more than 300 years Philadelphia has been a great port city and
a major center for international commerce. Only a few short years
after William Penn's vessel "The Welcome" landed on the
shores of the Delaware River, heralding the establishment of Penn's
"City of Neighborhoods", Philadelphia became the New World's
leading center for trade and commerce, a title it held for more
than a hundred 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 and wood pulp from South America, high-quality paper products from Scandinavia, and premium meat from Australia and New Zealand.
The Early Years
For most of its early history, the Port of Philadelphia thrived and expanded without major guidance from a central governing authority or organization. Rather, disparate private concerns built and maintained piers and waterfront warehouses, moving a wide variety of goods through those facilities. 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.
Eventually, city government took a more active hand in the organization of the waterfront, and municipally owned piers and warehouses sprang up amidst the privately owned facilities. Sadly, all of the municipal piers and warehouses of the 18th and 19th centuries are now long gone, though several piers from the early 20th century- recognizable by their ornate facades- still dot the waterfront, with some still actively handling cargo next to their more modern counterparts.
The 20th Century
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. Established in 1965, the non-profit, quasi-public Philadelphia Port Corporation 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 Philadelphia Port Corporation- 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 the construction, in the 1970’s, of the 106-acre Packer Avenue Marine Terminal (still the port’s largest and busiest facility) and the Tioga Marine Terminal (the primary home of the Port’s Brazilian Wood Pulp cargoes).
Like many ports throughout the United States (and especially competing ports along the East Coast) 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. To remedy the situation, Philadelphia Port Corporation staff, with the approval of the City of Philadelphia, approached the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for major financial support in the late 1980’s. State sponsorship of port facilities was already a preferred method of operation in other ports, and it was argued that the time had come for Pennsylvania to assist in the maintenance, expansion, and promotion of its international seaport in Philadelphia. The Commonwealth recognized the vital importance of its seaport asset and it agreed to take the active role requested of it. The first step was the creation of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA), an independent state agency, in 1990. It immediately replaced the Philadelphia Port Corporation.
Along with creating PRPA, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased all publically owned port facilities from the City of Philadelphia, charging PRPA with the mission of managing and maintaining them. Like its predecessor agency, the Philadelphia Port Corporation, PRPA continued to work with the private operating companies still running the port facilities, with the ongoing aim of maintaining and increasing cargo activity. To support this aim, a major state capital budget was also established, allowing PRPA to make an initial round of needed facility improvements in the early 1990’s, including the addition of additional on-dock warehouse space at Tioga Marine Terminal, new refrigerated warehouse space at Pier 82, and a new forest products warehouse at the Piers 78 & 80 Forest Products Distribution Center.
Since its creation, PRPA has overseen many other major improvements to the Port of Philadelphia, as well as continued to aggressively assist its terminal operators in the marketing and promotion of the Port around the world. PRPA also 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.
The 21st Century
In recent years, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority and its 11-member board of regional business leaders (appointed by the Governor, the state legislature, the Mayor of Philadelphia, and the large counties surrounding the Port) have continued to implement a variety of improvements and foster major developments at the Port of Philadelphia. For example, under the auspices of PRPA, the Port of Philadelphia was named the nation’s 14th Strategic Military Port by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2002, 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.
Other exciting projects are also on the horizon, including the construction of a new marine terminal, Southport, in the near future.
Our Mission, Our Legacy
In the end, 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 as 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.
For the latest information about PRPA, the Port of Philadelphia, and progress on our various initiatives visit our News page.