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Wartime business, 1860s

Port of Houston/ Navigation District map of the Houston Ship Channel with Navigation District railroad track marked in color

Port of Houston/ Navigation District map of the Houston Ship Channel with Navigation District railroad track marked in color, 1943. William Marsh Rice's early support of the Houston Direct Navigation Co. helped improve navigation and make Houston's port an international powerhouse following the 1900 Storm at Galveston.

The advent of the Civil War brought an almost immediate halt to the building of railroads and the flow of merchandise though coastal cities, and Houston’s booming business life came to a standstill. The war hit the Texas economy particularly hard because Texas had to import nearly everything from clothing to food to equipment and luxuries. The only remaining industry on which Houston could rely was cotton. Rice began dispatching delivery wagons to the Richmond area southwest of Houston and, despite the war, did a booming trade with plantations.

William Marsh Rice invested in the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad, which was among the first railroads incorporated in Texas and the first to actually lay track—in 1852, from Harrisburg to Stafford. The railroad spelled the end of plank roads. In the census of 1860, Rice is listed as having $750,000 in real and personal property, making him one of the wealthiest men in Texas at the time.

After Margaret Bremond Rice died on On August 13, 1863, Rice went to Monterrey, Mexico, where cotton trading paid very well in gold, making for a very vibrant business environment for growers, movers and traders of cotton. Rice stayed in the Mexican border area until August of 1865 when he returned to Houston. Later in that summer, he went to Massachusetts for business and did not return to Houston until 1866.

When he did come back, he was out of the cotton business, but that didn’t slow him down much. In 1866, he again took up the reins of business leadership in Houston as director of the Houston Insurance Co. By October of that same year, the Houston Direct Navigation Co., with William on the board of directors, had extended its charter to improve navigation on Buffalo Bayou. And in 1868, Rice, together with two other directors of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, set up a partnership for laying out town sites along the route of the expanding Texas railroad.

Rice later claimed that the war had destroyed his businesses, but according to financial documents, he actually came out of the war even wealthier than before.