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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Port Corpus Christi is nation’s largest energy export gateway

'The Energy Port of the Americas'

This is the latest in a periodic series that profiles U.S. ports. While the ports have similarities, all have different histories and many focus on certain cargoes. The nation is fortunate to have ports along its three coasts, major rivers and the Great Lakes.

Overview

The Port of Corpus Christi (Port Corpus Christi) is located on the south-central coast of Texas in the western Gulf of Mexico and on the southern shores of Corpus Christi Bay. The port is 190 nautical miles southwest of the Port of Houston and almost 350 nautical miles north-northeast of the Port of Tampico, Mexico. The port is sheltered from the open seas of the Gulf of Mexico by Mustang Island and Padre Island, and it is at the mouth of the Nueces River almost 150 miles southeast of San Antonio. 

While the port is near downtown Corpus Christi in Nueces County, it is not part of either the city or the county. The port operates without the benefit of any city, county or state tax dollars.

In operation since 1926, it is one of the largest ports in the United States (based on total revenue tonnage), as well as the nation’s largest energy export gateway. The port has a 54-foot-deep channel, is served by three Class I railroads (BNSF, Kansas City Southern and Union Pacific) and by Interstate 37 and Texas Highway 181. 

Principal import cargoes at the port include crude oil, gas oil, fuel oil, iron ore, feed stock, cement, condensate, aggregates and wind turbines. Principal exports include crude oil, gasoline, diesel, petroleum coke, hot briquet iron, liquid natural gas and sorghum.

A brief overview of the area’s history

Before Europeans arrived in the area, the area that is now Corpus Christi and its port was inhabited by the Karankawa and other native tribes. It was named by Spanish settlers; “Corpus Christi” translates to the “body of Christ.”

Colonel Henry Kinney founded a trading post near what became Corpus Christi in 1839. It remained a small settlement until 1845, when troops under General Zachary Taylor made camp there in preparation for the Mexican-American War. The town was incorporated in 1852 and then blockaded during the Civil War. The Corpus Christi city charter was adopted in 1876, the year of the U.S. centennial.

During the last years of the 19th century and early in the 20th century, railroads created a land boom in the Corpus Christi area. The local economy grew due to the discovery of natural gas in 1923, the development of a deep-water port in 1926, and the discovery of oil in the 1930s. Then, with war looming, the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station began operations in 1941.

U.S. destroyers in the Port of Corpus Christi. 
(Photo: Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi)
U.S. destroyers anchored at the Port of Corpus Christi.
(Photo: Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi)

The port’s history

A devastating hurricane hit Corpus Christi in 1919 (before hurricanes were named). Business leaders saw the need for a deep-water port that would spur reconstruction as well as stimulate the local economy. City leaders convinced Congress to authorize a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study to determine whether it was possible to create a deep-water port at Corpus Christi. As noted in the study, what became the modern port was located at the highest point on the Gulf Coast between Miami and Veracruz, Mexico. Therefore, it was the best choice to develop a deep-water port.

Port Corpus Christi became a reality due to the success of a local referendum that authorized $1 million in tax bonds and the creation of the Navigation District. In 1923, Congress authorized the construction of a 25-foot deep channel from the Gulf of Mexico, through Port Aransas to the north and ending at the shoreline of Port Corpus Christi. Dredging the channel began in 1925 and ended the next year (at a cost of $1.8 million from the U.S. Treasury).

A scene of destruction following the 1919 hurricane. (Photo: weather.gov)
A scene of destruction following the 1919 hurricane. (Photo: weather.gov)

Seven years after the hurricane (September 14, 1926), a “statewide” celebration to open the Port of Corpus Christi took place. 

In the earliest days of the modern port, cotton was the primary commodity shipped; the area surrounding Corpus Christi led the state’s cotton production. By the end of cotton season, the port was jammed with ships loading the commodity. Business was so successful that the port began an expansion project just two years later. A turning basin was built inside the breakwater and the channel was deepened.

