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FreightWaves Classics: South Carolina Ports Authority contributes significantly to state economy

Tugs help a ship dock in Charleston's harbor. (Photo: SCPA)

The ports of Georgetown and Charleston are managed by the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA). The ports are key to the state’s economy; directly or indirectly the ports generate 10% of all the jobs in South Carolina (over 187,000), and those jobs offer wages that are 32% higher than the state average. The SCPA states that the “ports are the most important strategic asset of the state, driving $63 billion in annual economic impact.”

An average of five vessels sail into the state’s harbors daily; they carry cargo worth more than $200 million. 

An agency of the State of South Carolina, the SCPA owns and operates the port facilities. The agency has container facilities at Charleston, Greer and Dillon. Under the SCPA, the ports’ annual cargo volume is over 1.9 million TEUs, and the ports serve 100 ports around the world.

As a key strategic asset, the State of South Carolina and SCPA have a capital expenditure budget of $2.7 billion. The projects focus on expanding the capacity and performance of  port-related infrastructure. They include upgrading the ports’ shipping channels, marine terminals and equipment, information technology systems, highway connectivity and rail connectivity.

Ships at anchor in Charleston harbor. (Image: South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)
Ships at anchor in Charleston harbor. (Image: South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)

History of the port from Colonial South Carolina to 1900

South Carolina’s ports have been important since its founding as a British colony in America. Charles Towne (now Charleston) has been a seaport since 150 English colonists, indentured servants and slaves sailed into its harbor in 1670. Charles Towne was declared as the port of entry for the colony in 1682.

In a 1720 report, Royal Governor John Glen noted the export of 264,788 barrels of rice (44,081 tons), which rose to 499,525 barrels (99,905 tons) by 1739 (an increase of 126%).

Indigo became a major cash crop beginning in 1744 when Eliza Lucas Pinckney brought in the first crop. By 1747, the South Carolina colony produced 135,000 pounds of indigo for export. In less than 30 years (1775) indigo dye exports increased to 1.176 million pounds.

Tobacco, a third cash crop, was being grown by 1782. Within a decade, almost 10,000 barrels of tobacco were shipped from Charleston.

The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, which also ended the British subsidy of indigo. It was no longer grown as a cash crop in the new state of South Carolina.

The period 1783-1808 was the unfortunate peak period of Charleston’s international slave trade.

Beginning in 1820 there was a significant drop in agricultural prices, which caused an economic depression across the southern United States. In part to fight off the effects of the depression and in part to take advantage of new technology, merchants in Charleston lobbied the South Carolina legislature in 1827 to charter the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company to investigate a railroad system that would connect inland markets with Charleston, as well as a canal between the Ashley and Savannah rivers.

In 1928 a recreation of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company's first train was built. (Photo: SCPA)
In 1928 a recreation of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company’s first train was built. (Photo: SCPA)

By Christmas Day in 1830, the new rail line was in operation, establishing the first regularly scheduled passenger rail service in the U.S.

From 1830 to 1833 the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company operated a 6-mile railroad from the town of Hamburg (located along the Savannah River) to Charleston. However, the City of Charleston made a huge tactical error when it forbade the railroad to lay its tracks on the city’s wharfs. This meant that the railroad’s cargo had to be unloaded at the end of track and then transshipped to the wharfs by wagons.

The Civil War began in 1861 at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Like much of the rest of the Confederacy, South Carolina’s economy, as well as much of Charleston, its wharves, docks and ships were destroyed during the war. 

Charleston from the water in earlier times. (Image: South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)
Charleston from the water in earlier times. (Image: South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)

South Carolina exported 4,000 tons of phosphate in 1868, which began the boom in fertilizer that lasted into the next century. This was followed by a nearly 20-year period (1878-97) when the federal government built twin stone jetties to protect the Charleston harbor. Concurrently, cotton exports grew rapidly after the war’s end. By 1880, nearly 1.5 million bales were being exported per year. Additionally, fields were re-planted with tobacco, and exports of it grew annually. 

The infrastructure of the Port of Charleston was being rebuilt. In 1882, the first unit of the Columbus Street Wharf was built to serve as a commercial terminal. Then, in 1890, the East Shore Terminal Company (which was the predecessor of the Charleston Terminal Company), was begun by a group of outside railroad investors.

