Commercial traffic outnumbers pleasure craft on the western stretch of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW), especially along the Texas coast, where more than $25 billion in cargo travels each year. A significant number of shrimp and fishing boats also ply the channel on their way in and out of the gulf and bays.
But the Gulf Coast is not without its attractions for cruisers, including historic waterfronts, modern cities and quaint fishing villages, as well as vast stretches of unspoiled coastal wetlands serving as the winter nesting grounds for waterfowl and the nursery for the Gulf of Mexico’s rich seafood resources.
Native Americans once subsisted off this bounty and paddled canoes in the bays behind the barrier islands and peninsulas. A few hapless Spanish castaways were the first Europeans in the area, held as slaves by the Karankawa Indians on Galveston Island before escaping to Mexico. More than a century later, the buccaneer Jean Laffitte established a stronghold on the island.
Soon after the war of 1812, Lafitte left Galveston and settlers began pouring into Texas via what quickly became a thriving port city. Within a few decades, Galveston grew to serve as a shipping hub for goods coming in and out of the booming territory. Relatively unscathed by the Civil War, it continued to thrive until 1900, when a hurricane swept most of the city off the map. But the survivors rebuilt and, in an astounding feat of engineering, constructed a 17-foot seawall and raised the grade of the east end of the island.
Coastal business interests began connecting navigable water bodies soon after joining the Union. By 1854, Galveston Bay was connected to the Brazos River. A channel from New Orleans to Galveston was finally funded in 1925. By 1945, a continuous waterway with minimum depths of 12 feet and a width of 125 feet extended from St. Marks, Fla. to Corpus Christi, Texas.
Dredging operations continued on the final 150-mile stretch to the Mexican border, with completion celebrated in 1949. Subsequently, nearly 100 tributaries have been incorporated into the GIWW system, further opening navigation to commercial interests — as well as pleasure craft — along rivers and further inland.