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FreightWaves Classics: Port of Baltimore active for 300+ years

An aerial view of the Port of Baltimore. (Photo: Port of Baltimore)

The port today

The Port of Baltimore is closer to the Midwest than any other East Coast port and is also within an overnight drive of one-third of the nation’s population. In addition, the Port of Baltimore is one of only four ports on the Eastern Seaboard with both a channel and container berth that are at least 50-feet deep. Therefore it can accommodate some of the largest container ships in the world. About five years ago, on July 19, 2016, the Ever Lambent, a Taiwanese-flagged cargo-carrier, was the first supersized container ship to dock in Baltimore after traversing the just-widened Panama Canal.

The logo of the Port of Baltimore. (Image: Port of Baltimore)
The logo of the Port of Baltimore. (Image: Port of Baltimore)

During a 2006 celebration of the port’s 300th birthday, the port was renamed in honor of Helen Delich Bentley (1923-2016), a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Baltimore. Before her election to Congress, Bentley was a maritime reporter/editor for The Baltimore Sun newspaper.

The Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore is located along the tidal basins of the three branches of the Patapsco River on the upper northwest shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It contains the nation’s largest port facilities for specialized cargo (roll-on/roll-off ships) and passenger facilities. 

Early history

Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the 1600s, the area that is today’s Port of Baltimore was inhabited by the Powhatan peoples. The Port of Baltimore was established in 1729; it was named after Lord Baltimore, who was a power in the Irish House of Lords. 

In the 17th century, Maryland farmers began growing more tobacco, with the intent to export a portion of their crops. They began to ship tobacco to England from the Port of Baltimore. In the years following, other commodities were shipped from the natural harbor. 

An historical marker for Fells Point. (Photo: Maryland State Archives)
An historical marker for Fells Point. (Photo: Maryland State Archives)

In addition, the deepest part of the harbor was home to numerous shipbuilders, who used the harbor as a building site as early as 1670. Known as Fells Point, this area would later gain fame for its Baltimore clippers, as well as ships built for the Continental Navy. The port was designated as a port of entry by the Maryland General Assembly in 1706. Because of its natural depth, Fells Point became a center for trade and shipping, and in 1773 it was incorporated into Baltimore City.

As the American Revolution began, the Port of Baltimore was already an important seaport and shipbuilding center. During a brief time in 1776 and 1777, the Continental Congress met there, hoping to avoid a British attack on Philadelphia.

During the Revolutionary War the Port of Baltimore became central to trade with the West Indies. In 1783 construction of wharves, the clearing of nearby tributaries, and collection of duties from vessels entering and clearing the Port began. In 1785, Maryland merchants began trade with China from the port. 

In the 1790s, England and France were at war. To protect coastal shipping and cities, the new American federal government began construction of a series of Atlantic forts in 1794. To protect the Port of Baltimore, Fort McHenry was constructed. It was the site of the Battle of North Point during the War of 1812. Of course, Fort McHenry was the site that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The first naval vessel of the U.S. Navy built in the U.S., the U.S.S. Constellation, was launched from the Port of Baltimore in 1797. In addition, the nation’s last all-sail warship, which was also named the Constellation, was built in 1854. It has been berthed in the Port of Baltimore harbor since 1955.

The "Star-Spangled Banner." (Photo: National Park Service)
The “Star-Spangled Banner.” (Photo: National Park Service)

The 1800s

The State of Maryland did not support the port until 1827. At that time the Governor began to appoint overseers of State-owned or leased docks.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad is the oldest railroad in the United States; its first section opened in 1830. By 1845 the railroad connected to Port of Baltimore warehouses at Locust Point. In addition, during the 19th century, clipper ships built in Baltimore harbor traveled from the Port around the world. Supported by development of the railroad and its clipper ships, the port was a center of trade with Europe and South America in the 19th century.

An early B&O Railroad locomotive and coach railcar. (Photo: Maryland State Archives)
An early B&O Railroad locomotive and coach railcar. (Photo: Maryland State Archives)

Closer to the “frontier” than New York City or Boston, Baltimore became the commercial gateway to the expanding country. As supply and demand grew for imported goods to Baltimore, ship production increased.

During the Civil War, many residents of Maryland were sympathizers with the Confederacy. Therefore, Union troops occupied the port and city throughout the war.

Changes to the port

In 1830 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed Baltimore Harbor, establishing the central lane depth at 17 feet. The federal River and Harbor Act of 1852 authorized the dredging of the Baltimore harbor for specific dimensions. A channel 22 feet deep and 150 feet wide was dredged from Fort McHenry to Swan Point. To decrease the accumulation of sediment and reduce dredging, the Brewerton Channel was created in 1869. Since that time, new channels have been added, deepened and widened. The main channel is 51 feet deep and 700 feet wide. By mid-2015, the harbor was able to accommodate the world’s largest container ships.