A containership at the SCPA docks. (Photo: South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)
A containership at the SCPA docks. (Photo: South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)

The 20th century

As the new century began, a major decision by the U.S. Navy impacted Charleston. Its harbor was chosen in 1901 as the site for the only major Navy Yard between Hampton Roads, Virginia and San Francisco. Two years later, the tracks, wharves and warehouses of the East Shore Terminal company were foreclosed and sold. This led to the formation of the Charleston Terminal Company by its co-owners, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Southern Railway.

By 1916, World War I had been raging in Europe and Eurasia for two years. While the U.S. would not enter the war until 1917, work to upgrade the nation’s armed forces was underway. Funds from the Naval Appropriations Act were used to dredge Charleston harbor’s main channel to a depth of 30 feet. This ensured that the U.S. Navy’s deep-draft warships could use the harbor. Maintaining the channel at that depth was the key to the ensuing commercial development of the harbor.

Upon his inauguration in 1920, new Charleston Mayor John Grace began transferring responsibility for the port facilities to the City. Then, in March 1920, the South Carolina General Assembly passed an act “to authorize cities having a population of 50,000 inhabitants or more to acquire, purchase, establish, improve, maintain and operate the port utilities of such cities.” This cemented the city’s control over the port and its facilities, and in April, the Charleston City Council turned down the Charleston Terminal Company’s formal request for a renewal of its franchise.

The next year, the City of Charleston purchased the Charleston Terminal Company’s dock facilities for $1.5 million. Then, in a special election held on November 8, 1921, the voters of Charleston voted to issue $2.5 million in municipal bonds to pay for the purchase of the port properties. This vote also established the Port Utilities Commission (PUC).

The port’s gross tonnage doubled – from 1.5 million tons in 1922 to 3.03 million in 1926. The tonnage’s dollar value also increased – from $109 million to $209 million.

However, the protectionist trade practices passed by Congress, the late 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression destroyed the port’s trade volumes. This situation continued throughout the 1930s, and in 1941, the legislature established a three-person committee to investigate why the port’s volumes had shrunk to such a degree. The committee’s report stated that the City of Charleston was not able to provide the facilities and services for the port to be maintained as one of the best natural ports on the Eastern Seaboard.

U.S. Navy ships at anchor at the Charleston Naval Base. (Photo: City of North Charleston)
U.S. Navy ships at anchor at the Charleston Naval Base. (Photo: City of North Charleston)

This led the South Carolina General Assembly to pass legislation on March 5, 1942, that established the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCSPA). Its board of directors was appointed by the governor. Because of World War II, however, the Authority reported to the governor and legislature that “other than that directly connected with the war effort, our program must, or necessity, be geared to and tied in with the defense program.” During the war, the authority  made plans for post-war “traffic potentials, proper goals and effective methods of operation.”

Following the war (on December 3, 1945), the SCSPA was granted permits from the U.S. Army to operate the former U.S. Army Port of Embarkation Terminal as the North Charleston Terminal. Then, on March 17, 1947, the City of Charleston gave the title to the Columbus Street Terminal, Union Piers 1 & 2, Union Public Warehouse, Adgers Wharf and 1 Vendue Range to the SCSPA.

From 1943 to 1949, Charleston’s maritime commerce rose steadily, and the port’s rank rose from 57th to 14th among U.S. ports in overall trade.


In the first major post-war expansion, the Columbus Street Terminal’s pier was extended to 1,495 feet. This made it possible to berth three ships concurrently.

On March 12, 1966 a new era began at the port as the first container ship docked in Charleston. It was the SeaLand Gateway City. SeaLand had been begun by Malcom McLean, the man behind modern intermodal containers. 

Over the course of the 1960s, total cargo tonnage through the three SCSPA ports (Charleston, Port Royal and Georgetown) tripled – from 770,000 tons in 1960 to 2.2 million by 1969.

As the 1970s began, SCPA officials asked for $32 million to fund a three-phase expansion of the ports. Funds were authorized for expansion east of the Cooper River. Then, two major events occurred in the next two years. In 1971, W. Donald Welch was hired as the authority’s first Executive Director. The next year the SCPA purchased the Wando property from Georgia-Pacific Investment Company, which would become a major part of the SCPA complex.

In 1976, the authority had four container cranes; by 1980, four custom-made Canron cranes were added.

