Before World War I, the shipbuilding industry in Texas was extremely limited. Geographical conditions including shallow harbors with large buildups of marine sediment meant that it was impractical to construct anything larger than small boats for fishing and navigating rivers. Steamboats that sailed around Texas’ coast and rivers were built elsewhere. However, between 1909 and 1925, the industry boomed, largely as a result of the increased demand for merchant ships brought on by the First World War. Around this time, shipbuilding and ship repair yards began to open in Houston.
At that time, the ships were primarily made of timber, particularly the yellow pine that grew in abundance in Texas. The Great Depression slowed the shipbuilding industry down considerably, but the U.S.’s entry into World War II brought a second wave of business to the yards in Houston. Early in 1942, the yards instituted two ten-hour shifts a day to keep up with the demand. By July of the next year, Houston alone had launched 66 ships from its various repair shops, including Todd Houston Shipbuilding, Bludworth Bond, Schmidt Barge Yard, Brown Shipbuilding and Platzer Boat Works.
Once again, the demand for ships dropped steeply after the war. Though some of the Houston yards remain open, they have greatly reduced their workforces. Most have had to diversify into manufacturing other materials, like sheet metal and industrial heating equipment, and today, most of their work comes from oil companies who require offshore drilling platforms, though the yards are occasionally used for repair or conversion work.
Sadly, employees at the Houston shipyards, like those at many other such places, were exposed to high levels of asbestos during the course of their work. Much of the material needed to build a ship needed to be fireproof, and though asbestos was prized for its heat-resistant properties, it could also be incredibly dangerous when the materials that contained it were manipulated in the construction process. Because of this, Houston shipyard workers are at a greatly increased risk of developing asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.