Pity the poor American seaport. Once the pride of an emerging power -- and the reason why many cities grew where they did -- America's seaports began to lose their star power around the same time ocean liners did, as jets and modern airports took over in the popular imagination as our portals to adventure.
Blame those Mad Men guys, in part: Before the 1960s, ads for Cunard, the United States Lines, the French Line, and others had all the panache that Madison Avenue could muster. Then the Jet Age arrived. As glamorous as stepping aboard one of the Atlantic greyhounds might've been, it just couldn't compete with the magic of heading to a brand-new airport, stepping aboard a brand-new 707, then stepping off a few hours and a few thousand miles later with a stewardess on your arm and your hat at a jaunty angle.
But, generally speaking, old seaports don't die; they just fade and get grungy. Over the decades that followed, things changed drastically at most of the country's (and the world's) ports, both on the passenger side (which shifted from business and personal travel to cruising) and on the cargo side (with the switch from individually loaded cargo to containerized shipping). Sometimes, as with Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the switch actually grew the ports exponentially and helped create the cruise industry we know today. At other ports, like New York, the switch was devastating, as passenger shipping moved south to warm climates and container shipping moved to new, more rail-accessible ports in New Jersey.
But things tend to cycle around. Today, New York is once again one of the main cruise home ports in the country -- No. 6, to be exact, ranking mostly behind those southerly ports that still host the majority of American cruise ships.
How much do you know about your U.S. and Canadian home ports? I've already covered the Top 5 Ports, based on the number of departing passengers each year. Here are the remaining five in the Top 10 North American Cruise Ports.
6. New York, NY
Passengers departing from New York City in 2008 (the last year for which stats are available): 524,000
What can you say that hasn't already been said about the capital of the world? New York City is the melting pot done up in concrete, steel, and glass, with a few patches of green that stand out like moss on a chessboard. And it even looks like a chessboard: From the near-perfect grid of Manhattan's streets and the vertical lines of the skyscrapers to its direct, no-nonsense speaking style, New York is a city of straight lines.
New York's wonderful natural harbor was first noted in 1524 by explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, who anchored in the strait between what's now Brooklyn and Staten Island and made contact with a party of Lenape Indians. An even century later, the first Dutch colony was set up on what's now Governor's Island (a stone's throw from today's Brooklyn Cruise Terminal). In 1648, the first wharf was built in Manhattan (near what are now Pearl and Broad Streets). A major trading port from Day 1, New York's port operation really took off after the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal made it the de facto link between the American heartland and the rest of the world. By 1860, the port of New York was handling a full 52 % of all U.S. imports and exports, and the whole of lower Manhattan's waterfront became jagged with docks and treed with masts. As steamships gradually replaced sailing vessels, the center of trade shifted from the East River to the Hudson, which offered deeper channels and the possibility of longer docks to handle larger and larger ocean liners. From the early years of the 20th century until after World War II, Manhattan's west side docks were known as Ocean Liner Row, hosting the cream of the Atlantic liners and their passengers every week. As a teen between 1949 and 1951, my own father had a job delivering books from a 57th Street bookstore to all the great ships on Ocean Liner Row -- reading being a requisite when trips were long and diversions few.
Though both passenger and cargo shipping in New York diminished drastically after the mid-50s, its passenger service has grown markedly over the past decade. Cruises north to New England and Canada and southeast to Bermuda have now been joined by long trips down the east coast to Florida and the Bahamas, and a number of ships also use New York as the western terminus of transatlantic cruises -- most notably Cunard's QM2, for which NYC serves as a regular homeport, but also ships sailing long northern routes that take in visits to Iceland and Greenland.
On the commercial side, the ports of New York and New Jersey (which have been under a joint port authority since 1921) are the largest oil importing and third-largest container shipping port in the country. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also operates the metro area's three major airports. It also oversaw the design and building of the World Trade Center towers, and still controls the property on which reconstruction is proceeding.
7. Seattle, WA
Passengers departing from Seattle in 2008: 435,000
There's an argument to be made that the Pacific Northwest is the place to be in the U.S. right now. Even in recession, it's still got some money (thank you, Microsoft and Intel), it's got a slew of recent transplants, it's an early adopter of green technologies and lifestyles, and it's got the country's best beer and coffee. The whole region is geekily hip, and that goes double for Seattle, the Northwest's biggest city, which over the past decade has been spiffed up with new sports stadiums, an architecturally avant-garde library, an opera house and symphony hall, and countless hotels, restaurants, and shops. It's very much a port- and water-oriented city, set between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, with Lake Union in the center. Practically everywhere you look, the views are of sailboats, cargo ships, ferries, windsurfers, and anglers. The only drawback is the rain, which falls (or threatens to) an average of 226 days a year. But look on the bright side: All that moisture is good for your complexion.
The port officially came into being on Sept. 5, 1911, about 60 years after the very first Western settlers put down stakes here. In 1890, the city grew into the region's commercial center after the Great Northern Railway chose it as its western transcontinental terminus. In the early 20th century, the city was the West's leading port (and second in the country after New York) and an important center of shipbuilding. In the 1960s, it bet heavily on the growth of container shipping, developing ports geared specifically toward containerization. The port began growing its passenger shipping business in the 1990s as the Alaska cruise market grew, and a few years ago it finally became the number-one homeport for Alaska cruises, overtaking longtime rival Vancouver, B.C. Today, the city sees more than 200 cruise ship calls annually.
