A floating metal cavern stretching three blocks long and five stories high trudges up the Chesapeake Bay, nearing the end of its monthlong journey from Singapore.
Thousands of colorful steel boxes, known as containers, stand five and six high on the Marchen Maersk's deck, strategically positioned like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Among the treasures this 18-wheeler of the sea holds are 22 tons of Chinese caviar, 250,000 pounds of McDonald's Happy Meal toys and 40,000 pounds of Harley-Davidson motorcycle wheels.
But deep inside the ship's bow, there is one box -- carrying 33,000 pounds of black peppercorns -- that alone will link hundreds of workers in the coming weeks, supporting jobs from the docks at Dundalk Marine Terminal to McCormick & Co. Inc.'s packaging plant in Hunt Valley. The ripple created by Container #GSTU2224833 -- and hundreds of thousands like it -- reveals why the port of Baltimore, while diminished in stature, remains pivotal to the state's economy.
"If the port vanished today, Maryland would be a vastly different state, a kind of poor Indiana," said Richard A. Lidinsky Jr., a former official for the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the port's state-owned terminals.
Yet, today, the port of Baltimore is virtually invisible. "People say 'I know it's there. I guess it's there,' " he said. "But for most people it's become a distant memory."
Although physically vast, the port no longer permeates the life of downtown. It exists instead as an outsider, a shrunken industry symbolized by towering blue cranes seen only from a distance along the interstate.
To be sure, ships don't come as often. They don't stay as long either. Only a fourth of the 5,000 longshoremen who toiled at the docks during the port's heyday still find work there.
Its wooden finger piers and warehouses at the Inner Harbor have long since been shoved aside by the glitzy tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels and condos. And gone are the days when Mr. Lidinsky and other Baltimore children bought watermelon right off the tugboats along Pratt Street.
"You stand at the Inner Harbor and you can't see the port any more," said Mr. Lidinsky, who today is vice president for Sea Containers America in Washington. "The port has moved away from its birthplace. Decade by decade. Generation by generation."
These days, the port's vitality is most often reflected through isolated measurements.
More than 28 million tons of cargo, including coal, automobiles and chemicals, come and go each year, generating $1.3 billion in revenues, according to the state. The port also provides more than $580 million in paychecks and accounts for $141 million in taxes. In some way, the work of 87,000 people is connected to the coming and going of ships and cargo. Without the port, more than 18,000 of those jobs would disappear.
In fact, the port is considered so vital to the state's economy that Maryland has spent $850 million on it during the past 10 years alone.
But the essence of the port is much more than a series of data. It is revealed in the lives of bay pilots, tugboat operators, dockworkers, custom brokers, warehousemen, shippers, truckers and stevedores, all working to pay mortgages, put food on the table and send kids through college.
It is spring, months before the holiday season when demand for pepper and other spices soars. In the fields outside Bandar Lampung, Indonesia, workers pick berries off the vines and sun-dry them until shriveled and brownish black.
At McCormick's ingredients plant 9,500 miles away, spice buyer Ed Coach trolls the Indonesian market -- via phone, telex and fax -- searching for the best peppercorns, at the best price. From an Indonesia exporter, he buys 33,122 pounds.
Down the hall, other McCormick spice buyers are plying for millions of tons of cinnamon bark, chile peppers, oregano and saffron from South America and the Far East. This year alone, McCormick, the world's largest spice and flavorings company with sales of $1.6 billion, will bring 2,000 containers of spices through the port of Baltimore. Black pepper will account for one-third of the company's spice production.
Once the peppercorns deal is completed, McCormick's global support distribution manager, Timothy Brotzman -- one of McCormick's 8,000 employees worldwide -- takes over the logistics of getting them here. His first step: booking a ticket on Maersk Inc., one of the world's largest steamship lines.
Despite the fact that millions of tons of Christmas decorations and toys are being shipped from the Far East, competition is still intense for McCormick's single container.
"We have salesmen in those areas that practically book the peppercorns off the trees," says David L. Bindler, regional director for Maersk, a privately held Danish transportation company.