Institute for Water Resources

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Tales of the Coast
Sharing the Coast

Harbors and Ports

Harbors and ports are vital to the Nation. Since ports handle about half of U.S. overseas trade by value and nearly all by weight, waterborne commerce directly affects the prosperity and quality of life in the United States. Harbors and ports are also crucial for military applications because a large percentage of military goods are transported by ship. Finally, harbors provide launching and berthing facilities for commercial fishing boats and a large number of recreational boats.

Harbors and ports have developed along the coasts of the United States since the first colonists arrived in the 17th century. Today, major cities across the country have grown around maritime centers, and navigation continues to be an important part of life along our oceans, lakes and rivers.

The first settlements on the Atlantic coast developed around natural harbors that could accommodate colonists' ships. Today, many of these early settlements have become major metropolitan areas, influenced in part by their proximity to water and the resulting commerce and immigration. New York, Boston, and Baltimore are some of the major Atlantic coast cities that were settled initially as harbor areas.

The many barriers and inlets along the Atlantic coast also provide harbors and ports for commercial and recreational ships. Most inlets with navigation channels have been stabilized with structures such as breakwaters and jetties. Over 100 harbors on the Atlantic coast have been stabilized, usually with rubble mound structures. These works deflect wave energy and block longshore sediment transport, thereby maintaining navigable conditions in harbors, ports, and channels.

Dredging is another important activity at Atlantic harbors and ports. As container ships grow in size, harbors and ports must maintain depths to accommodate these vessels. In 2000, the Corps dredged 46 million cubic meters of material from Atlantic coast ports.

The Pacific is a high-energy coast that features potentially destructive wave energy. In the Pacific Northwest, all major cities are found in sheltered bodies of water. Puget Sound, a deep, sheltered, fjord-like water body in Washington State provides safe access for ships steaming to Tacoma, Bellingham, Everett, and Seattle.

Changes in commodities have altered many Pacific coast harbors and ports. Declining fish stocks and less transport of timber reduced shipping at many ports, but southern California remains an important entryway for many goods. Long Beach, California, was the 7th largest U.S. port in terms of tonnage in the year 2000. Likewise, the Port of Seattle is a key location for shipping agricultural products to countries around the Pacific Rim.

The largest coastal structures are found along the Pacific coast to protect harbors and ports from the high-energy waves. While necessary to protect ships from wave energy, these jetties, breakwaters, and related structures are difficult to build and maintain because of the dangerous conditions.

The mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico has been a crucial port for American commerce for hundreds of years. Today, most of the major U.S. commodity ports are still found along the Gulf coast in Louisiana and Texas. Petroleum imports in particular dominate shipping at Gulf ports.

The many barriers, the low-energy wave conditions, and the sediment characteristics of the Gulf have resulted in the need for harbor stabilization and dredging. Jetties and breakwaters reduce shoaling in harbors and ports by blocking longshore sediment transport. The many channels and meandering mouth of the Mississippi River have also required structural responses to stabilize the waterway for commercial ships.

In 2000, the Corps dredged 65 million cubic meters of material from Gulf coast ports, the highest amount on any U.S. coast. The New Orleans District has the single greatest dredging amount of all the Corps districts. This highlights the importance of sediment management at harbors and ports, and it demonstrates the massive quantities of sediment present at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The coasts around the Great Lakes developed because of their proximity to the navigation afforded by these bodies of water. Much of the 19th century development of the Midwest occurred as European immigrants traveled through the port of New York, along the Erie Barge Canal, and on to points farther west. Cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, grew from frontier villages to manufacturing and commercial centers in a little over a century because of their locations at the terminus of water and rail routes connecting the grain-rich areas of the west to the eastern urban centers.

The economic lives of many Great Lakes cities depended on the construction and maintenance of harbor facilities such as seawalls, jetties, breakwaters, and dredged channels. Indeed, improvement to Erie Harbor began in the early 19th century. Many construction methods have been used for these structures, including sheet pile, wooden cribs, concrete, and stone rubble mound.

Changes in commerce and shipping have modified Great Lakes harbors and ports. Bulk shipping has declined in certain parts of the Great Lakes, and fishing is becoming increasingly important. Ageing harbor structures will need rehabilitation and possibly overhauls due to changing economic priorities.

Agana Small Boat Harbor

Agana Small Boat Harbor
Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Harbors and Ports

Harbor describes a relatively protected area accessible to vessels.

Port indicates a location where a ship can transfer cargo.

Atlantic Harbors and Ports

In 2000, New York was the 3rd largest U.S. port in terms of total tonnage.

Pacific Harbors and Ports

Most jetties along the Pacific coast were built using railroad-mounted cranes that operated from a railroad trestle atop the structures. At Grays Harbor, an entire locomotive was once tossed into the ocean by storm waves.

Gulf Coats Harbors and Ports

Eight of the 10 leading U.S. ports in terms of tonnage in foreign trade are located on the Gulf coast in Louisiana or Texas.

Great Lakes Harbors and Ports

Along the Great Lakes, over 100 harbors have been structurally stabilized.