8. San Diego, CA
Passengers departing from San Diego in 2008: 397,000
San Diego was established as a Spanish settlement in the 1770s, making it the first European city on what's now the U.S. West Coast. That's some history, but people don't tend to think of history first when they think San Diego. Mostly, they think of sun, beaches, and fresh air. Located just 16 miles north of Mexico, San Diego grew from a Spanish mission (Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá), established in 1769 as the first link in a chain of 21 California missions. The city was owned first by Spain (from its 1542 "discovery" by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo until 1821, when Mexico won its independence) and then by Mexico (until 1846, when the U.S. wrested it away during the Mexican-American War). Going to San Diego without seeing and experiencing Mexican culture is like going to Nashville and not hearing country music.
San Diego's maritime history goes back as far as its recorded history, and the capture of its port -- known then as the best in California after San Francisco -- was one of America's prime goals in declaring war on Mexico. American merchants had their eye on the China trade, while the government wanted to head off any expansionist impulses by the British (who controlled British Columbia) and the Russians (who controlled Alaska).
In the 1920s, the U.S. Navy began developing a ship repair facility and base in San Diego, and during WWII, the port became a major naval center, performing repairs to more than 5,000 ships and building a series of floating docks that were critical to the Pacific war effort. The naval port grew further after WWII, and during the 1990s, it became the home port of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, with some 26,000 military personnel and civilian staff on base.
San Diego's commercial port, at least as we know it today, only goes back to 1962, when it was created by an act of the California State Legislature. Expansion followed quickly, including the construction of a new cargo terminal. In 1970, the first cruise ships began offering scheduled cruises to Mexico from the port, and in 1986 the B Street Pier Cruise Ship Terminal was opened, and hosted some 26,000 embarking and disembarking passengers in its first year -- a number that's grown greatly since. On the cargo side, the port brings in some 3.3 million metric tons of stuff annually, including Honda, Acura, Isuzu, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Mitsubishi cars, and -- courtesy of a long-term deal with the Dole Food Company -- most of the bananas sold in the U.S.
9. Tampa, FL
Passengers departing from Tampa in 2008: 382,000
Tampa was a sleepy port until the 1880s, when four events turned things around completely: the discovery of enormous phosphate deposits nearby; the arrival of Henry B. Plant's railroad, linking the city to the rest of the eastern seaboard; the inauguration of a new steamship service between Tampa and Havana, Cuba; and the establishment of an enormous cigar manufacturing operation here by Spanish-born Cuban-American industrialist Vicente Martinez Ybor, using Cuban tobacco and labor. By the end of the decade, Ybor's new company town, Ybor City, was rolling millions of cigars a year and shipping them around the world. During the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt trained his Rough Riders in Tampa and walked the Ybor City streets with Cuban revolutionary José Marti.
The city's port has figured prominently in its history, with Florida oranges, cattle, and other produce shipping out in the mid-19th century, and blockade-runners operating from its docks during the Civil War. The port became a major hub for phosphates (a big component in fertilizers) after the big 1883 discovery, and its proximity to Havana -- just over 330 miles as the crow flies -- ensured a brisk trade until Fidel Castro's revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo.
Today the Port of Tampa is Florida's largest, with cruises sailing from here to the western Caribbean and major cargo operations handling some 38 million tons annually -- with phosphates (naturally) being the top export, along with scrap metal, vehicles, and container cargos, and imports including petroleum products, steel, and various minerals and chemicals.
10. Galveston, TX
Passengers departing from Galveston in 2008: 377,000
Some 50 miles south of Houston, Galveston is on a narrow, 30-mile-long barrier island that averages only two miles wide. Ships departing from here can reach the open sea in about 30 minutes, compared to several hours of lag time from the Port of Houston -- which helps explain why, at the end of the 19th century, Galveston was the largest city in Texas and the third busiest port in the country. Then, nature whacked it. On Sept. 8, 1900, a massive storm came ashore, carrying with it 140-mph winds and a 20-foot surge that washed completely over the island. Houses were smashed into matchwood, and more than 6,000 islanders -- a sixth of the island's population -- drowned. Those who remained went to work to prevent a recurrence of the disaster, raising the city's ground level by up to 17 feet and erecting a stout seawall stretching along 10 miles of shoreline, with jetties of large granite blocks projecting out into the water. These defenses kept the city safe for a century, but then, on Sept. 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike came ashore. The powerful storm seemed to know just where to hit, in effect outflanking the seawall to the east and pushing water into the bay, which then flooded Galveston's most vulnerable, low-lying areas. The region is still recovering, with many residents having left for good and full reconstruction still years away.
The city's port has a history that stretches back to 1816, when pirates (including the notorious Jean Lafitte) used it as a base of operations. In 1825 the port was officially established by order of the Mexican Congress (Texas then being a part of Mexico). Over the remainder of the 19th century, it was the busiest port on the Gulf Coast, exporting a great percentage of U.S. cotton, plus cattle and agricultural produce. As the 20th century got underway, the Imperial Sugar Company set up operations here to bring in sugar from Cuba, and in 1969, the West Indies Shipping Company began bringing bananas in through the port. Container shipping grew after the 1972 opening of the port's container terminal, and in 1989 the first day cruise operation began operating from the port. One year later, the Galveston Cruise Ship Terminal was dedicated, and over the two decades that have followed, the port has grown into a major hub for cruises to the western Caribbean.
For the best 5 cruise ports, read Top North American Home Ports, Part 1.
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