Passage to the Sea: The Port’s Rich History

It was the late 19th century In Lake Charles, Louisiana—a prosperous waterside oasis amid what was once a no-man’s land. The lumber business was booming. Agriculture was thriving. Commerce was moving on the waterways.

The fledgling city’s business and community leaders petitioned the U.S. War Department for a deeper channel to better move traffic on the Calcasieu River.

The pleas went unheeded, but others were already taking notice

As early as May 18, 1879, in a newspaper story with the headline “Lake Charles Proposed as Port of Entry,” the New Orleans Picayune reported on the city’s plan to become a mecca for oceangoing vessels. Congress authorized a deputy harbor tax collector for Lake Charles in 1880, but none arrived until a decade later, when the long-awaited official established an office at Calcasieu Pass.

The milestone had been preceded by three-quarters of a century of progress:

  • Lake Charles had been a port of call since the early 1800s for sailing vessels navigating the shallow river to pick up cargoes of lumber.
  • In the late 1800s, cuts were made in the sandbars in Calcasieu Lake, resulting in a dredged channel that was 70 feet wide and 7,500 feet long.
  • The end of the Civil War in 1865 generated unprecedented tremendous demand for Louisiana lumber to rebuild the war-ravaged South. With the greater demand came the need for greater access to the sawmills that sprang up in postbellum Calcasieu Parish.

By the arrival of the 20th century, the lumber industry was declining, in part from the lack of marine transportation on the Calcasieu River. Sandbars made the river impassable to all but shallow-draft schooners.

The hamstrung lumber interests were replaced by a rapidly growing rice industry — but even rice had to be moved, and the emerging industry still created a need for waterborne transportation to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Intracoastal Canal connecting the Calcasieu and Sabine rivers was completed in 1915. It was 20.5 miles long and 12 feet deep, with a 90-foot bottom width.

Southwest Louisiana business leaders saw this as an opportunity to open Calcasieu Parish for commerce.

In 1921, the Louisiana Constitution was changed. Police juries were authorized to fund and initiate public works projects. The same year, the Louisiana Legislature authorized the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury to call a bond election to dredge and widen the Calcasieu River and lake, and to procurement rights of way.

In 1922, the voters in Calcasieu Parish approved the Police Jury’s $2.75 million bond issue to deepen and widen the Calcasieu River from the Intracoastal Canal to Lake Charles—to a depth of 30 feet and a bottom width of 125 feet. The intent was to provide a navigation route through the Intracoastal Canal to the Sabine River and to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District, as it was called—the name endures today—was authorized by Act 67 of the Louisiana Legislature in 1924. It was confirmed by a Constitutional amendment later that year. Additional legislation authorized the District to:

  • Call bond elections.
  • Raise funds to build, operate and maintain port facilities.
  • Be led by a Board of Commissioners appointed by the governor.

The work was about to begin in earnest.

Commissioners quickly began the monumental task of building a terminal facility.

On April 1, 1925, commissioners met with representatives of the three rail lines serving Lake Charles—Southern Pacific, Kansas City Southern and Missouri Pacific—to discuss facilities and the role the rail lines would play in the future of the Port of Lake Charles.

Over the following months, the Board determined the type structures they would need, wharf and docking facilities and other equipment. Funding the projects and finding a location became the next consideration.

A special election was called for July 7, 1925 for $500,000 to build wharves, docks, warehouses, railway facilities and elevators—and put in place related structures, facilities, and equipment—for use in connection with the construction of the port facilities.

In August 1925, the Board authorized levying a 2.5-mill ad valorem tax to cover operating expenses. The Board also authorized its engineer to begin the search for a location for the Port facilities. The Board then voted to acquire property bounded by the Calcasieu River and Contraband Bayou known as the Walnut Grove area.

In September 1926, H.J. Luhn became the first port director. By October, the transit sheds had been accepted as complete and Port Director Luhn was authorized to lease space—not to exceed 100 feet by 70 feet—for storage of rough rice at a rate of a nickel per sack, per month, as space allowed.

On April 2, 1926, the SS Sewalls Point tied up at the Kelly-Weber docks in Lake Charles to discharge 8,205 tons of fertilizer and canned goods worth $102,837.56. The Sewalls Point was the first oceangoing vessel to bring cargo to the newly authorized Port.