However, construction at the port continues. Another container berth that allows two supersized container ships in the port simultaneously is being built, and four additional Neo-Panamax cranes are scheduled to go online this summer. A long-awaited renovation of the Howard Street Tunnel will allow double-stack container railcars to move to/from the port.

Although state involvement in the port goes back to 1827, a state agency to oversee its operations was not created until 1956. At that time and since, the Maryland Port Authority key responsibilities have been to keep the Port competitive through improvements and modernization of its facilities and to promote it worldwide. The Authority was supplanted in 1971 by the Maryland Port Administration, which is a part of the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Baltimore harbor in 1869. (Image:
Baltimore harbor in 1869. (Image:

Key events in the 20th century

A huge fire destroyed much of the Port of Baltimore’s business district in 1904. The fire burned for two days and consumed nearly 141 acres and over 1,500 buildings. Luckily, few lives were lost, and the structures were rebuilt.

The Port of Baltimore and its environs grew quickly during World War I. Steel mills and oil refineries were built. The Great Depression brought economic woes to the area, and while the economic upturn that accompanied World War II helped, the urban area was in poor condition.

The city’s/port’s economies began to recover after World War II. However, many of the middle-class residents moved to new suburbs around Baltimore, and the population shrank for the first time since the middle of the 19th century. This trend continued, and by the late 1960s,  Baltimore’s inner city was in decay. 

Urban renewal efforts by government, business and civic groups helped bring the city and port back. Baltimore revitalized its downtown and several neighborhoods. In particular, the area known as the Inner Harbor became the home for hotels, office buildings and entertainment facilities. Decrepit wharves and warehouses were replaced by the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. Then Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, was built nearby. 

A historical Baltimore harbor photo. (Photo: Towson University)
A historical Baltimore harbor photo. (Photo: Towson University)

Economic impact

The Port of Baltimore creates $3.3 billion in total personal income and supports 15,330 direct jobs and 139,180 jobs related to the work of the port. In addition, the Port generates nearly $400 million in taxes and $2.6 billion in business income. Each year the port serves over 50 ocean carriers that collectively make nearly 1,800 visits.

The port’s complexes include five public and 12 private terminals. The port operates seven post-Panamax cranes and four super-post-Panamax cranes. 

The port was the top port in the nation in handling automobiles, light trucks, farm and construction machinery, as well as imported sugar and gypsum, in 2019. The Port ranked second in the country for exporting coal that same year.

The Port’s public and private terminals handled 857,890 autos and light trucks in 2019, the second time they passed the 800,000 mark and the most of any U.S. port for the ninth straight year. 

Also in 2019, the port handled a record 43.6 million tons of international cargo (valued at $58.4 billion), an increase from 42.9 million in 2018. Compared to all U.S. ports, Baltimore ranked ninth for total dollar value and eleventh for tonnage of international cargo.

Seven post-Panamax and four super-post-Panamax cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal, Port of Baltimore. (Photo: Sarah A. Hanks)
Seven post-Panamax and four super-post-Panamax cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal, Port of Baltimore. (Photo: Sarah A. Hanks)

In fiscal year 2019, the port’s public terminals handled a record-setting 11.1 million tons of general cargo, which was up from 10.9 million tons in fiscal year 2018.

The Port’s public terminals handled 657,059 containers in 2019, up 4.9% from in 2018. In addition, the port handled nearly 1.1 million TEU containers, which was the second time the port handled more than 1 million containers in a year. 

In 2015, the port of Baltimore was ranked first in the nation for container berth productivity. The port averaged 71 container movements each hour per berth. Evergreen, Maersk and MSC – three of the world’s largest container shipping companies – operate from the Port of Baltimore.

Hoegh Autoliners ro/ro ship on the Patapsco River, Port of Baltimore.  (Photo: Diane F. Evartt)
Hoegh Autoliners ro/ro ship on the Patapsco River, Port of Baltimore. (Photo: Diane F. Evartt)

In addition to its cargo terminals, the port has a passenger cruise terminal, which is used year-round. Cruise ships carried 224,000 passengers from the Port of Baltimore in 2019. In the cruise category in 2018, Baltimore ranked sixth in East Coast ports, eleventh in U.S. ports and twentieth in world ports. The port’s cruise industry generates over $90 to the state economy and supports over 500 jobs.

In summary, this 315-year old port is vibrant and active, contributing to its city, state, region and nation.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.