Port of Entry

BY Jules Norwood

When the first European visitors made landfall in coastal North Carolina they found endless forests of longleaf pine and an area at the mouth of the Cape Fear River with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. The days of pitch and turpentine are long since past but the Port City remains linking our region to todays global marketplace.

Trade was the driving force that led to the settlement of small towns along the Cape Fear River in the 1720s. The British Empire had a voracious appetite for naval stores the tar pitch and turpentine vital for building and maintaining wooden ships one that Wilmington played an important role in satisfying.

“As a transshipment point Wilmington was admirably situated occupying a position at the confluence of the two branches of the Cape Fear River the only river in the state that empties directly into the Atlantic Ocean ” writes Alan D. Watson in Wilmington North Carolina to 1861 (McFarland & Company 2003). Its northwest branch begins in Chatham County while the northeast branch has its source in Wayne County and combined they drain much of North Carolina.

While the earliest port facilities and customs officers were stationed across the river at Brunswick Town Wilmington was better located for inland trade and soon took over. The town was incorporated in 1739 and the customs collector for port traffic was officially moved from Brunswick Town to Wilmington. Historians estimate that the early town had 30-35 homes.

The importance of trade by water was recognized early on. In 1749 the town commissioners ordered the construction of a wharf at Dock Street and another was built at Market Street a few years later. Strict rules governed which vessels could use the facilities and how long they could remain at the dock.

The town was organized around the intersection of its two main roads Front Street running along the river housed facilities for fishing warehouses and manufacturing while Market Street provided space for businesses and institutional buildings. The homes of the towns wealthiest residents were situated on the highest parcels of land overlooking the river and the port.

There was even a law preventing the towns residents from keeping sailors on private property for more than six hours without permission from their captain. The men and their labor were vital to the fledgling economy and it just wouldnt do to have them disappearing into taverns.

By the 1750s as many as 100 ships cleared the port each year. By 1768 it provided more naval stores than any other port in the British Empire. In addition to the naval stores finished wood products including boards shingles and staves were shipped to the West Indies. And by the end of the colonial era tobacco was a major export.

The economy also depended on a variety of smaller boats that plied the waters of the Cape Fear from periaugers and rafts to yawls small sloops and bayboats. These transported goods between small communities and the port.

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War conflicts with the British colonial government arose frequently centering primarily on shipping tariffs like the Stamp Act. After the war trade in Wilmington resumed quickly and the NC General Assembly designated Wilmington as the official seat of the port in 1789.

Business shifted more to the West Indies and the other American colonies and tar and pitch exports declined replaced by more wood products provisions and tobacco. By 1790 tobacco shipments totaled 6 million pounds.

Wilmington and its port continued to grow reaching a population of 1 689 in 1800. The completion of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad in 1840 along with navigational improvements in the Cape Fear River led to boom times for the port writes Watson.

The city was home to blockade runners during the Civil War and during World War II its population of 35 000 residents swelled as the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company employed more than 50 000 workers to build cargo ships for the war effort. In about five years 243 of the 441-foot vessels were built and launched from the site that is now home to the State Port of Wilmington.

Today the importance of the citys water access and its port remain. Wilmington has a thriving tourism manufacturing pharmaceutical and even film industry but the port still provides a vital link between eastern North Carolina and markets around the globe. Raw materials make up its primary exports while finished goods are offloaded for distribution throughout the region.

The North Carolina Ports Authority was established by the General Assembly in 1945 to develop and operate the deep-water terminals at Wilmington and Morehead City. Now located south of downtown Wilmington the State Port of Wilmington handles about 400 ships and almost 3.5 million tons of cargo each year.

A hundred years ago says chief executive officer Tom Eagar it would have taken a week to handle 60 tons of cargo. Now it takes a matter of minutes.

The process is impressive.

From atop the cranes all of Wilmington spreads out below. They tower above even the 190-foot PPD building.

The YM New Jersey a container ship more than 950 feet long arrives at the dock at 6 a.m. and the Port of Wilmingtons four new container cranes are moved into position. Each crane weighs 1 400 tons and moves on rails 100 feet wide. The operator is positioned in a cab about 130 feet above the dock. The cab moves out over the ship and the operator lowers the cable plucking a container from the ships hold. The cab then moves quickly back over the dock and the container is lowered onto a waiting truck to be moved to the yard. Each container weighing as much as 60 tons is moved from the ship to the dock in less than a minute. By the end of the day the crew will have moved 633 containers off of and 623 containers onto the ship which will then leave the port for its next stop.

A detailed stow plan accounts for the weight of each container whats in it and where it needs to go. U.S. Customs makes sure everything is declared properly and the duties are paid.

The port crew recently set a record achieving an average of 45.5 container moves per hour on the YM New Jersey. “We have some of the best crane productivity in the world ” says communications manager Susan Clizbe. “I dont think theres anybody better.”

