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FreightWaves Classics/ Infrastructure: Port of Greater Baton Rouge is a Top 10 US port

Overview

Located in Port Allen, Louisiana, the Port of Greater Baton Rouge is among the Top 10 largest ports in the United States in terms of tonnage shipped. (It ranked seventh in 2020.) It is the northernmost port on the Mississippi River capable of handling Panamax ships.

It is both a deep water (45 feet) and a shallow draft port, providing excellent accessibility to ocean trade lanes to and from Latin America, Europe and the Far East. The port also provides access to America’s heartland via barges on the Mississippi River, the inland waterway system and the Intracoastal Waterway.

As the nation’s farthest inland deep water port, Baton Rouge is a major factor in international shipping and trade development. On an annual basis, the Port often handles nearly 80 million tons of cargo from ships flying the flags of more than 30 countries.

The port is a key component of Louisiana’s economy and maritime industry. It is located at the convergence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which links it to other ports from north Florida to south Texas, as well as to ports throughout the 15,000 miles of the Mississippi River inland waterway system. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 45-foot deep-water channel from the Port of Greater Baton Rouge to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The port is located next to the Port Allen Lock, which is the northernmost point on the river where barges can get to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

The port’s jurisdiction stretches for almost 85 miles of the Mississippi – from the ExxonMobil refinery on the north to the Sunshine Bridge on the south. Parishes (counties) included in the port’s jurisdiction include East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension and Iberville.

The port’s facilities include both shallow-draft and deep-water terminals. Port facilities offer intermodal access between docks, rail and highways. The sea-shipping terminal in the port has container-handling equipment and offers value-added services like bagging and cross-dock stuffing. The port also offers a full range of Foreign Trade Zone services.

The Port of Greater Baton Rouge borders interstate highways 10 and 12 and Louisiana Highway 1. Three major railroads serve the port – Union Pacific, Canadian National/Illinois Central and Kansas City Southern.

An overview of the history of Baton Rouge

The Mississippi River has been crucial to the economic development of Baton Rouge and the surrounding area since Native Americans used the river extensively for trade. 

While most communities have a definite beginning with the establishment of a trading settlement, Baton Rouge was discovered rather than founded. Indian outposts occupied the bluffs of Baton Rouge for untold centuries, long before the Europeans settled North America.

Pierre Lemoyne d’Iberville and his brother Bienville explored the Mississippi River up to Baton Rouge in 1699. The topography of the area was very different from the flat and winding southern passage to the Gulf of Mexico; it formed a straight stretch between bends measuring over nine miles long. And the east bank rose as bluffs that were high enough to be free from the annual spring floods. 

The d’Ibervilles noted a reddened “maypole” to which the heads of fish and bears were attached in sacrifice. The pole marked the hunting boundary between the downriver and upriver tribes. In their language the red pole was called “Istrouma,” but the French called it Baton Rouge or “red stick.”

The earliest settlers in the area also used the river for transportation. Use of the Mississippi grew rapidly during the 18th century as valuable furs and other goods were floated downriver to be shipped to Europe. During the 1700s, as settlers moved westward, they came to depend more and more on the river as well. 

During the antebellum period prior to the Civil War, the small town of Baton Rouge was a stop for traffic going to and from New Orleans and points north.

Steam-powered boats arrived on the Mississippi in 1811. The “New Orleans,” designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, was the first steamboat to call at Baton Rouge. It carried three passengers and a load of cotton, the first ever to be shipped by steamboat from Natchez. 

The trip from Natchez to New Orleans usually took 10 days one-way, with up to 40 passengers traveling downstream and 20 traveling upstream. Despite its success, the New Orleans proved to be poorly designed for travel any farther north than Natchez. 

That led Henry Shreve to design the “Washington,” a steamboat suited to the river, in 1816. All Mississippi River steamboats in the following years followed the basic design of the Washington.

For the next 35 years steamboat traffic grew rapidly on the Mississippi. However, that ended when the Civil War began. 

