The ports of the United States are our nation’s windows to the rest of the world. Imports and exports flow through them daily, helping maintain the world’s largest economy.
A key Gulf Coast port is located in Mobile, Alabama. It is one of the top 20 U.S. ports by volume. Located along the Mobile River where it empties into Mobile Bay, the Port of Mobile has deepwater terminals with direct access to 1,500 miles of inland and intracoastal waterways. These waterways serve the Great Lakes, the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys (via the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway) and the Gulf of Mexico.
Although it is a deepwater port now, the Port of Mobile wasn’t always so. It has served as a port for over 300 years under multiple flags.
Early explorers saw the strategic importance of Mobile Bay, from which they could move deep into the interior of the New World while also maintaining a direct water route back to their ocean-going vessels in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1702, the Le Moyne brothers established a settlement they named Mobile about 30 miles up the Mobile River from Dauphin Island (one of the barrier islands protecting Mobile Bay). In 1711, the settlement was relocated to its current location at the terminus of the Mobile River, closer to the deeper waters of the Gulf.
Because of a relatively shallow channel in Mobile bay, large cargo vessels could not dock at Mobile throughout the colonial era. Cargo and passenger ships were offloaded at Dauphin Island to smaller ships and transported into Mobile. The city and area had three colonial masters – the French, British and Spanish, but a more troublesome problem was shifting power relations – and therefore control of the extensive system of rivers that flowed into Mobile Bay – by different European nations and Native American groups. These issues limited access to the interior’s rich resources until the Mississippi Territory was consolidated and the U.S. annexed west Florida in the 1810s.
Mobile became part of the United States in 1813, which led to the city’s port finally being connected with the river basin above it. This brought new-found prosperity because cotton and other commodities were brought downriver. However, the shallow waters of Mobile Bay continued to hinder shipping.
Mobile’s business community understood the shallow harbor’s limitations; they lobbied the state for harbor improvements. In 1824 the Alabama legislature created a commission to improve Mobile’s harbor. In 1825, Mobile convinced U.S. Senator Rufus B. King to provide federal funds to deepen the ship channel, which helped the port better accommodate larger ships. Thanks to these harbor improvements, Mobile grew to be one of the largest ports in the South by the 1850s.
The Civil War
The U.S. Navy blockaded Mobile Bay not long after the war began; for the rest of the war the port’s economic activity was seriously limited. The U.S. Navy took complete control of the port following the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Then on April 12, 1865, the city was surrendered to Union troops. A few weeks later (May 25, 1865) a warehouse containing 200 tons of ammunition and artillery shells exploded. More than 300 were killed and a much of the city’s waterfront facilities were destroyed.
Like most of the rest of the South, the Mobile economy was devastated by the war. Annual cotton exports fell from their pre-war average of 800,000 bales to less than 300,000 bales in the years following the war.
The U.S. Congress approved a project to clear the wreckage of sunken ships and other debris from Mobile Bay, as well as to increase the depth of the ship channel to 13 feet. Even so, by the end of the 1870s, Mobile was nearly insolvent. In 1879, the Alabama legislature repealed Mobile’s charter and created a new governmental body (the Port of Mobile). It was charged with collecting back taxes, paying down Mobile’s debt, and managing the city. In December 1886, the legislature reestablished the City of Mobile’s charter, and the final payment of the city’s debt was made in 1906.
Meanwhile, by the late 1880s, a combination of federally financed harbor improvements, outside investments, and local boosters led to the port’s rapid expansion. Key business leaders established the Mobile Joint Rivers and Harbors Committee to secure federal funds for maritime projects, including further dredging of Mobile Bay and improving the navigability of the rivers that flowed into it.
From 1880 to 1915, the federal government spent millions to improve Mobile’s harbor. Between 1880 and 1886, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook an extensive dredging project that deepened the ship channel to 17 feet. The channel was further deepened to 23 feet, which meant that deep-draft ocean-going vessels could dock at Mobile’s port for the first time. Concurrently, expanded railroad access and federally funded improvements to river navigation made it easier for businesses to ship goods to the port.
A boom in timber exports also helped to revive Mobile’s port; more than one billion feet of lumber was shipped from the port just in 1889. Other major exports included local seafood and oysters; at the same time Mobile had become one of the largest ports for fruit imports from Latin America by 1893.
The 20th century
World War I began in 1914; the United States was drawn into the war in 1917. The Emergency Fleet Corporation was created by Congress to expand the nation’s small Merchant Marine. In August 1917 a shipbuilding contract was awarded to the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company (ADDSCO). However, ADDSCO’s facilities were inadequate for wartime production, and before it could build a ship the company had to install heavy drydock equipment along the Mobile waterfront. Therefore, only one 3,500-ton freighter was completed before the war ended. But approximately 50 ships were built between 1918 and 1921 in Mobile.