The Wilmington port which handles both container cargo and bulk goods impacts nearly every facet of the economy. Communications director Karen Fox describes the facility as a mirror of the states economy economic shifts can be gauged by the activity at the port. “Whatever we are manufacturing or importing what happens in North Carolina comes and goes through these ports ” she says.

“The typical commodities that we handle through here on the container side if you were to go to a Wal-Mart Lowes K-Mart Target you would see it ” Eagar says. “In essence a whole lot of what you see around you what youre wearing comes through in those containers. We have a lot of container goods moving for the likes of QVC Furniture Brand Inc. and other major retail outlets throughout NC.”

Steel and cement for construction and fertilizers for agriculture also come in through the port.

On the export side raw materials play a major role. Steel wood pulp and lumber are shipped to markets around the world where they are manufactured into finished products and packaging that may very well return to the United States through Wilmington or other ports. Frozen chicken and pork are exported to Asia in refrigerated containers.

In 2005 the port handled enough lumber to build 120 000 average-sized homes. “Think about all the jobs associated with the construction of those homes ” Eagar says. From the painter the plumber and the electrician to the landscaper and the developer they all need that wood to come in through the port so those homes can be built. And thats just the lumber.

“The history of our community has been based on the port with the turpentine pitch and tar and we are continuing in that tradition ” says Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. “Its an important aspect of southeastern North Carolina and the entire state and Im glad to see that the state and federal government continue to see that our port is very important. With the population of the world growing and trade continuing to grow I think its very important to continue on with the port here.”

There is an increasing need for port capacity in the U.S. and the Port of Wilmington is expanding to answer the call. The access channels have been deepened and a $44 million project to replace a portion of the dock at berth No. 9 will allow the new cranes to work two container ships at a time.

“What weve seen happen over the last 10 years is really a tremendous growth in the U.S. container market ” Eagar says. “A lot of that has been driven by China. Weve seen international trade in general including all market segments grow at a rate of about 6.8 percent on an annual basis and if you use that number you see that the market will double about every 10 years.”

Since 2001 security has also been a major focus to the tune of $8.5 million in improvements to fencing intrusion detection security equipment computer systems and training. Access to the port is carefully controlled; each truck driver longshoreman and administrator that comes onto the property requires special clearance and visitors require an escort.

Just as it has in each of the nations wars the port stands ready to support military operations.

“Both Morehead City and Wilmington are designated as strategic ports by the Department of Defense so we do provide a significant service to the military from the standpoint of load-outs the transportation of materials and troop deployments ” Eagar says. “Were on call as needed in order to support that activity and in the past we have seen significant activity through both ports and thats something were rather proud of.”

In spite of the increased security at the facility Clizbe wants to reach out to Wilmington residents and visitors. “Its very important to us for people to see their port. Its North Carolinas port ” she says. “Wilmington is Wilmington because its a port city and were continuing in that tradition.”

For 300 years Wilmington has served as a gateway for global shipping and with the increased need for access to world markets thats not going to change any time soon. Even with a possible new international container terminal in Brunswick County there will still be plenty of cargo for the Port of Wilmington as global trade continues to grow.

“The Port of Wilmington isnt going anywhere ” says Clizbe.

Mega Ships Create the Demand for a Mega Port

With the continued growth of container shipping ports on the East Coast are reaching capacity and in general have limited ability to expand existing facilities. Meanwhile the Panama Canal is being expanded to accommodate much larger container ships. The NC State Ports Authority is developing plans for a facility to service those giant cargo haulers right here in southeastern North Carolina.

The N.C. International Terminal (NCIT) would be built on 600 acres in Brunswick County about 4 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

“We anticipate (the Panama Canal expansion) being completed between 2014 and 2015 and the message that were hearing is that we need to be prepared No. 1 to accommodate these much deeper-draft vessels and No. 2 to develop further port infrastructure on the East Coast in order to be able to accommodate those volumes ” says NC Ports CEO Tom Eagar.

The proposed NC International Terminal is huge if completed today it would be the largest or second largest port in the country. By 2017 when the first phase could be up and running there will only be a few facilities larger.

The NCIT will allow North Carolina to compete with nearby states for business from major manufacturing and distribution facilities.

“Global trade is growing yet domestic ports will be unable to meet projected demands. Also new ships coming on line are larger than most East Coast ports can accommodate ” Eagar says. “The proposed terminal will be well equipped to handle the increased demand and larger ships coming from foreign ports.”

The terminal is expected to cost $1.38 billion plus infrastructure improvements for water road and rail access to the tune of $840 million. Environmental and permitting costs are estimated at about $60 million.

“Were really working very diligently to move that project forward ” Eagar says. “Theres a lot of industry interest and were optimistic that well be able to move that project to completion.”

State Port of Wilmington Vital Stats

Tonnage 2007
3 440 661

Ships 2007

Cost four new cranes 2007
$33 million

Top trading partners Import

Top trading partners Export

Top commodities Import

Top commodities Export
Wood pulp
Forest products
General merchandise

* Source: N.C. Ports