When the war ended, traffic along the river began again. Steamboat builders formed pools of boats, such as the Anchor Line and the Southern Transportation Line. However, railroads gradually began to take freight and passenger traffic from the steamboats, which were unreliable under certain conditions. 

Steamboats were susceptible to high water on the river, which interrupted navigation when  landings were flooded, and to low water, which meant the boats could not navigate stretches of the river. So as the 20th century began, steamboating began to die. It was not a sudden death; steamboats continued to travel up and down the Mississippi into the 1920s and 1930s. 

History of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge

Over a period of more than 200 years (from 1721 to 1926), Baton Rouge’s docking facilities were fairly simple – wooden wharves along the Mississippi River’s edge. Prior to the construction of the levee system, river levels remained relatively stable, which meant that a simple mooring system was sufficient. Loading and unloading was slow and laborious.

Steamers and barges carried loads of general cargo that included rice, cotton, sugar, cooking and fuel oils, iron, lead, steel, sulfur and machinery. It was an active port; for example, in 1822 cargo and passengers came ashore via gangplanks from “83 steamboats, 174 barges and 441 flatboats.”

By the late 1800s, as the capital of Louisiana, Baton Rouge’s population had increased and the riverfront was always active. “Commercial, industrial and agricultural shipping” grew significantly. Over the next 40 years, “the Standard Oil Refinery (1909), Gulf States Utilities Power Plant (1929), the Solvay Process Plant (1935), the Ethyl Corporation plant (1937) and numerous other chemical and metallurgical complexes were constructed and went into operation.” During that period, the private docking facilities built by Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) accounted for most of Baton Rouge’s river-borne commerce.

Baton Rouge’s economy became linked to the river and the burgeoning petrochemical industry. Levees were built to contain the Mississippi; flood waters no longer spilled over low-lying banks. This caused the river to rise and fall dramatically, sometimes as much as 47 feet, which required deep-water docking facilities.

Also, in the early 1920s, the need for a public docking facility to handle cargo for smaller shippers and port users was recognized. The Baton Rouge Municipal Dock was built in 1926. It was located on the east bank of the river and enabled “ocean-going vessels to off-load heavy cargo onto barges for upriver transport, or to rail for inland shipment through Baton Rouge.”

In 1952, the Greater Baton Rouge Port Commission was created through an act of the legislature. It is governed by 15 commissioners who serve four-year terms. The Port of Greater Baton Rouge was created to control commerce and traffic along the river as well as to build and operate port facilities for the public.

Construction began in 1954 on the port’s General Cargo Dock No. 1, the Grain Elevator and Grain Dock on the west bank of the river.

The port today

The Port of Greater Baton Rouge has grown considerably since the days of its wooden wharves. As noted above, the port is ranked among the top ports in the nation in total tonnage including export, import and domestic cargo. The port handles a wide range of cargo, including “forest products, agricultural products, biomass products, steel and pipe, ores and coals, petroleum products, and bulk and liquid bulk chemicals.” 

The port also leads other U.S. Gulf Coast ports for handling palletized or unitized cargo. The general cargo docks at the port’s 370-acre deep-water complex handle bulk cargoes that include pipe, logs, rail, lumber, plywood, and paper products.

In addition, the Port of Greater Baton Rouge’s general cargo facilities have 3,000 linear feet of continuous wharf and 45-foot access for ocean-borne vessels. There is an unlimited turning basin that is utilized by ocean-going vessels. Also, the general cargo facilities include 525,000 square feet of warehouse space on the Mississippi River and 50,000 square feet of shipside storage.

There are covered rail tracks from docks to warehouses, supporting all-weather operations at the port’s complex of cargo docks. Truck and rail access is provided to nearby transit sheds. The cargo docks at the port utilize conveyor systems from the landside to the wharf.

