Photos by Danny Marc Samuels
The current issue of Cite features a special section on the Port of Houston, including an intriguing history, oral histories of Father Rivers Patout and ship pilot Lou Vest, gorgeous photographs by Vest, and ideas for reconnecting the city to its port. You can subscribe to Cite online or find us at independent bookstores if you are at all curious about, well, why Houston even exists! One key story the new issue did not cover was told by Danny Marc Samuels in the Winter 2003 Cite (56). Few realize that the first docking of a container ship was right here in Houston. Don’t know why that event is important, why the global economy as we know it began that day, why an entire way of life and work on the port was soon wiped out? Then read on in this excerpt of “Port of Call: The Deep-Water Ambitions of a Bayou City” or download the pdf from our archives.
On April 26, 1956, when the freighter Ideal X carried the first load of 58 containers — steel boxes eight feet by 8 feet by 35 feet — from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston, it was not, on the face of it, a shipping revolution. But the eventual success of this shipping concept transformed not only the shipping industry but the nature of the global economy as well as the character of port cities around the world. When a producer could load a container in a factory anywhere in the world and ship it directly to a consumer anywhere else in the world quickly, at low cost, and in relative security, the whole equation of supply and demand shifted. Every point of production became directly connected to every point of consumption. A new kind of global commerce was born.
Traditional ports, located centrally in the cities they had helped form, were obsolete overnight. As Deyan Sudjic writes in The Hundred Mile City, “The teeming gangs of longshoremen, organized with the intricacy of a medieval craft guild to pack each bale and barrel into the hold, became redundant.” Even the customary warehouse sheds that formed part of the shipping infrastructure were no longer needed, because the containers were waterproof on their own.
The modern shipping container was the brainchild of Malcolm McLean, a North Carolina trucker, who imagined that a large standardized container — essentially a trailer without wheels — could be carried by ship, rail, and truck and moved easily between them. McLean tried to sell his idea to the major steamship companies, but they weren’t interested. So he started his own company, SeaLand, and built specialized ships and equipment to handle shipping between Houston and New York. The cellular containers turned out to have the advantages of strength and lightness, ease and speed of handling and storage, weather protection, and security. A container holds five to 20 times the weight or volume that can be lifted with a conventional crane hook. A container ship can be loaded about 20 times faster than a conventional cargo ship, greatly reducing labor costs. Soon, shippers jumped on board.
By 1965, the International Standards Organization decreed standard sizes for containers: 10, 20, 30, and 40 feet in length, eight feet wide; and eight feet tall (raised to eight feet six inches in the ’70s). The most common lengths are 20 and 40 feet. In 1967, a worldwide standard for corner castings defined how the containers could be lifted, stacked, and locked into place. The crux of the modern shipping container is the idea that eight corners are defined at given distances. Many different types of containers, shipping racks, and tanks have developed according to those standards. Special ships, rail cars, truck chassis, and cranes have also developed, a system allowing complete intermodal transfer between trucks, trains, and ships. All these components operate together as a huge machine for shipping. Locked inside the container, not apparent to the observer, may be $10 million worth of computer chips – or toxic waste.
Container ships exist, naturally, to carry containers. Unencumbered by interior decks, their holds can accommodate containers stacked eight high and ten wide. The weather deck provides a second cargo area, with containers stacked three to five high and 13 wide. The third generation of container ships, built in the 1980s and scaled to fit through the Panama Canal had a length of up to 1,000 feet, a beam of about 100 feet, and a draft of about 40 feet, and could carry up to 3,000 20-foot container equivalents (TEUs) at about 19 knots. Later ship designs, too large to pass through the Panama Canal, are wider, but not longer, and have capacities of up to 6,000 TEUs, at 24 knots.
The global flow of container commerce is based on ships that ply regular routes in the Pacific, the Atlantic, or the Caribbean according to strict schedules, visiting a limited number of ports that can then distribute the containers efficiently by rail or truck to their ultimate destinations. Ships and terminals represent enormous capital investments, and as with airlines, it is necessary to keep equipment moving constantly and on schedule. Differentials of days, or even hours, can have a huge effect on how containers are routed. These ships don’t mess around with the Panama Canal. Cost and time drive everything.
Virtually all cargo from Asia comes to the U.S. in generally larger ships to west coast ports (Seattle, San Francisco/Oakland, Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Diego), and is distributed, partly by rail, partly by truck, to points eastward, all the way to the east coast. It is this commerce that has been crucial in making Asia a producer for the rest of the world. Somewhat smaller ships sail the Atlantic from Europe to ports on the east coast (Boston, New York/New Jersey, Norfolk, Charleston), and their cargo is likewise trans-shipped westward. Houston is the last port of call on this circuit. But ships from the east coast of Central and South America come to Houston first, and their cargo may be distributed all over the U.S. from here. However, Houston is generally seen as a unique regional port that serves a mostly Texas market. A container going from, say Germany to St. Louis could be offloaded at Newark or Norfolk and arrive by rail at its destination a week before the same ship would even get to Houston.
The Port of Houston started a container terminal facility at Barbour’s Cut at Morgan’s Point (ironically, one of the natural port locations the Allen Brothers were not able to obtain) with two wharves in 1977. The facility has now grown to six 1,000-foot wharves with marshalling yards covering 250 acres, room for more than 21,000 TEUs. The terminal operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 363 days a year (it’s closed Labor Day and Christmas). Ships are routinely turned around in eight to ten hours. At the Houston terminal, about 80 percent of the landside traffic is by truck. The 20 percent that goes by train is generally South and Central American loads bound for the West Coast. Houston handles more than one million TEUs each year.
Driving to the Barbour’s Cut Terminal is like following worker bees to the hive. The density of trucks on the roads carrying containers increases until finally they line up in 26 rows at the entrances to the facility, an average of 1,600 in or out each day. Each truck yields its load to a rubber-tired gantry crane, and then drives around to pick up another load for its return trip. The gantry stacks the containers in well-ordered rows, six across, four high, and many long, on a paved surface that is, essentially, a parking lot. Usually with no more than two moves (by means of assigned yard trucks that continually scuttle back and forth), they are positioned for loading onto ships, separated for different parts of the hold by destination and weight (heavier containers must be placed lower in the hold). Then in a final move form yard gantry to yard truck to giant wharf crane, the containers are loaded aboard. Each ship transacts 500 to 2,000 container movements, which is defined as an on or off operation. All of this is organized by computer inventory controls, but it still takes spectacular coordination between the yard stevedores and a ship’s crew to load a ship as efficiently as possible.
by Danny Marc Samuels