressing aviation needs. Armed with a brief prepared specifically for the conference, the group supported Benjamin N. Woodson and John T. Jones, Jr., in their presentation of Houston’s needs.
Using charts to drive home the most significant points, these speakers emphasized Houston’s need for service to the West, competitive service to Dallas, improved service to South and Central America and Mexico, service to the Mid-continent areas, service to the Ohio Valley area, and expanded local service. The charts to be used were delivered within an hour of the conference, and when it was found that the word "competition" had been misspelled consistently on the charts, Chairman Woodson capitalized on this error in his presentation to the Board by declaring: "The distinguished members of this Board will observe that Houston has had such little experience with competition in air service that we cannot even spell the word."
Houston’s growth rate, as emphasized to the CAB, was supported by figures from a current survey of manufacturing by the Bureau of the Census. In 1957, there were 1,600 manufacturing establishments in Harris County, with 92,970 employees, having total annual wages of $438,000,000, or an average of $4,712 annual income per employee. Value added by manufacture was $1,008,000,000, and goods were produced at a value of $4,800,000,000. In 1954, there had been 1,421 plants, with 78,038 employees, with wages totaling $368,444,000. In 1947, just ten years earlier, there were 916 plants, with 58,600 employees, and a total payroll of $167,600,000, or $2,860 per employee annually. Products in 1947 were valued at $1,862,000,000.
Following the death of Hugh Roy Cullen, the Executive Committee of the Chamber of Commerce on July 2, 1957, said: "Hugh Roy Cullen will long be remembered as a great Houstonian, a great Texan and a great American. While he was undoubtedly best known for the extent and unselfishness of his philanthropies, Mr. Cullen was influential in other directions. He fought valiantly for the preservation of basic American principles to preserve the inherent opportunities they offered future generations. He found no middle ground of compromise in this respect and gave generous and courageous support to right causes as he understood them. He combined the fervent patriotism and rugged determination of colonial times with characteristics of charity and kindliness which have come to be associated with the way of life in this country.
During 1957, there was activity on two other developments that were to become significant to the future of the Houston area. The Houston Chamber of Commerce, some years earlier, had become concerned about the future availability of major industrial sites on deep water. Most of the land along the Ship Channel was being held for future expansion of existing plants or by the Navigation District as spoil area. Our investigations indicated limitation on the possibilities of dredging any of the streams emptying into the Channel for deep-water shipping. The several thousand acres held by the Defense Department in the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot looked promising, since its facilities were being used on a very limited basis and since the igloos built for World War II use seemed to have little utility for storage of the modern weapons developed since that time. We took the matter up with the U. S. Ordnance Department and were advised that the property was being held with high priority by them and that they had no thoughts of declaring it surplus. The development of the Depot tract would have to wait for another decade.
Our further studies indicated that the west shores of Galveston Bay offered possibilities, since a deep-water channel could be dredged from the existing Ship Channel across the Bay. In this investigation, we learned that Humble Oil & Refining Company owned some 30,000 acres in the West Ranch property. We considered various possibilities for the development of this land for industries, commercial installations and residential areas. The prospect of creating a syndicate to buy and develop the land was discarded as impractical at that time, and we came to the same conclusion relative to an idea that the land might be bought and developed by the Navigation District.
The best possibility seemed to be for Humble to develop the land itself. With its resources and contacts, we thought it might consider this type of diversification of its holdings. On November 25, 1955, we approached J.A. Neath on the idea. He listened with his usual courteous attention, but said: "The idea has a great deal of merit, but we are in the oil business and not in the real estate business. We bought the property for its oil, and when we are satisfied that we have that, we will sell the land—and perhaps those who then buy it might be interested in the type of development you suggest. As a matter of fact," he added, "we have given a broker an option on the land, and may sell it fairly soon." The idea still appealed to us, and we started building a proposal that might seem to Humble to merit action.
When Ben C. Belt was re-elected for an unprecedented fourth year as president of the Chamber of Commerce for 1958, he still cited the need for developing the Trinity River and other sources for a long-range water supply as Houston’s No. 1 problem. By the end of the year, he was to characterize the development of a program to assure Houston such an ample supply of water as the year’s most significant milestone, and to commend the administration of Mayor Lewis Cutrer on the steps it had taken to meet a need that was threatening the city’s continued growth and development.
Although the economic recession that began in 1957 continued through most of 1958, it was a year of important national and international developments. Nikita Khrushchev became the Soviet premier, and rebellion in Algeria catapulted DeGaulle back into power in France. The exchange of atomic information and materials with allies was authorized. A balance-of-payments problem started a drain on the gold reserves of the United States. On January 31, the United States launched its first satellite, the 30.8 pound Explorer. The age of the pure jets for commercial aircraft was born, and trans-Atlantic jet service was inaugurated.
At a symposium sponsored by the U. S. Air Force, and arranged by the Southwest Research Institute, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson said: "Now we have arrived at a new frontier—the ‘vertical frontier’, as you call it—the space frontier to the layman. You scientists assembled here are the pioneers of this new frontier. You are leading your nation—and all mankind—into it, with a frontier so vast that it will never become settled and static and fixed. The space frontier is above all a perpetual frontier."
Throughout metropolitan Houston, as across the state and nation, businessmen were pausing for a close, hard look at what the months ahead might bring. There were ample causes for concern over the state of the nation’s economy. Inventory adjustments were already under way. The general belief was that 1958 would bring a period of readjustment, but not depression, with a gradual upturn during the last half of the year. Unemployment was increasing, capital spending had leveled off, new orders for machine tools were down, and production was still declining. Continued hesitancy in new commitments for plant-and-equipment expenditures in most of the basic industries were expected to prevail well into the year.
The 1958 program of work of the Chamber of Commerce gave priority to: the creation of a city department of aviation, the expansion and development of the Civic Center, further development of the city’s master street plan with adequate protection of right-of-way, strong support for the City Planning Commission, effective improvements in the mass-transit system, and studies looking toward the creation of some agency of government, or some other effective plan, to deal more adequately with area-wide problems.
The Chamber of Commerce Metropolitan Area Committee, with cooperation from representatives of other metropolitan areas in the state, developed a proposed constitutional amendment to give the larger counties of Texas home-rule rights. This was to be submitted to the 1959 session of the Legislature. It was designed as a step in carrying out the recommendations of the Harris County Home Rule Commission.
Among the recommendations of the Home Rule Commission were: transfer to the county the public health function and hospital care of the indigent; partial transfer to the county of responsibility for parks and recreation and libraries; increased county responsibility for metropolitan streets and roads, police protection, schools and planning; and expansion of services and more area-wide coordination of fire protection, water supply, sewerage and drainage as provided by the various local governments.