Among the port’s extensive facilities are:

The port owns the Inland Rivers Marine Terminal, which is an 84-acre intermodal facility located where the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway meets the Mississippi River. The terminal is strategically located; it connects the American heartland with international markets. Additionally, it is a transshipment point between Gulf of Mexico seaports such as Houston and New Orleans. 

The terminal handles containers, bulk cargoes, agricultural products, steel coils, bagged goods, newsprint, polypropylene and polyethylene pellets, and project cargo. The terminal includes a 42,000-square foot warehouse, a four-acre public container marshaling terminal, a roll-on/roll-off ramp, a staging area and a Union Pacific rail spur. The terminal offers bagging and cross-dock stuffing services, and it is part of the Foreign Trade Zone. 

The port also owns the Baton Rouge Barge Terminal. Aggregate, bulk products, coke and wood chips are handled at this terminal. In addition, Kinder Morgan leases/operates a bulk terminal that has rail service and a coal-handling facility. The terminal has 985 feet of berthing space with a depth of 12 feet. 

The port-owned Petroleum Fuel and Terminal is operated by the Petroleum Fuel & Terminal Company. It handles petroleum products, fuel oil and carbon black; the terminal has a storage capacity of 17 million gallons. The terminal has berthing space of 864 feet and an alongside depth of 45 feet.

The port also owns the Public Grain Elevator; cargoes include soybeans, corn, wheat, oats and other grain products. The facility has the capacity to store 7.5 million bushels and can handle more than three million tons of cargo annually. Its berthing space is 800 feet with an alongside depth of 45 feet.

The facility is operated by Louis Dreyfus Company. The grain elevator handles about one-quarter of Louisiana’s corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains per year. It has a USDA inspection agency on-site. 

The Bulk Flour Mill is owned by the port and is operated by Horizon Milling Inc. to ship dry bulk flour to international and domestic markets. The dock at the Bulk Flour Mill has berthing space that is 990 feet long, with alongside depth of 45 feet. The mill grinds about 360 tons of wheat daily; 20% of that wheat comes from Louisiana. 

The port also owns the Molasses Terminal, which is operated by Westway Terminal Company. It  ships liquid bulk cargoes including “molasses, high fructose corn syrup, and specialty chemicals that include caustics, acids and glycol-based products.” The terminal has the capacity to store more than 17 million gallons. Also served by rail, the berth at the terminal has berthing space of 800 feet with alongside depth of 45 feet.

The Louisiana Sugar Cane Cooperative operates the port’s Sugar Distribution and Warehouse Complex, which is located on a seven-acre tract on the Mississippi River. The facility’s two warehouses total 80,000 square feet and are equipped with an underground hopper system that can move up to 900 tons of sugar per hour to the general cargo dock for loading.

The Midstream Transfer Buoys in the Mississippi River are located across from the port’s main cargo terminal and the pile anchor midstream buoys facilitate cargo-to-barge transfers throughout the year. These buoys can accommodate Panamax-size vessels, and there is 1,000 feet of space between the buoys, which have an alongside depth of 45 feet.

In addition to the facilities described above, the port also offers several other services and facilities, including coffee-roasting and -packaging facilities and several public warehouse facilities. Among the value-added services offered by the port are bagging and packaging, stevedoring and daily rail switching.

As noted above, several private docks are located within the jurisdiction of the port. ExxonMobil, BASF, the Dow Chemical Company and other petrochemical companies operate docks in the complex and ship both domestic and international cargoes from the port.

The port’s economic impact

The Port of Greater Baton Rouge contributes significantly to the overall economic health of Louisiana and to the four-parish area it serves. A study by the LSU National Ports and  Waterways Institute found that $1 of income earned by workers in waterborne commerce in the port area generates $2 of additional income within the region. Within the four-parish area the port generates an estimated 3,604 direct jobs, an annual payroll of $107 million and more than $118 million in annual tax revenue.

The port’s economic impact extends beyond the Baton Rouge metropolitan area, however. Port activities generate more than $11.3 billion in state spending and more than 20,000 jobs across Louisiana, including a total payroll of almost $119 million.