There are those of us who believe that the Port of New Orleans is still the greatest port in the South, the country and the world! But if you rely on statistics -- you know, details like tonnage and vessel calls -- then I must tell you that we are no longer No. 1.
There was a time when the Port of New Orleans was very great, indeed. As the country grew and Americans settled in the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi River became essential to get produce to markets. Much of everything going east or to Europe first came down the river to New Orleans. The early mode of transportation was flatboats and keelboats; then, in 1812, came the first steamboat. It was, as Gov. William C.C. Claiborne predicted, these craft that brought their cargoes of every variety to New Orleans and made the Crescent City one of the great ports of the world.
By the time the Civil War began, the port saw 4,000 steamboats in one year, and everywhere along the wharves were ships from everywhere in the world. Ocean commerce alone was more than $183 million, and river trade for 1859-1860 was a whopping $289 million.
Even before the war, shipping was hampered by silt accumulation at the mouth of the river. The problem was much worse after the war due to neglect. In addition, the new ships were larger, and some of the vessels were held up for weeks on a bar, causing a severe backup. This caused New Orleans to drop from the second port to eleventh.
But we were rescued by engineer James Buchanan Eads, who had a plan calling for constricting the channel of the river by building parallel dikes or jetties at the mouths of the passes, causing the water to flow faster and preventing the silt from settling. Eads' plan worked, and by 1880 the port was saved.
In 1901, the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans took over operations, and the city was on its way to becoming the second port in the country after New York. For a few years from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, according to the Corps of Engineers' ranking of commerce at principal United States ports based on short tons per years, our port was ranked first. During this time, the Port of Houston was almost always ranked third. However, the situation has changed. The Port of Houston is now ranked second, and the Port of New Orleans is ranked fourth.
But there is another port in the picture -- the Port of South Louisiana -- and it holds the honor of being No. 1. I know it may be hard to believe, but this port, which stretches 54 miles along the Mississippi River with an area of jurisdiction that covers three parishes (St. Charles, St. John the Baptist and St. James), is the largest tonnage port in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world. In 2000, it handled more than 245 million tons of cargo. Approximately 175 million tons of cargo moved through the Port of Houston in 2000, but New Orleans wasn't quite so busy, handling an average of 11.4 million tons from 1995-2000.
More than 50,000 barges and 4,000 ocean-going vessels call at the Port of South Louisiana every year. Houston, however, had only 6,801 vessel calls in 2000, and New Orleans averages 2,400 calls each year.
We do have a few important features such as the world's longest wharf. The quay between Henry Clay Avenue and Milan Street terminals can accommodate up to 15 vessels at the same time. And ours is the only seaport in the United States that is served by six Class One rail lines. And since we're not No. 1, we try harder. The Port of New Orleans in the past 10 years has invested nearly $500 million in "state-of-the-art facilities." And even though it may never be the biggest again, the Port of New Orleans will continue to be a port we can be proud of for a long time to come.