The Port of Savannah is located 18 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Savannah River just south of the Georgia/South Carolina border.
It is the third-largest seaport in the United States in terms of cargo volume. The Port of Savannah is owned and operated by the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA), a state agency. The port includes the Garden City Terminal, the Ocean Terminal and the Savannah Terminal Railroad. The port is the largest single container terminal in North America.
The Port of Savannah has been vital to the city’s economy for nearly three centuries, and it is also important to the economy of the state and region. It is a key port for the exportation of goods manufactured in the southeastern United States.
Early history of the port
Prior to the first Europeans landing at what is now the city of Savannah in 1733, the area where the city and port are now was occupied. Archeologists date the earliest Native American settlements to about 10,000 B.C. Tribes of Creeks dominated what would become the southeastern United States in the early 1500s. In the 17th century, the Cherokee and then Europeans pushed the Creek peoples to the west.
The founder of the Georgia colony, Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, and 114 colonists landed on Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River and established Savannah and the new colony of Georgia in 1733.
Savannah was the colony’s first city and its first capital (until 1786). An example of an early planned city, Savannah was created around a system of 24 squares (now parks) surrounded by buildings. Of the original 24 squares, 21 still exist.
The first “Port of Savannah” was a riverside commercial district. In 1744, the first ocean-going ships docked at the wharves of Savannah. By the 1760s more than a dozen warehouses lined the shoreline. Rice from local plantations was the first major export from the area, traded for cargoes of English factory-manufactured goods and Mediterranean wines. In time, exports of cotton and tobacco grew in importance, and Savannah became one of the world’s leading cotton-shipping ports.
Savannah was predominantly loyal to the British government during the American Revolution, and the British held the city until 1782. After independence was won, the city and port did well. Georgia originally outlawed slavery, but the law was changed due to competition from agricultural interests in South Carolina. Unfortunately, many slaves arrived in the U.S. through the Port of Savannah.
In 1793, Eli Whitney, a young teacher, invented the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove Plantation on a bluff above the Savannah River. His invention transformed the South’s agricultural landscape and cotton became “King Cotton.”
The S.S. Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe, sailed from Savannah to Liverpool, England, in May 1819. The voyage took 29 days.
Before the Civil War, Savannah was well known as a beautiful city with a key port. As the port grew in importance, the area’s transportation infrastructure was developed to link rural areas to the port. The value of the port grew steadily; in 1855 its exports were valued at $20.1 million. At that time, nearly 90% of the cargo by value was cotton destined for English textile mills.
The Port of Savannah was an important depot during the Civil War until Union troops took Fort Pulaski in 1862. An effective Union blockade was in effect from then until war’s end, but the Union did not capture the city until 1864. General Sherman ended his march to the Atlantic Ocean in Savannah. According to records from the time, Sherman found the city so beautiful that he did not burn it as he had Atlanta. In 1864, he offered the Port of Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas present.
Post-Civil War to World War II
Following the war, Savannah suffered financially like the rest of the South. The local economy collapsed and the port fell on hard times as well.
The port began to do better when the U.S. Corps of Engineers developed the Savannah River’s channels into usable waterways. It was not easy; there were numerous sandbars, shipwrecks and logjams. Manufacturers located their facilities farther upriver because of the marshy soils near the mouth of the estuary prevented building. This is the reason for the present location of the port and the infrastructure that has grown with it.
Imports/exports through the Port of Savannah reached $70 million in the national centennial year of 1876. Passenger shipping lines and four different railroads served the port at that time.
As the 20th century began, sections of the Savannah River were dredged regularly to keep ever-deeper shipping channels clear.
Cotton again became the key export commodity. The port thrived on exports and commerce, and resin and timber became important exports as well. The Great Depression and the destruction of cotton crops by boll weevils caused a severe economic downturn for the port.
However, cotton was largely displaced as the key export by manufactured commodities and shipments from the Savannah Sugar Refinery.
World War II-1960
While not as important as other shipyards to the war effort, shipyards in Savannah and Brunswick manufactured 173 Liberty ships. After their commissioning, these ships sailed all over the world from Savannah to serve as troop and supply transports.
The Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) was created by an act of the Georgia legislature to take advantage of the anticipated post-World War II economic boom. The legislation was signed into law by Governor Ellis Arnall on March 9, 1945. The GPA celebrated its 75th anniversary in March 2020.
The GPA was given control over Savannah’s deepwater port. The new state agency was empowered to operate state-owned facilities and “to do any other things necessary to foster or encourage the commerce, domestic or foreign, of the state, the United State of America, or the several sister states.”
In 1948 the GPA acquired land along the Savannah River in Garden City. The GPA established the Garden City Terminal to handle bulk and general cargoes and, later, containerized cargo. The Garden City Terminal was a former U.S. Army depot. A second site was purchased in 1950.
