The weekend layover of the Evergreen Line’s Ever Max, the biggest container ship ever to dock on Maryland shores, brought to mind why Baltimore is Baltimore and why its harbor is more than a recreational playground for paddle boats and cabin cruisers.
Founded in 1729, the city remains a hub of global trade thanks to 11.1 square miles of mostly deep water that lie within its boundaries.
For most residents, it’s an unknown or underappreciated fact that the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore handled a record $74.3 billion in foreign cargo last year.
Other high water marks were established in 2022 for roll-on/roll-off (“Ro-Ro”) farm and construction equipment, general cargo and forest products despite worldwide supply chain issues and a slowdown in China trade.
“The port ranks 11th among major U.S. ports for foreign cargo handled and ninth for total foreign cargo value,” notes Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration.
Expanding business was one reason why Ever Max made its appearance on Saturday to swap out containers at the sprawling Seagirt Marine Terminal on Broening Highway.
Although the volume of containers coming through Baltimore has doubled in the last decade, the city still lags behind East Coat rivals Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and Newark, N.J., in overall traffic.
Its fortunes are certain to rise with the completion of the Howard Street Tunnel enlargement project in 2025. The rebuild will allow double-stack container trains to clear a longtime hurdle (trains currently are limited to single-stack rail cars through the tunnel).
Clearance improvements at 21 other locations between Baltimore and Philadelphia will allow for “seamless” double-stack rail service from Maine to Florida as well as deep into the industrial Midwest.
Private port operators are stepping up, too. Tradepoint Atlantic, a logistics center on the site of the former Sparrows Point steel mill, has announced plans for a 165-acre oceangoing container terminal. The facility will be jointly owned with the Swiss transportation giant, Mediterranean Shipping Co.
These and other advances – such as expanded container service by Israel-based ZIM between Baltimore and Jamaica, tapping into South American and African trade – point to new avenues of commerce that have been fundamental to the harbor’s success.
Going back 200 years, fast-sailing Baltimore Clippers, plying the Atlantic coastline and raiding Caribbean islands, brought back high-value cargoes of fruits, spices and illegally trafficked slaves.
In 1785, Baltimore merchant Capt. John O’Donnell returned from China laden with silk, teas, porcelain, satins and opium. He founded the Canton Company (named after the Chinese source of his wealth) and established a waterfront plantation that became a hub for shipbuilding and foreign trade.
Steel and Immigrants
A century later, MIT-trained engineer Frederick W. Wood drained soggy, isolated Sparrows Point and erected a steel mill based on the strategic advantage of shipping iron ore on deep-draft boats to Baltimore from newly opened mines in Cuba.
Meanwhile, waves of European immigrants arrived at the North German Lloyd Steamship’s docks at Locust Point.
While many of the newcomers stepped directly onto trains bound for the Midwest, enough of them stayed behind to help triple the city’s population from 169,000 in 1850 to 558,000 in 1910.
And so it went.
Warehouses and wharves lined the harbor until the 1960s when a quantum change in shipping – the arrival of standardized metal containers that could be stacked and securely transported across the seas – led to a steep decline of “break bulk” cargo, followed by a boom in international trade due to lower transportation and handling costs.
Subsequent mini-revolutions in shipbuilding, logistics and sheer size led to the arrival of Ever Max, a container ship nearly four times the length of the Raven’s football field.
Off to the Suez Canal
Essentially a huge slab of floating steel, divided into cells by vertical guide rails designed to hold the containers, the ship weighs 165,350 tons and is capable of carrying 15,500 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) containers filled with merchandise.
Its role in international trade was foretold by its origins. The vessel was built in South Korea, is owned by a company in Taiwan and sails under the flag of Singapore.
On its inaugural voyage from the Samsung shipyard in Korea, it covered a trade route not too far afield from that of Capt. O’Donnell.
It picked up containers at the Chinese ports of Kaohsiung, Xiamen and Shenzhen, crossed the Pacific, navigated through the Panama Canal (a pipe dream in O’Donnell’s time) and stopped at Baltimore after first dropping anchor at Savannah, New York and Norfolk.
Having spent the weekend at Seagirt Terminal, five towering cranes lifting “boxes” on and off the forest-green vessel, Ever Max embarked on a return voyage backhauling containers to Asia via the Suez Canal.
Now crossing the Atlantic at a speed of 19.6 knots, it will traverse the Mediterranean next week.
Its next port of call: Port Said, Egypt, with an expected arrival date of September 2.
• The writer is the author of Making Steel – Sparrows Point, a social and economic history of the world’s once largest steel mill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.