Construction of facilities for the emerging Port was still under way and the official opening was months away, but Lake Charles business and community leaders hailed this as the beginning of a new era of prosperity for the Lake area—an era that would see the growth of seagoing vessels steaming up the ship channel to the dock in Lake Charles.

On November 30, 1926, a dream was realized with the formal opening of the Port of Lake Charles.

The ornate Navy vessel USS Cleveland was docked at the newly constructed wharves of the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District for Opening Day ceremonies. Its destination was Bluefields, Nicaragua, but its purpose in Lake Charles was for show and community tours.

In all, ship and channel improvements had cost $5 million. The newly dredged channel was 75 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The trip to the Gulf through the Sabine River was 150 miles long.

The Port opened with two transit sheds and a creosote timber berth. The berth was 824 feet long and 111 feet wide. The transit sheds were steel-frame buildings

covered with sheet iron, with a composition roof. Each shed measured 300 feet long by 70 feet wide. The berths and sheds included two rail lines on the apron designed for handling cargo direct from cars to ship. Depressed tracks on the land side allowed for unloading cargo into transit sheds.

The SS Southlands was officially the first cargo ship to dock at the newly constructed Port facilities.

At the time, Calcasieu Parish-area farmers produced two-thirds of all rice grown in the United States, all within 75 miles of Lake Charles. In addition to the flood of rice paddies, cotton acreage increased to 9,000 acres, producing 5,500 bales of cotton each year.

According to the Port’s opening day program, there were three sawmills and eight retail lumber yards in Lake Charles in 1926. Also, oil was beginning to provide an economic boost to the area’s economy—with seven oil fields in Calcasieu Parish producing approximately 7,000 barrels of oil daily.

Lake Charles was flourishing and with it the Port of Lake Charles. Industrial plants, rice mills and lumber mills were springing up an around the area. Lake Charles was seeing a diverse cargo moving through its area, which had become a viable site for industry. It had raw materials, a port and rail service.

Congressman Rene L. DeRouen and Senator John H. Overton led the fight for congressional approval of funding for the channel. In 1938 these efforts were rewarded when the Commerce Committee amended the Rivers and Harbors spending bill to include $1 million for the Calcasieu River Deep Water Way Project. Congress ultimately appropriated $9.2 million for channel dredging and the Calcasieu jetties, and the bill became law when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Omnibus Rivers and Harbors Bill of 1938. The bill provided for dredging the channel from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of 34 miles, to a depth of 33 feet and to a bottom width of 250 feet.

Dredging was completed and the formal ceremony was held July 12, 1941.

Vessels traveling to Lake Charles could make the trip in seven hours traveling both night and daylight hours, and with care could pass in the widened channel. The newly dredged channel and the outbreak of World War II in Europe sparked a second growth of industry in the Lake area. Mathieson Alkali Plant had located in Lake Charles in 1933, ushering in the modern industry in Lake Charles. During World War II, firms such as Continental Oil, Cities Service, Firestone, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Davison Chemical, Dresser Minerals, Citcon, Hercules, Conalco, Certainteed and others built plants along the Calcasieu River in the Lake Charles area. Ships lined up at the docks to load rice, lumber, walnuts, tires, resin, cotton and numerous other products.

In the 1940s, the Port handled a diverse cargo, including tires and raw rubber to the Firestone plant. The Port also contracted with the U.S. War Department for the storage and handling of military cargo of all types.

In the 1960s, the Board authorized the construction of Bulk Terminal No.1 on the West Bank of the Calcasieu Ship Channel.

The port saw continued construction in the 1970s, reconstitution in the 1980s and again at the dawn of the 2000s, and new leadership here in the 21st century that has worked to position the nearly century-old Port as a continuing cornerstone of the vibrant Southwest Louisiana economy.

THE PORT TODAY

The Port of Lake Charles has anchored the Southwest Louisiana economy for nearly a century. That mission continues in the time ahead.

The Port has come a long way since, say, 1950, when rice was king. Today, it has a far-reaching vision — with a wide-ranging capital projects plan to meet its needs for, say, 2050.

The Port — more formally, the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District and its environs — accounts for a large percentage of local economic revenue and more than $34 million in annual Lake Charles tax revenue.

The District is more than just the port facilities that might first come to mind, such as the main entrance, rail trail and administrative offices situated at the end of West Sallier Street. It actually covers more than 200 square miles in Calcasieu Parish and operates 5,400-plus acres.