In 1956 the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation to make Brunswick and Bainbridge state ports and place them under the oversight of the GPA. The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Marvin Griffin.
The Port of Savannah’s second major terminal – Ocean Terminal – was purchased in 1958 from the Central of Georgia Railway. It became a roll-on/roll-off terminal, and handles automobiles and wheeled heavy equipment primarily. Since then it has also added breakbulk capabilities.
In 1960 the state-owned docks at Brunswick were dedicated, enlarging GPA’s responsibilities.
Growth continues from 1960-1999
In 1962, Gov. Ernest Vandiver dedicated a number of improvements at GPA’s Ocean Terminal. In addition, three new berths began operations at the Garden City Terminal. Also that year, the GPA purchased Colonel’s Island in Brunswick for $1.1 million.
In 1965 the first containerized cargo ship entered the Port of Savannah, and the GPA became the first to operate a container crane in the South Atlantic region.
Construction on Container Berth 1 began at Garden City Terminal in 1969 as the GPA began its bid to capture more of the burgeoning container freight market.
Three years later (1972), GPA’s first container terminal was opened, and container service with Japan began. The GPA also began planning for a second container terminal.
Expansion was seemingly constant. In 1985 the GPA purchased the 2,200-acre Drakie Plantation for future development, while the Port of Savannah’s harbor was widened to 500 feet in 1992. In 1995 the Port of Savannah was chosen as the primary port of entry for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, which were held predominantly in Atlanta.
2000 to date
GPA reached a major milestone in 2001, when it moved more than 1 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEU) containers for the first time.
This was followed by the 2003 ranking of the Port of Savannah as the fourth-busiest port in the United States.
Poultry is a major export in Georgia and throughout much of the Southeast. In 2008 GPA added its first reefer racks because poultry and other refrigerated cargo had increased significantly.
After 15 years of study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the final documents for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) in the spring of 2012.
In 13 years the Port of Savannah grew from one million TEUs annually (2001) to three million TEUs (fiscal year 2014).
On July 13, 2016, the ship MOL Benefactor was the first vessel to dock at the Port of Savannah that had navigated through the Panama Canal’s newly expanded locks. With a capacity of 10,100 TEUs, the Benefactor was also the largest ship to dock at the Port of Savannah.
The Benefactor’s record was eclipsed the next year when the first 13,000 TEU vessel, the COSCO Development, docked at the Port of Savannah.
Also in 2017, an economic impact study conducted by the University of Georgia and Savannah State University found that Georgia’s deepwater ports and inland barge terminals supported more than 439,000 jobs throughout the state annually (9% of Georgia’s total employment). The ports/terminals also contributed $25 billion in income, $106 billion in revenue and $2.9 billion in state and local taxes to Georgia’s economy. At that time, the Port of Savannah handled 8.5% of total U.S. containerized cargo volume and 10% of all U.S. containerized exports.
The CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt became the first 14,000 TEU vessel to dock at the port in September 2018.
In fiscal year 2019 the Port of Savannah recorded the movement of 4.5 million TEUs.
The Port of Savannah today
The Port of Savannah continues the role it has played as the epicenter of the Georgia and Southeastern economies since 1744. The port also connects Georgia and the Southeast with U.S. trading partners around the world.
The port continues its growth. Once the current expansion project (SHEP) is finished it will rival the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and New York/New Jersey.
The port’s current annual capacity is four million TEUs. The river channel is being deepened, and new cranes, millions of square feet of warehouse and distribution center space, new railroad and highway infrastructure are being added. By the mid-2020s, the Port of Savannah, will have a capacity of seven million TEUs and eight million TEUs by 2028.
With more than 100 cranes and a rate of 40 ship-to-shore moves per crane per hour, the Port of Savannah is highly regarded for its efficient movement of freight for export and import.
In operation for about 70 years, the Garden City Terminal now spans 1,200 acres and is the largest capacity shipping container yard in the U.S. GPA’s Ocean Terminal offers a breakbulk option for non-containerized shipments, as well as roll-on/roll-off and project cargo. Over 9,700 feet of berth space means freight waits safely until its scheduled departure.
The onshore facilities adjacent to ship berthing areas include nearly 400,000 square feet of covered storage and eight acres of paved open storage. If warehousing is needed, there is over three million square feet of space within 30 miles of the port, including over one million square feet of refrigerated storage.
The Port of Savannah has been serving local, state and regional economies since 1744 and is committed to continue that service.
FreightWaves thanks Port City Logistics, World Port Source, the Georgia Ports Authority and Georgia Globe Design News for information and photographs used in this article.