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FreightWaves Classics: Port of Detroit is an economic engine for the region

A ship traverses the Detroit River on its way to the Port of Detroit. (Photo: Port of Detroit)

Most of us think of Detroit as the home of the major U.S. auto manufacturers and the birthplace of Motown. Of course it is both of those things and many more, but it is also a port city. 

Detroit was founded as a trading post in 1701 by French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. He claimed the area between the upper and lower Great Lakes for France. By 1751, the area was known as Petit Cote (Little Coast). 

Today’s Port of Detroit is located along the west side of the Detroit River. According to the U.S. DeIt is the largest seaport in the state of Michigan. Yes, seaport… How can a city located in a state in the middle of the United States along the Canadian border be a seaport?

Detroit (and other cities) are seaports thanks to the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened in 1959. For more than 60 years, the St. Lawrence Seaway has been the 2,000-mile long link between the agricultural and industrial heartland of North America and global markets. The Seaway system provides a pathway for annual commerce exceeding 200 million net tons. 

A docked ship has its hatches open at the Port of Detroit. (Photo: Port of Detroit)
A docked ship has its hatches open at the Port of Detroit. (Photo: Port of Detroit)

Facts and figures

In fact, Michigan is home to over 40 commercial ports. The maritime and related industries are important to the state’s fiscal success. The maritime industry supports many of the industries critical to the region (auto, energy, construction). Overall, foreign goods shipped through Michigan waters generate $2 billion to the state’s economy.

Each year, Michigan ships 29 million tons of limestone and gypsum. That is approximately 80% of all Great Lakes shipments of these commodities. In addition, Michigan’s ports handle: 80% of all Great Lakes cement shipments; 25% of all Great Lakes iron ore shipments; and 30% of all Great Lakes coal shipments.

The Port of Detroit has multiple marine terminals that handle general, liquid and bulk cargo as well as passengers. The port is used by both domestic and international vessels. About 80 million tons of cargo moves along the Detroit River annually. Of that total, approximately 7 million tons of overseas and Canadian cargo crosses the docks of the Port of Detroit. Approximately 1,500 inbound and outbound trips are made annually at the Port of Detroit, including vessels from Brazil, China and the Eastern European Baltic nations. In total, foreign shipping accounts for about 20% of all maritime activity in the state.

One of the Port of Detroit's cranes towers over the ship 
Herbert C. Jackson. (Photo: Port of Detroit)
One of the Port of Detroit’s cranes towers over the ship
Herbert C. Jackson. (Photo: Port of Detroit)

Economic impact

The Port of Detroit is overseen by the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority (DWCPA). The DWCPA is a government agency; its goal is to advance southeast Michigan’s maritime and related industries to deliver prosperity and economic benefits to citizens and businesses.

Each year, the DWCPA has oversight of more than 17 million tons of cargo at 29 private and public sector terminal facilities in the Port of Detroit. Coal, iron ore, cement, aggregate and other road building commodities are shipped in and out of Detroit’s port. The port also is the third largest steel-handling port in the nation, importing and exporting international and domestic high-grade steel products. Steel is the port’s single most valuable commodity, while the largest commodity handled by tonnage is ore. 

The Port of Detroit is responsible for nearly 16,000 jobs in southeast Michigan. These jobs equate to $500 million in direct business revenue, $255 million in personal income and $288 million in state and federal tax revenue.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Port of Detroit was ranked 41st out of the top 150 U.S. water ports in 2012 (last update available).

A view of the Herbert C. Jackson seemingly surrounded by port machinery. (Photo: Port of Detroit)
A view of the Herbert C. Jackson seemingly surrounded by port machinery. (Photo: Port of Detroit)

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.