History of the Port of Philadelphia

Philadelphia has been a major center of international commerce for over 300 years. Even today, with major port complexes serving major metropolitan centers throughout the country, Philadelphia and its international seaport maintains a preeminent position in several areas of trade, such as the importation of perishable cargoes from South America, high-quality paper products from Scandinavia, and premium meat from Australia and New Zealand.

For most of its early history, the Port of Philadelphia thrived and expanded without major guidance from a central governing authority or organization. It was during these initial years that all manner of cargoes arrived or departed via the city’s docks, establishing the Port’s reputation for the fast, expert handling of any cargo imaginable and its central role in the economic health of the city and region.

For most of the early years of the 20th century, the Philadelphia waterfront was overseen and managed by a municipal agency known as the Department of Wharves, Docks, and Ferries, a division of the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce. The Department of Wharves, Docks, and Ferries oversaw the construction and maintenance of municipally owned piers and port facilities, and also had some regulatory power for the overall Philadelphia waterfront.
Ultimately, the activity of building and maintaining port facilities became too costly for the City of Philadelphia to undertake on its own. Therefore, a new port agency, accompanied by a new form of port governance, was eventually created.

In 1965, the non-profit, quasi-public Philadelphia Port Corporation (PPC) had the power to issue municipal bonds to raise funds for port improvements and expansion. Revenue to pay the bonds’ debt service was realized primarily through leasing the city’s port facilities – now under the jurisdiction of the PPC – to private operating companies.

These private operating companies operated their respective port facilities on a day-to-day basis with marketing assistance from the Philadelphia Port Corporation. This model (private operation of publically owned port facilities supported by marketing and capital assistance from a central public agency) continues into the present.
Major port improvements were made in the 1960’s and 70’s under the auspices of the Philadelphia Port Corporation. These included:

Like many ports throughout the United States the capital-intensive requirements to maintain and improve the Port of Philadelphia eventually outgrew the funding capabilities of the City of Philadelphia and its port agency.

The Commonwealth recognized the vital importance of its seaport asset and it agreed to take the active role requested of it. The Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA), an independent state agency, was established July 10, 1989.

In the early 1990’s, PRPA completed much needed facility improvement projects, including:

The PRPA continues to work with the private operating companies still running the port facilities, with the ongoing aim of maintaining and increasing cargo activity.

Along with maintaining all of its facilities, the PRPA aggressively assists its terminal operators in the marketing and promotion of the Port around the world. The Authority works with other port and transportation agencies, foreign consulates, and business and trade groups along the Delaware River and throughout the region on issues of mutual concern such as the monitoring of relevant regulatory issues and trade outreach to other countries.

In 2002, the Port of Philadelphia was named the nation’s 14th Strategic Military Port by the U.S. Department of Defense, making it one of only 14 ports in the United States permitted to handle the nation’s military cargoes destined for various points around the globe.

PRPA is also on the verge of accomplishing one of the Port’s long-held goals: the deepening of the Delaware River’s main shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet, which will allow the Port to accommodate substantially more of the world’s cargo vessels, which get bigger every year.

Everything we do at the Port of Philadelphia comes down to our basic mission: securing new port customers, making needed improvements, and keeping the Port busy as possible.

As we never forget, the Port is a vital economic engine of the City and region, and it must remain so. Nothing is more important than protecting the Port of Philadelphia’s 300-plus year legacy as a major center of maritime industrial commerce.

Other exciting projects are also on the horizon, including the construction of a new marine terminal, Southport, in the near future.

Old Photo of Packer Avenue Terminal
Old Photo of Packer Avenue Terminal
Old Photo of Packer Avenue Terminal