This also led key Mobile businessmen to establish the Waterman Steamship Corporation in 1919. The company became one of the largest shipping companies in the world. In addition, its formation spurred renewed interest in building Mobile’s port facilities. Local leaders convinced the Alabama legislature to establish a state dock in Mobile. The legislature authorized construction of the Alabama State Docks in 1922; Gov. William Brandon appointed the first State Docks Commission. General William L. Sibert (Ret.), who was famous for his work on the Panama Canal, supervised the construction of the state docks on a 500-acre site north of the city’s waterfront. Opened in 1928, the docks more than doubled the city’s commercial shipping capacity.
World War II ship production
U.S. military needs led to unprecedented growth in the city’s port facilities during World War II. ADDSCO’s workforce increased more than tenfold. The Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation installed new, larger drydocks. The city’s workforce in the harbor area increased to more than 89,000; workers from across the state and region sought employment.
More than 200 ships were built in Mobile shipyards during World War II. However, like many wartime industries across the United States, the war’s end led to a sharp decline in the port’s activities.
The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
Following the war, ADDSCO, the Waterman Steamship Corporation and other companies were forced to cut back their production; several merged with larger companies.
The Alabama legislature authorized the construction of a $16 million coal terminal on Mobile Bay’s McDuffie Island in 1971. This effort increased the amount of coal that could be shipped quickly from Mobile. The Alabama State Docks received a $45 million bond issue for internal improvements and expansion in 1975.
However, the largest postwar investment in the Port of Mobile was a result of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. This project was a 234-mile long system of connecting rivers to provide access to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile. President Nixon visited Mobile in May 1971 to dedicate the project, which was completed in 1984 at a cost of more than $2 billion. The major exports shipped on the Tenn-Tom (as it has become known) are timber and coal.
The port today
By 2010, the Alabama State Port Authority (Alabama State Docks) shipped more than 23 million tons of material from Mobile. Recent investments include AM/NS Calvert, a multinational steel corporation that owns a large refinery in north Mobile County. It also has a shipping terminal on Pinto Island. There is a U.S. Coast Guard training facility located on Little Sand Island.
The Port of Mobile is the largest break bulk forest products port in the nation. In addition, the ASPA’s McDuffie Terminal is one of the largest coal terminals in the country, as well as its largest import coal terminal. The majority of coal exported from the Port of Mobile is used for metallurgical processes; most is shipped to Europe and South America.
Austal USA, one of the Gulf Coast’s largest shipbuilders, received a multi-billion dollar contract to build high-speed, shallow draft warships for the United States Navy. The first of these vessels to be completed in Mobile was the USS Independence in 2009. Another major investment was the Choctaw Point Container Terminal.
The Port of Mobile’s most frequent import and export commodities are coal, aluminum, iron, steel, lumber, wood pulp and chemicals.
The port’s infrastructure
The Port of Mobile’s public terminals are owned and operated by the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA), a state agency. These terminals handle a range of containerized, bulk, break bulk, roll-on/roll-off, and heavy lift cargoes.
The port is also home to private bulk terminal operators. The container, general cargo and bulk facilities have easy access to two interstate highways and five Class I railroads.
ASPA has spent hundreds of millions over the past 20 years to improve the port’s infrastructure.
Among the improvements are land acquisition, new rail and intermodal yards, cargo terminal improvements and enhancements to improve servicing of deep-water oil and gas field vessels and equipment.
Like most U.S. ports, the Port of Mobile is an economic engine for the state and region. The ASPA estimates that over 154,000 direct and indirect jobs are generated by the port and that it has a direct and indirect tax impact of over $559 million annually. The port has a staggering total economic value of $25.4 billion.
Starting with one long pier in the 1800s, the port now has 41 berths. The depth of its main channel is currently 45 feet, which is being deepened to 50 feet by 2025. The depth is 40 feet in the river harbor. The port complex contains over 5 million square feet of warehouse and open yards.
The port covers an area of over 3,700 acres. During 2020, the ASPA tonnage was 23 million tons. The ASPA handled nearly 425,000 TEUs of intermodal containers and over 165,000 railcars.
The Port of Mobile has been serving Mobile and the region for more than 300 years. Like other U.S. ports it has seen boom and bust times. As Alabama’s only port city, Mobile reaped the benefits of the antebellum cotton boom and suffered the lean years before state and federal investments improved its facilities. It is poised for continued growth in the years to come.