Shipping in Virginia

one of the first industries in the colony of Virginia was shipbuilding
one of the first industries in the colony of Virginia was shipbuilding
Source: National Park Service, Boat Building at Jamestown (painting by Sidney E. King)

Native Americans in Virginia made canoes that were stable enough for crossing the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore. Human muscle propelled those canoes; Virginia's first inhabitants did not develop the technology of sailing ships powered by wind.

shipping by canoe was common long before European colonists arrived
shipping by canoe was common long before European colonists arrived
Source: Federal Highway Administration, 1607 The Indian Canoe (painting by Carl Rakeman)

The Spanish priests in 1570 and the English colonists in 1607 arrived by ship. The trees in Virginia that were the raw material for canoes became the raw material for building sailing ships. Shipyards were a common site along the coastline.

In the 1900's, there were still shipyards at Alexandria and Quantico on the Potomac River. The shipbuilding industry continues today, most notably in the construction of aircraft carriers and submarines at Newport News. In addition, various shipyards on the Elizabeth River repair commercial as well as military ships, and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (in Portsmouth) business from the US Navy is constant.

ship maintainance and repair is a major business along the Elizabeth River
ship maintenance and repair is a major business along the Elizabeth River
ship maintenance and repair is a major business along the Elizabeth River
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, IMG_4644 and IMG_4624

Since 1607, Virginia has always been engaged in international trade using ships constructed in other places. Modern tankers and container ships export products such as coal, soybeans, and tobacco. Imports of containerized cargo and bulk materials arrive at Hampton Roads ports, primarily.

containerized shipping revolutionized Virginia's port operations starting in the 1960's
containerized shipping revolutionized Virginia's port operations starting in the 1960's
Source: City of Norfolk, Norfolk From the Air

The Commonwealth of Virginia has consolidated control of the terminals that handle containerized cargo. The Virginia Port Athority owns or leases all the facilities where consumer goods from China and Europe are unloaded, though private companies still control individual shipping terminals for coal, petroleum, and grain. Consolidation has increased efficiency, allowing the state to schedule loading/unloading where space will be available.

The state even owns the chassis used to move containers from ships to rail cars or trucks. Having the state allocate all the chassis helps minimize congestion. In the "bad old days" when shippers owned the chassis, it was common for one company to have a shortage while another company's surplus supply sat idle.

In 2021, a supply chain interruption causes ships to wait long times at Wst Coast ports to unload. Few ships were delayed at Virginia ports, in part because ships stopped first at Miami/Savannah or New York before hopping along the coast to Norfolk/Newport News. Any delays occurred at the first East Coast port where ships stopped, not at Virginia in the middle of the Atlantic Coast visits.

Another reason for the smooth operations in Virginia was that it was the only place in North America in 2021 where the port owned the chassis pool. A National Public Radio story explored the history behind that unique situation:1

It all started when the Port of Virginia realized they had all these chassis floating around the terminals. This was in about 2007, and... the chassis were owned and managed by each different ocean carrier, each brand. So when one ocean carrier wasn't busy, their chances would just sit there. And the Port of Virginia was like, this is super inefficient.

...So they told the ocean carriers, listen, let us take your chassis. We will pool them and manage them for you. This way, Virginia could mix and match the chassis from a central pool.

...And a lot of the ocean carriers agreed to do this, but some were reluctant. So the Port of Virginia told them, you are more than welcome to operate the old way and manage your own chassis, but you just can't keep them on our terminal. Which meant, practically, the ocean carriers would have to go find a field, buy or rent it, pave it, put a fence around it, maintain it, manage it and transport the chassis to and from the port. So once they figured all that out, they were like, oh, no, yeah, take our chassis. That's fine.

...So the Port of Virginia created their chassis pool. They now own 16,000.

In 2020, the largest container ship ever to visit the East Coast to that time stopped at the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal. It could carry 15,072 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units at one time, but such vessels top at multiple ports to load/unload just a portion of their cargo. At the Portsmouth terminal, port workers moved 3,300 containers from the ship as imported goods, or onto it for export.2

massive container ships stop at the three terminals of the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads
massive container ships stop at the three terminals of the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads
Source: I-564 Intermodal Connector Project, Project Fact Sheet

In 2022, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in the Department of Homeland Security shifted oversight of Virginia ports and airports from its Atlanta office to Baltimore. That consolidated responsibility for customs and security for the Chesapeake Bay in one office. The Area Port of Norfolk-Newport News remained unchanged, except it reported to a different office after the shift.3

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

Colonial Shipping and Town Development in Tidewater

Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area and Craney Island Marine Terminal (CIMT)

Cruise Ships in Virginia

Hampton Roads Transportation Planning

Lighthouses in Virginia

Marking and Dredging Navigation Channels in Virginia

Getting Here and Getting Around - Native American Transportation in Virginia

Port Cities

Ports in Virginia

Potomac River Water Taxis - and Commuter Ferry?

Railroad Access and Hampton Roads Shipping Terminals

Hampton Roads Shipping Channels and Port Competition

Steamboats in Virginia

the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency office overseeing Virginia ports was in Atlanta until a shift in 2022 to Baltimore
the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency office overseeing Virginia ports was in Atlanta until a shift in 2022 to Baltimore
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Norfolk-Newport News, Virginia - 1401

Links

colonial waterfronts were industrial areas of a town, with wharves and warehouses
colonial waterfronts were industrial areas of a town, with wharves and warehouses
Source: National Park Service, Colonial Yorktown Waterfront (painting by Sidney E. King)

a pre-World War II postcard shows a ferry that ran between the Eastern Shore and Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
a pre-World War II postcard shows a ferry that ran between the Eastern Shore and Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
Source: Boston Public Library, S. S. Pocahontas, automobile and passenger transport between Kiptopeke Beach and (Little Creek) Va., Norfolk, Virginia

References

1. "Of boats and boxes," National Public Radio, November 17, 2021, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1056299014 (last checked December 2, 2021)
2. "Biggest ship to ever dock on East Coast lands at Port of Virginia," WAVY, September 22, 2020, https://www.wavy.com/news/local-news/norfolk/biggest-ship-ever-to-dock-on-east-coast-lands-at-port-of-virginia/ (last checked September 23, 2020)
3. "Customs shifts oversight of Virginia ports, airports to Baltimore," Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 1, 2022, https://richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/customs-shifts-oversight-of-virginia-ports-airports-to-baltimore/article_6589df50-476b-50cb-acf7-26cb6faf9358.html (last checked July 3, 2022)

Norfolk honors its nautical history with a statue of a sailor at Freemason Harbor
Norfolk honors its nautical history with a statue of a sailor at Freemason Harbor


From Feet to Space: Transportation in Virginia
Virginia Places