An aerial view of the South Carolina Ports Authority complex. (Photo: SCPA)
An aerial view of the South Carolina Ports Authority complex. (Photo: SCPA)

On October 15, 1981, the authority approved contract amendments that allowed two shipping lines to operate at the new Wando Terminal. Maersk Line shifted operations from the Columbus Street Terminal, while OOCL, in a consortium with Dart Container Line, also received permission to use the new facility. Less than one month later (November 12, 1981), the first  container ship to dock at the Wando Terminal was the Dart Atlantica.

Over the 1975-82 period, export cargoes moving from SCPA facilities increased more than 96% – from 1.48 million tons to 2.91 million tons. Also in 1982 the authority deployed a proprietary computer system that was the first of its kind for a U.S. port. It facilitated the flow of information among SCPA, “freight forwarders, customs brokers, trucking lines, ocean carriers, U.S. Customs and the USDA.” 

In 1989, SCPA approved the completion of Wando Terminal’s Phase III construction, which meant it was ready to handle future cargo growth. That same year, Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina, destroying a SCPA“monster crane” and damaging container cranes.

In a great economic development victory for South Carolina, BMW announced in 1992 that it would build a 1,150-acre manufacturing facility in Spartanburg County. The facility opened in 1994. The first export shipment of BMWs took place in March 1995.

In 1996, the U.S. Navy base at Charleston closed. The port authority secured the property of the former base property for terminal development in 2002.


In 2003, the South Carolina Farm Bureau closed the state’s only grain export facility in Charleston. This blow was tempered by the opening of the Veterans Terminal.

The Wando Terminal was renamed the Wando Welch Terminal in 2005, honoring Don Welch, the first and long-time executive director of the port. That same year, the Ravenel Bridge across the Cooper River opened. It replaced older, lower bridges, allowing larger ships to sail under it and call at the port.

Although it had owned the former U.S. Navy base land since 1996, it was 2009 before the first major contract led to construction of a new container terminal at that location. That same year, plans were announced for a new cruise ship terminal at the end of the port’s Union Pier. Charleston and coastal South Carolina are major tourist destinations; using the port for cruise ships as well as cargo ships would generate additional revenue for the port, the city and the state.

The first “public” events in the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project began in 2010. Because of its significance to the port, that project is covered in a separate section below.

In October 2013, the SCPA opened Inland Port Greer. This inland rail facility improved intermodal rail service to/from the port. It is serviced by Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Cranes sit among a sea of intermodal containers. (Photo: SCPA)
Cranes sit among a sea of intermodal containers. (Photo: SCPA)

To service the ever-increasing size of container ships, the SCPA purchased new post-Panamax cranes in 2016. They were installed at the Wando Welch Terminal. The cranes still in place at the Columbus Street Terminal were removed. In addition, the port handled record container volume of just under 2 million TEUs in 2016.

In April 2018, the second SCPA inland port (Inland Port Dillon) opened, serviced by CSX Railroad. The SCPA dedicated its new headquarters in January 2019. It is located in Mt. Pleasant near the Wando Welch Terminal. The authority also announced that it had achieved an increase of 6.4% in container volume in 2018; with a record 2.3 million TEUs moved.

Cranes next to a ship at the new Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal. (Photo: English Purcell/SCPA)
Cranes next to a ship at the new Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal. (Photo: English Purcell/SCPA)

Earlier this year (April), the SCPA opened Phase One of the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal. This was the first new container terminal in the U.S. in more than a decade. The terminal is on the Cooper River in North Charleston, South Carolina, and is able to handle 20,000-TEU vessels.

“The terminal’s 47-acre container yard will have five ship-to-shore cranes with 169 feet of lift height and 228 feet of outreach, 25 hybrid rubber-tired gantry cranes, eight empty container handlers, a refrigerated container yard, a new operating system and enhanced technologies.”

Phase One adds nearly 700,000 TEUs of throughput capacity to the port. When fully completed, the facility will cover 286 acres, have a three-berth terminal and will add 2.4 million TEUs of throughput capacity, which will double the existing port capacity.

Charleston Harbor Deepening Project

Over the last 20 years, many of the major ports in the United States and around the world have begun or completed projects to deepen their harbors/channels and widen them when necessary as well. This is similar to the “arms race” of the 1950s-1980s, as the ports seek to handle the ever-larger container ships that have and are being built.

