The Port of Philadelphia. (Photo: PhilaPort)The Port of Philadelphia. (Photo: PhilaPort)

Like several major U.S. ports on the nation’s East Coast, Philadelphia has been a center of international commerce for over 300 years. 

Today, the Port of Philadelphia (PhilaPort) has a leading position in several areas of trade. These include the importation of “perishable cargoes from South America, high-quality paper products from Scandinavia, and premium meat from Australia and New Zealand.”

Early history

William Penn was the founder of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is named for him. As Philadelphia grew, Penn incorporated the Port of Philadelphia at the same time he incorporated the City of Philadelphia in the City Charter of 1701.

Along with Boston, New York, Charleston and Savannah, by 1770 Philadelphia had become one of the British Empire’s key ports in the American colonies. Philadelphia’s merchants traded lumber and agricultural goods for sugar and rum from the Caribbean and tea from China.

A drawing of Philadelphia and its port in colonial America. (Image:
A drawing of Philadelphia and its port in colonial America. (Image:

A consequence of winning the Revolutionary War was that much of the new nation’s overseas trade ended. Following the American victory, all of England’s ports in the West Indies were closed to American ships. France was a key ally in the war; however, the French Revolution reduced trade with that nation. It was direct trade with China that kept America’s ports open for a period of time. The first American ship to reach China was The Empress of China; its journey was financed by Philadelphia’s Robert Morris, as well as New York investors.

In the decades following the establishment of the port, it had grown. The first landings had been supplanted by docks; these were replaced by longer and deeper docks with warehouses on the inland side. A dirt road had been built on top of the original wharves. 

Stephen Girard had been a successful merchant who lived and conducted business at the docks. When he died in 1831, Girard left the city $500,000 to construct Delaware Avenue along the waterfront.

Changes occur after the Civil War

Worldwide, iron ships powered by steam began to replace wooden sailing vessels. Passenger ships converted before cargo ships; the new ships reduced the time and cost of trips. This key change enabled thousands of immigrants to reach America faster than ever. Many found jobs in Philadelphia’s factories; they built steam engines for industry as well as trains and ships. 

The Port of Philadelphia expanded in both directions from Penn’s original landing point. Importantly, the river channel was deepened to 30 feet in 1889 to accommodate the larger ships calling at the port. Ships were built in the port’s shipyards, and factories in Philadelphia and the surrounding area produced locomotives, men’s and women’s clothing, machine and hand tools, lighting fixtures and soup. Because of the port, materials were imported and finished goods were exported around the world.

The Empress of China. (Image:
The Empress of China. (Image:

Moreover, in the early 1890s 35% of U.S. petroleum exports were refined in or near Philadelphia and then exported on ships using the Philadelphia port.

Railroad service

In 1892 the Belt Line Railroad was created. It was chartered to build and operate 18 miles of track along the center of Delaware Avenue. This allowed all railroads access to the docks and broke the Pennsylvania Railroad’s monopoly. However, with the decline of manufacturing and exports in the second half of the 20th century, many connections to the tracks were removed; the only part of the Belt Line still operating serves the docks south of South Street. 

A section of the Belt Line Railroad. (Photo:
A section of the Belt Line Railroad. (Photo:

Macro-economic changes hurt the port

Once a key U.S. manufacturing center, more and more of Philadelphia’s facilities closed during the second half of the 20th century. Manufacturing shifted to Asia; exports declined dramatically. The U.S. also shifted from exporting to importing oil and petroleum products, leading the Philadelphia-area oil refineries to close. 

Additionally, container ships replaced older breakbulk cargo ships beginning in the late 1950s. Container ships grew larger; the newest versions could not navigate the Delaware River (nor could some of them navigate through the Panama Canal). Ships with Asian cargoes increasingly used ports on the U.S. West Coast. 

New opportunities

Congress approved dredging the Delaware River to a depth of 45 feet south of the Walt Whitman Bridge in 1992. The main channel is now 28 feet deeper than it was when William Penn founded Philadelphia. Widening and other improvements were made to the Panama Canal. Once again there are East Coast options for Asian shippers. In addition to the dredging of the Delaware, Pennsylvania invested $300 million to upgrade the Port of Philadelphia’s docking and storage facilities, including two huge cranes.

In addition, the port expanded its refrigerated storage facilities; it currently handles over 100 million boxes of perishable fruit from South America annually, as well as meat, cocoa beans, coffee, and other food products from the Mediterranean and South Pacific. These products can be shipped in refrigerated trucks to two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada within 48 hours. Also, Philadelphia is the main port of entry for imported Hyundai and Kia automobiles. 

Cargo ships are at dock at the Port of Philadelphia. (Photo:
Cargo ships are docked at the Port of Philadelphia. (Photo:


Until the 20th century, the Port of Philadelphia did well without the oversight of a central governing authority. A wide variety of cargo arrived or departed via the city’s docks, and established the port’s reputation for fast, responsible handling of cargoes, as well as its central role in the prosperity of the city and area.

From 1907 to 1951, the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries had oversight and managed the Philadelphia waterfront. The department was a municipal agency and a division of the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce. It oversaw the construction and maintenance of the city-owned piers and port facilities; it also had some regulatory power for the overall Philadelphia waterfront.

However, like many U.S. ports, the capital-intensive requirements to maintain and improve the Port of Philadelphia (particularly after the containerization trend took hold) were too expensive for the City of Philadelphia.

Therefore, a new agency and a new form of port governance, was created in 1965. The non-profit, quasi-public Philadelphia Port Corporation (PPC) had the authority to issue municipal bonds in order to raise funds for port improvements and expansion. Revenue generated by leasing the port’s facilities to private operating companies was used to pay the bonds’ debt service.

The private companies operated the port facilities they were leasing on a day-to-day basis; they received marketing assistance from the PPC. This model (private operation of publicly owned port facilities supported by marketing and capital assistance from a central public agency) continues in Philadelphia and is used by a number of other ports as well.

A number of key port improvements were made during the 1960s and 1970s by the PPC. Perhaps the most significant were: the 106-acre Packer Avenue Marine Terminal; and the Tioga Marine Terminal.

The Philadelphia Port Corporation model lasted 25 years (1965-89), then it too needed to be modified because of the growth of the port and its needs.

The Port of Philadelphia was (and is) an economic engine for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as the City of Philadelphia. The leaders of the Commonwealth understood the seaport’s vital importance, as well as the financial costs to operate it. Therefore, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority (PRPA), an independent state agency, was established on July 10, 1989.

Following the establishment of the state agency, the PRPA completed needed facility improvement projects at the port in the early 1990s, including: additional on-dock warehouse space at Tioga Marine Terminal; new refrigerated warehouse space at Pier 82; and forest products warehouse at Piers 78 & 80 (as well as a Forest Products Distribution Center).

The Port of Philadelphia was named the nation’s 14th Strategic Military Port by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2002. This designation means it is one of the only U.S. ports permitted to handle the nation’s military cargoes that are moving to various points around the globe.

Cranes along the docks at the Port of Philadelphia help load and unload cargo. (Photo: PhilaPort).
Cranes along the docks at the Port of Philadelphia help load and unload cargo. (Photo: PhilaPort).


For more than 300 years the Port of Philadelphia has been a key economic engine for the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the area surrounding it. A major center of maritime industrial commerce, the Port of Philadelphia has changed dramatically since its founding by William Penn. It continues to adapt to meet the needs of the region and provide jobs, revenue and taxes.

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