Even though Galveston Island’s natural harbor had been known for decades among pirates and explorers, the port was not officially established until 1825. At the time, Texas was still part of Mexico, and the port was created in large part to facilitate the import of supplies to the interior missions and Stephen F. Austin’s fledgling settlement. Almost three decades would pass before the Galveston Wharves were built, by which time Texas had won its independence from Mexico, been a sovereign nation for almost 10 years and then became America’s 28th state. The Galveston Wharves were officially founded in 1854.
Throughout the last half of the 19th century, Galveston was one of the busiest ports in the nation, second only to New York City and in some years, New Orleans. The hurricane of 1900 that devastated Galveston also destroyed most of the wharves and supporting structures. The area was rebuilt, but while the wharves were closed, much trade was lost to Houston after the completion of the Houston Ship Channel.
In 1940, the Galveston Wharves became a city-owned utility and still retains that status. By 1990, the Galveston Wharves consisted of 10 open-dock berths and 20 berths with attached warehouses totaling almost 1.9 million square feet. Today, approximately 10 million short-tons of cargo pass through the wharves annually. Imports consist primarily of lumber products, vehicles, agricultural equipment, wind-power equipment and military cargo, while exports include grains, machinery, light fuels and vehicles.
Galveston is also the only Texas port that has cruise ships home-ported. Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Princess Lines all depart from the Galveston Wharves although only Carnival ships are based in Galveston year-round.
The Galveston Wharves also includes several tourist attractions. The Texas Seaport Museum is located on the wharves, and the historic sailing ship, Elissa, is anchored there. The area is also home to numerous restaurants and shops.