Political winds still buffet port

Waterfront better-known as tourist draw was an early international trading center

Port Tricentennial

April 14, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

The recent controversy over Dubai Ports World's thwarted effort to operate a portion of the port of Baltimore and several others this year was only the latest instance of political winds buffeting the city's port, which marks its 300th birthday next week.

At times, the problems also have been physical and fiscal. They have revolved around egos, safety and security, competition and land.

A list from generations back would include wars that interrupted commerce, fires that burned warehouses and buried piers and labor unrest that posed the threat of stagnation. There was food and fertilizer abounding on the waterfront and, no doubt, rodents and smells.

Representatives of the maritime industry say a look back a few days or a few hundred years shows an enduring port that has brought jobs, taxes and goods to the state. But the future may be more daunting, they say, as the city modernizes and the port's history and relevance fades in the public's eye.

"The port is doing well now," said Helen Delich Bentley, former congresswoman and maritime consultant. "We need more people in Maryland to realize the value of the port, and how it enables so many people to have a better life. That's what the tricentennial is about."

Most people, she and others believe, know only the Inner Harbor with its shopping, tourist attractions and paddle boats. But the waterfront has its roots in international commerce.

The port was officially created in 1706 when Whetstone Point near Fort McHenry was named by Colonial legislators as a point for tobacco trade with England.

Through the 1700s and 1800s, it became a center for shipbuilding, a major exporter of flour and grain to British colonies and a major importer of Peruvian bird droppings for use in fertilizer.

The first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, came in 1827 and linked the city to the South and Midwest, turning it into a major commercial hub.

In the mid-1900s, the state formed a public port authority to focus waterfront money and increase business. Eventually the channel was deepened to 50 feet to handle bigger ships. All the while, the Peabodys, Browns, Pratts and others -- philanthropists and industrialists whose names still grace many of Baltimore's leading cultural institutions -- built much of the rest of the city with money from shipping and trade, which created even more need for the port.

Today, 95 percent of goods that come to the United States still gets here by ship.

While the port of Baltimore has slipped on the list of top ports and many of the industries dependent on it have withered, it has found niches that rank it 14th in cargo volume with 32.4 million tons handled last year, and seventh for cargo value with $35.7 billion moved, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration and the port. The public terminals are leading handlers of automobiles, forest products and farm and construction equipment. Private terminals handle such commodities as coal, salt and cocoa.

The port employs about 15,700 people, produces almost $1.5 billion in business revenues and $216 million in state and local taxes, according to a 2003 report by Martin Associates. It handles about 2,300 ships a year, according to the Baltimore Maritime Exchange.

Observers of the local maritime industry say the path has been anything but smooth. "They would overcome one problem, and another one would come along," said Robert C. Keith, a journalist who wrote the book Baltimore Harbor. "Or, they'd generate one."

Often, the good and bad were intertwined. While world and civil wars disrupted trade patterns, they would aid shipbuilding and other industries. Warehouses for the steel, tobacco, chrome, sugar, porcelain and cans sprung up on a widening swath of the waterfront, bringing taxes and jobs. But then toxic waste dumped in the water became a vexing issue. And there was the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904.

"It burned Baltimore City to the ground," said George F. "Bud" Nixon Jr., former president of Rukert Terminals Corp., one of the region's largest and oldest private marine terminals. "They threw the rubble in the water and made four or five new blocks of territory. If you were a builder, it was a good thing, but if you had a pier facility backfilled with rubble, it was a bad thing."

Later, the railroads so integral to building Baltimore into a commercial center succeeded for a time in keeping competing trucks off the piers they owned.

Railroad kingpins feared for their economic security, and their allies in Annapolis kept the state from forming a public port authority for a year. But the push succeeded in 1956, and the authority went on to build the port's workhorse Dundalk Marine Terminal atop an old municipal airport and expand other terminals to handle truck traffic. It later opened Seagirt Marine Terminal to accommodate containerized cargo.

Today, there is rail and truck access to many of the terminals.

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