Ask McGehee

What is the history of the state docks?

Postcard of the Alabama State Docks, ca. 1940

The now-named Alabama State Port Authority had a rocky start back in 1908 when a group of Mobilians established a committee to investigate needed improvements for the city’s port. That group reported that the wharves were inadequate and that there were not enough warehouses, loading facilities or rail services. A resolution was passed declaring that “shipping is the most important feature of the city’s commercial life.”

That report was the beginning of a 15-year conflict between the port and upstate opponents. In 1915, the committee made an appeal to the state legislature for assistance but received no response.  

The following year, the seven-member State Harbors Commission was formed with appointments from the governor. This commission had control over the state’s rivers as well as its deep water harbor in Mobile. Unfortunately, the organization was given a very small budget and was plagued by political infighting.

The impasse may have continued had it not been for the effects of World War I. The federal government realized the nation’s ports needed vast improvements, and Congress authorized the secretary of war to withhold federal funds from ports unable to handle increased traffic.  

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Spreading the Word

Congressman John McDuffie spent three months traveling the state and urging support for the state’s investment in Mobile’s docks and terminals. Governor Thomas Kilby was convinced of the importance of Mobile’s port facilities to the state’s economy and arranged for a campaign adding an amendment to Alabama’s constitution creating the state docks.

The first effort in 1920 failed in a statewide vote but, in 1922, with the backing of Birmingham steel magnate George Crawford, the amendment was approved by voters and ultimately signed into law by the legislature the next year. A $10 million state bond issuance was approved to be used for the facility’s construction (roughly $151 million in 2021). 

A Panama Canal Connection

Retired General William L. Seibert, a native of Gadsden who had been responsible for building much of the Panama Canal, accepted the monumental task of overseeing the project, which encompassed 540 acres of swampland just north of downtown Mobile.

The new state docks were completed in 1927 and were considered one of the most modern facilities in the country. The three steel and concrete piers could accommodate 18 ships at once, and a railroad connected the docks to five different rail lines. Within just two years, Mobile boasted more than 50 facilities able to load and unload ships, as well as 32 wharves with rail access.

By 1937, the number of wharves was up to 55 with a combined length of 50,200 feet. In addition to attracting national firms like ALCOA and International Paper to the area, farmers and those in the seafood industry found the quicker shipment of their products a boon.

McDuffie served five terms in Congress and assisted with numerous improvements to the port. As a result of his efforts, McDuffie Island was named in his memory following his 1950 death.

The docks have grown with the times and today include a very successful container terminal and a soon-to-be completed “roll-on, roll-off” terminal to serve automakers. A massive new freezer complex will aid in the exportation of poultry from Alabama.

The Port Authority has recently announced plans to spend $45 million in improvements to the McDuffie Coal Terminal. Surely the congressman would be proud to see how large and successful a port Mobile has become over the last century.

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