Among the Port-related operations up and down the waterway are two jewel boxes that provide thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic impact: L’Auberge Casino Resort and Golden Nugget Lake Charles. Both stand on leased waterside property. The Port is literally the landlord.

Cargo and industrial facilitation, however, are the daily meat-and-potatoes work of the Port team.

The key to global Port access is the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which offers a world-class route to and from the Gulf of Mexico.

“We work hard to make sure our facilities and our services make economic sense for companies wanting to move cargo through an efficient transportation hub on the U.S. Gulf Coast,” Port Executive Director Bill Rase has said.

To accomplish that, Rase and the Port team are looking to the future to meet new challenges in the coming generation.

“Southwest Louisiana booms with room to grow and move product,” Business Facilities reports. The magazine cites the Port and Ship Channel as among the reasons.

To understand where things are, it’s telling to see where things used to be. Let’s revisit the Port’s 1950 scenario, for example.

That year, the Port handled more than two-thirds of the rice harvested in mid-20th-century America. Today, the port handles a much wider variety of cargoes — for industrial and commercial purposes, not just local agricultural yields. Global trade vessels once earned local headlines for the novelty of their visits; today, they’re commonplace visitors. Rice, though, remains a very important cargo even as the Port handles a more diversified cargo base that it did in the 1950s.

Business and industry needs have changed. The Port has evolved with the changing times — and the value of capital improvement projects that were completed a half-century ago helped make the Port the economic facilitator it is today.

Further, Rase said, The Port is looking ahead with plans that make the 2050 version of the Port far different from the one of 1950.

The keys, he says, are capital improvement projects that accommodate more diverse cargoes, new transport processes and even the sheer weight-load capacity of docks, which Rase says must be multiple times stronger to meet demands.

There’s an unprecedented industrial boom in Southwest Louisiana and the Port is right in the thick of it.

The formal term is “industrial announcements,” used in places like the economic forecasts of longtime Louisiana economist Loren Scott. But even Scott translates that into the real result: “Jobs.” His most recent look at the area notes that the five-parish Southwest Louisiana region “has garnered an astounding $116.8 billion in industrial announcements since 2012 … and is expected to continue in its role as the fastest growing (market) in the state, adding 4,000 jobs (+3.3 percent) in 2019 and anotther 5,300 jobs (+4.3 percent) in 2020.”

Those projects include billions of dollars in expansion and new construction by industries who intend to build — or have already gone vertical — along the Calcasieu Ship Channel and at the Port of Lake Charles. The bulk of this work is ethylene plants and liquefied natural gas, or LNG. That’s how the Port and Ship Channel facilitate major industrial announcements that build the over dollar figure at what Scott describes as “an unheard-of number.”

In Southwest Louisiana, “LNG” is three-letter shorthand for part of the boom. So is “gas” in general.

Various natural gas enterprises in Texas and Louisiana have “roared back to life,” the Houston Chronicle reported, “thanks to higher natural gas prices and a slew of new liquefied natural gas export terminals coming online along the Gulf Coast.” The Calcasieu Ship Channel is a major component in this trend.

The Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District is the 12th-busiest port district in the nation, based on tonnage, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition to the 56 million tons of cargo (inbound and outbound) handled along the ship channel, another five million tons of cargo are loaded and unloaded yearly at these Port of Lake Charles terminals:

The City Docks, which can accommodate up to a dozen ships at a time.
The Automated Terminal at the City Docks, with machinery connected to a 189,000-square-foot warehouse.
Bulk Terminal No. 1, which handles more than 3.1 million metric tons of dry bulk material annually.
Terminal BT-4, which specializes in aggregate and moves 1 million metric tons each year.
More could be coming.

The multipurpose shipping market — which includes breakbulk cargo, like the kinds handled at the Port — will show improvement in 2019, researchers for Drewry are forecasting. Maritime Executive reports that the new year “has started with renewed optimism … we believe a steady growth of around 2 to 3 percent per year is possible.”

Natural gas pipeline projects are cited as one of the reasons for the optimism.

“Waterways are crucial for global trade and the economy,” notes Nasdaq in a report on world shipping commerce. “The global marine port and service market is expected to reach an estimated $87.8 billion by 2023.”

Fortune magazine has ranked Lake Charles the seventh-fastest growing port in the country.

With its current volume, coupled with its ambitious multi-year plan of substantial capital improvements, the Port plans to push the number even higher.