In 1930, the Southern Alkali Corporation, a Pittsburgh Plate Glass subsidiary, located at the port. The port’s Board of Navigation then provided a 1.5-mile channel (now called the Industrial Canal) for the facility in 1933. Levees were built from dredged materials, which were also used to fill land that was then used to add wharves and docks.

After oil was discovered, the Port of Corpus Christi Navigation District built oil docks, and refineries were constructed along the Industrial Canal and at the turning basin. Over the course of the decade, the port’s most significant cargo shifted from cotton to petroleum and petroleum products.

Following World War II, farmers in the area were producing large amounts of grain sorghum. That led the Corn Products Refining Company to build a facility in the port to convert the grains to syrups, starch and sugar. In addition, area farmers were paying steep prices to store their grain in Houston and Galveston; therefore, the port built a self-financed grain elevator that began operations in 1953. Within six years the grain elevator had to be expanded.

The port in the 1930s. (Photo: atlasobscura.com)
The port in the 1930s. (Photo: atlasobscura.com)

Improving local infrastructure

When the port opened in 1925, large ships were unable to enter the port because of a two-lane highway bridge and a railroad bridge. To solve that problem, the Bascule Bridge was built with a vertical height 14 feet above the water. However, by the 1950s the bridge was far too low for newer vessels; it was nicknamed the “Bascule Bridge Bottleneck” because it kept larger ships from entering the port. The issue was solved when the port constructed an unobstructed entry for ocean-going vessels. The Upper Harbor Lift Bridge was a high-lift bridge used by autos, trucks and trains.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the port’s leadership sought to diversify its cargo-handling capacity. The port built a refrigerated warehouse on the north side of the channel used for imports and exports from/to Latin America, Mexico, Europe, Africa and other areas of the U.S. 

The port’s logo. (Image: Port Corpus Christi)

The port’s facilities

Each year the port handles more than 6,000 vessels and over 167 million tons of cargo, including break bulk cargo, project cargo, oil and gas, dry bulk, agricultural, refrigerated cargo, and containerized cargo. As noted above, cotton was the main cargo in the port’s early days, and the commodity is still traded through the port today. Texas leads the United States in wind energy (producing more wind energy than all but five countries – the U.S. as a whole, Germany, Spain, China and India). Therefore, wind turbines are a major cargo moving through Port Corpus Christi. In 2009, the Corps of Engineers approved the dredging of the La Quinta Channel extension prior to the construction of the La Quinta multipurpose facility. This facility handles an estimated 1 million 20-foot equivalent units annually.

The port offers efficient, modern facilities and service. It contains approximately 125 acres of storage and fabrication sites, the 45-foot deep channel, dockside rail services, easy access to highways, and more than 300,000 square feet of covered dockside storage. 

The port’s Northside General Cargo Terminal contains three covered wharves as well as a roll-on/roll-off ramp, all with rail access. Dock 9 is 660 feet long with an alongside depth of 38 feet, and it has more than 121,600 square feet of covered storage space. Dock 10 is 700 feet long with an alongside depth of 30 feet, and it has 99,280 square feet of covered refrigerated storage space with capacity for nearly 30 million pounds of cargo. Dock 12 is 700 feet long with an alongside depth of 22 feet, and it contains almost 8,900 square feet of open wharf area. The roll-on/roll-off ramp is 760 feet long with an alongside depth of 38 feet. The Northside General Cargo Terminal has 11 sites for open area storage, all with rail access, covering 129 acres.

Port Corpus Christi's Dock 9 and Dock 10. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)
Port Corpus Christi’s Dock 9 and Dock 10. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)

The port’s Southside General Cargo Terminal is well-suited for heavy lift, roll-on/roll-off, breakbulk and containerized cargoes. It also offers dockside rail transfer, a general purpose bagging facility and a seed treating plant. Near the Southside terminal is Coastal Bend Cold Storage, a state-of-the-art refrigerated facility with almost 100,000 square feet of storage and connections with both road and rail networks. The Southside docks are less than 1 mile from I-37 and US Highway 181. The terminal is also served by more than 3.7 miles of tracks and three railroads (BNSF, Texas Mexican and Union Pacific). The docks are served by double rail tracks, and on-dock tracks allow direct transfers between ships and railcars.