The 52-foot depth of Charleston Harbor will enable post-Panamax vessels to reach the port at any time at any tide level when it is completed in 2022. Earlier this year (in May), a 52-foot depth was reached in front of Wando Welch Terminal.

The $565 million deepening project has been funded by state and federal appropriations. In addition, it has progressed more quickly than any federal deepening project to date. 

The planning for the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project began during the early 2000s. An overview of key developments in the process follows.

A dredging platform. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
A dredging platform. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

In 2010, the reconnaissance phase of the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project took place. When completed next year, the project will deepen the harbor to 52 feet – the deepest harbor on the East Coast (up from its former 45-foot depth). In addition, the harbor’s entrance channel is being deepened to 54 feet (up from 47 feet).

In 2011, the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project began officially when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined it was in the federal interest to deepen the harbor and noted that the project was the best value for scarce public infrastructure dollars. The next year, the South Carolina General Assembly appropriated $300 million for the state’s share of the construction costs to deepen the harbor. 

The state, city and port received an early Christmas present on December 10, 2016, when the U.S. Senate passed the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act (WIIN). The legislation included Congressional authorization for the project.

In fall 2017, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District awarded the first two construction contracts of $47 million and $214 million to deepen the Entrance Channel to 54 feet. Dredging work began in February 2018.

In November 2018, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers announced the fiscal year 2019 work plan for the harbor project, which included $41.4 million in funding.

In March 2019 the Trump administration allocated $138 million in the FY 2020 budget for the harbor deepening project. In August the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the third dredging construction contract ($124 million). That project was tp create a “52-foot depth from the Lower Harbor up Wando River to Wando Welch Terminal.” In addition, the turning basin on the Wando River is being widened from 1,400 feet to 1,650 feet, which allows two 14,000-TEU ships to pass one another and turn around near the Wando Welch Terminal with no restrictions.

Finally, in December, Congress passes, and President Trump signs legislation allocating $138 million for the Charleston Harbor Deepening Project.

This appropriation led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award the fourth and fifth dredging construction contracts in September 2020.

The fourth contract will create a 52-foot depth from the Lower Harbor up the Cooper River to the new Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston, enabling 20,000-TEU vessels to access the state-of-the-art container terminal.

The fifth contract will create a 48-foot depth from the Leatherman Terminal up the Cooper River to the North Charleston Terminal, which is slated for completion in 2022.

An intermodal train is loaded at Inland Port Greer. (Photo: SCPA)
An intermodal train is loaded at Inland Port Greer. (Photo: SCPA)

Intermodal rail

As mentioned above, the South Carolina Ports Authority has two inland ports. Inland Port Greer and Inland Port Dillon are intermodal rail facilities that “deliver the benefits of a coastal marine terminal many miles inland.” SCPA owns and operates these facilities, which allow cargo owners to “minimize their inland expense while enhancing flexibility and efficiency, and realizing savings on variable costs such as container per diems, chassis rental and demurrage.” 

Inland Port Greer is located on I-85 in Greer, 212 miles inland from Charleston. It is about halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte; nearly 100 million people live within 500 miles of the port, which means that sites near it are an attractive location for both manufacturing and consumer goods distribution. The facility has 24/7 gates; Norfolk Southern runs a dedicated train six days per week and provides overnight service in both directions. 

A Norfolk Southern train. (Photo: Norfolk Southern)
A Norfolk Southern train. (Photo: Norfolk Southern)

Inland Port Dillon opened in April 2018; it is located on I-95 near the South Carolina/North Carolina border. The port plans future connectivity to Charlotte and points north and west. CSX Railroad serves the port six days per week.

In addition to the inland ports, CSX and Norfolk Southern operate large rail yards in Charleston that are served by double-stack intermodal trains. The port’s RapidRail dray program provides service between its marine terminals and the rail yards.

Trucking services

Interstate 26 is the primary interstate to and from Charleston, and interstate highways are within two miles of all of the port’s terminals. In addition to the direct interstate highway access, the port has both high and wide cargo clearances. And, if needed, more than 150 trucking firms are located in Charleston.

A drayage truck at a South Carolina port facility. (Photo: SCPA)
A drayage truck at a South Carolina port facility. (Photo: SCPA)


As one of the harbors/ports that began operation during the Colonial period, Charleston has been a key economic driver for South Carolina for more than 300 years. The work of the SCPA since its inception has improved operations, and contributed to South Carolina’s economic success.

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.