The Southside terminal’s Dock 8 is an open wharf that is 865 feet long with an alongside depth of 45 feet, and it offers over 162,500 square feet of open wharf area. The Southside terminal also contains Docks 14 and 15, which are both covered wharves. Dock 14 is 325 feet long with an alongside depth of 36 feet; it has nearly 65,000 square feet of covered storage area with rail access and truck docks, and more than 16,000 square feet of open wharf area. Dock 15 is 613 feet long with an alongside depth of 36 feet, has almost 31,000 square feet of open wharf area, and contains more than 108,000 square feet of covered storage area.

In addition to the covered storage areas at the docks, the Southside terminal offers nearly 69,000 square feet of near-dock covered storage. The Truck Terminal has nearly 13,000 square feet of storage space. Port Corpus Christi’s Southside terminal also has two open storage sites, both with rail access, covering more than 38 acres.

Port Corpus Christi hopes to deepen its main channel. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)
Port Corpus Christi hopes to deepen its main channel. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)

The port’s Dry Bulk Terminal is located at the north of Tule Lake Channel in the Inner Harbor and also has access to both road and rail networks. The Dry Bulk Terminal contains two docks that handle coal, ore, minerals, coal, petroleum coke, and other dry bulk commodities. Bulk Dock #1 supports direct transfers from ship to railcar or truck, and it services cargoes that require special handling. The dock is nearly 400 feet long with an alongside depth of 34 feet. Bulk Dock #2 primarily handles coal and petroleum coke that can be loaded directly onto vessels or stored at the dock. The dock is 375 feet long with an alongside depth of 45 feet.

The port’s 11 Liquid Bulk Docks range in length from 246 to 1,000 feet and have alongside depths up to 45 feet. The largest of the docks can handle tankers as large as 100,000 deadweight tonnage. In addition, there are 14 privately owned and operated oil docks in the port that handle petrochemical and petroleum products.

The Southside General Cargo Terminal. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)
The Southside General Cargo Terminal. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)

On the ship channel’s north side, the port’s Rincon Industrial Park includes more than 200 acres, rail services, and an intra-coastal barge canal. The industrial park is adjacent to the Northside Cargo Docks.

The port continues to improve and expand port services and cargo traffic. A priority was to  develop the city’s waterfront, transforming it from a cargo-diverse area to an attraction for residents, tourists and cruise passengers. The Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International Center in the port was the first phase. Completed in 2000, the center is a multi-use cruise terminal and conference center with harbor views.

Department of Defense facilities

The U.S. Department of Defense maintains a fleet of military cargo ships to be used for sealifts of military personnel in the case of a military emergency. These ships are berthed at both commercial and government docks along the nation’s Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. When they are activated, the ships go to loading ports to pick up equipment for U.S. Army combat divisions and support forces. Over 30 such ships are berthed on the Gulf Coast. 

Naval Air Station Corpus Christi is home to the Chief of Naval Air Training, Training Air Wing FOUR, the Corpus Christi Army Depot and other tenants. NAS Corpus Christi has supported pilot training and operations since 1941. 

Port Corpus Christi, with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the foreground. (Photo: workboat.com)
Port Corpus Christi, with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the foreground . (Photo: workboat.com)

Foreign Trade Zone

The port was designated as a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) in 1985, which broadened its use significantly. FTZ 122 was the first FTZ on the continent to have an oil refinery subzone. The FTZ covers 247,000 acres, which extend well beyond the port’s properties. The port operates six publicly available general purpose facilities and 12 subzones sponsored on behalf of individual firms. 

An award winner
During the summer of 2019, Port Corpus Christi was recognized by the American Association of Port Authorities with the association’s Award of Excellence for its America’s EnergyTM media campaign. The campaign focused on the port’s “ongoing infrastructure investment program and the importance of the record-breaking exports of American energy passing through the port to the nation’s allies and trading partners around the world.”

Part of a wind turbine is unloaded. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)
Part of a wind turbine is unloaded. (Photo: Port Corpus Christi)

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.