How the Delaware River works

Photography by Ed Hille

By Linda Harris
For PlanPhilly

The general cargo ship Umiavut slipped into the Port of Philadelphia’s waters just after midnight when the river flowed inky and most of the city was drifting into dreamland. Two tugboats met the Amsterdam-based vessel at the Walt Whitman Bridge, guiding the Umiavut to its parking place next to Pier 84, near Columbus Avenue and Porter Street.
By mid-morning, cranes and men were making serious headway in unburdening the ship’s hold of burlap bags laden with 5,300 metric tons of cocoa beans from Africa’s Ivory Coast.
By afternoon of the next day, the Umiavut’s hold would still be redolent of cocoa, but only a scattering of the bean’s auburn dust would be left in the hold. After a bit of restocking of staples and grub, and a few repairs, the ship would be on its way to burden itself again with scrap steel, fertilizer or grain, whatever might be ready for a trip across the high seas.
The Umiavut is just one of about 1,000 ships that make port calls at Philadelphia’s public piers each year, generating thousands of jobs and supporting hundreds of jobs and businesses.
According to William B. McLaughlin III of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority container traffic at the port is projected to increase, and already there are 5 million tons of cargo arriving each year in the port and generating (conservatively) $290 million in revenue, according to the 2005 Economic Impact Figures for PRPA Facilities, the latest available.
Throughout the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, the river and its industry contributes, in a conservative estimate, $4 billion to the regional economy, according to Dennis Rochford, president of the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River and Bay
His figures are somewhat dated, he said, compiled in 1991, the last time his organization conducted a comprehensive study of the economic impact of the river’s commerce in the tri-state area.
The Delaware provides a stream of income for stevedores, longshoremen, captains and sailors, chandlers, truck drivers and pier managers. It also feeds the pockets of fumigators and exterminators who keep the storage buildings free of unwanted guests, real estate agents who lease the buildings for storage, fuel suppliers, parts suppliers, doctors, lawyers and cargo inspectors, government regulators. All told, about 75,000 jobs are generated by commerce up and down the Delaware River, Rochford said, about 6,000 of them linked directly to the Port of Philadelphia, according to McLaughhlin.
The jobs on the waterfront have supported generations of families, such as that of Rozell “Disco Joe” Randolph of West Oak Lane, a member of the International Longshoreman’s Association Local 1291 for 34 years. He supported his family and raised two children working on the river. Now his 32-year-old son works as a longshoreman, too.
“We make the economy go,” Randolph said.
“We handle goods that come from all around the world. The point of entry is through the waterfront.
“We have one of the highest standards as far as trying to maintain jobs and benefits for employees. I can support the family and future families. We’ve been in existence since the arrival of America. It’s all about the global market now.”
Ten public piers operate within or bordering the seven mile stretch of riverfront from Penn Treaty Park to Oregon Avenue that is being studied by Penn Praxis in its effort to come up with a comprehensive plan for the best uses of the Central Delaware River waterfront.
In addition to Pier 84 and its cocoa specialty, Pier 82 handles fruits and vegetables. Piers 38, 40, 78 and 80 handle newsprint and other forest products. Pier 96 and the 98 Annex receive autos, trucks and other heavy equipment. Packer Marine Terminal is versatile, handling everything from steel products to frozen meats. And Tioga Marine Terminal is noted for its concentration on Chilean fruits.
The 10 public piers are land-hungry, occupying nearly 400 acres of the Pennsylvania side of the waterfront, according to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. Pier 84’s terminal area, for example, occupies 23 acres, and the need for more storage area has pushed the company to lease warehouse space as far away as West Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.
Right now, the city, Penn Praxis and the Philadelphia community are engaged in studying the riverfront so that a plan to be presented later this year to the city will incorporate the lucrative commercial uses of the river with other options such as recreation and residential development, as well as room for two forthcoming casinos.
Russell Davis, sales manager for Carisam-Samuel Meisel & Co., a chandler in Bridesburg, is one of the people whose fortunes are directly linked to those of the river’s commerce. While chandlers stock ships with everything from lettuce to spare machine parts, Carisam’s specialty is duty-free goods such as cigarettes and booze.
The business has seen a bit of a downturn because of smaller crews and faster loading and unloading of ships with the use of cranes. Still, Davis said, the local branch of the company managed last year to stock incoming ships with 4,000 cases of Johnny Walker Red, the most popular of the 25 scotches they offer. Since many crews are not allowed on shore since Sept. 11, 2001, happy hour, by necessity, is on board. A ship might take on 200 cases of beer, for example, depending on from where the crew hails. “Germans buy more beer, less wine. Italians buy more wine, less beer,” Davis said.
Davis emphasizes the importance of the shipping industry to Philadelphia. “Eighty percent of everything we touch comes through this point. Think of the numbers of containers you see. Everything comes by container.”
Even as the Umiavut was shedding its aromatic cargo, Davis was preparing a captain’s order to be delivered to the ship: 2 cases of cigarettes (25 cartons to the case), 60 cases of beer, 5 cases of wine and 7 cases combined of rum, brandy and whiskey.
In late February, at Pier 84, there will be back-to-back arrivals of two even larger ships, again hauling cocoa beans. The pier was revived six years ago by Harvey Weiner, president of Dependable Distribution Services, and now is the entry point for most of the East Coast’s cocoa beans. These beans supply most of the chocolatiers on the East Coast.
Dennis Dribin, controller for Dependable, said that when a ship arrives, at least 100 people go to work. His company employs a combination of union and nonunion workers. Since Dependable also provides lunch and dinner for the crews, the lunch truck down the street goes into overdrive and does a nifty business. About $100,000 worth of provisions are brought to the ship, Dribin said, and while Dribin is explaining all of this, a real estate agent shows up with a lease for another warehouse, which Dependable needs for its flourishing business.
Richard S. Gorodesky, the real estate broker with Colliers Lanard & Axilbund, said he is concerned that much of the waterfront and nearby lands will be converted to residences, shoving aside the commercial shipping interests. “The issue is these are properties that some people want to convert to residences at the expense of commerce. The reason that Philadelphia is a successful city is because of its diversity. Let’s not change that.”
Already, Dribin said, Dependable has been pushed far afield for warehouses because there’s no land available nearby. He says this drives up the cost of doing business.
“Land is important to us. There’s room for both,” he said. “The more beans that come into Philadelphia, the more jobs created. We’d like to see the waterfront stay industrial. We’ve been in the position where we had to turn ships away,” he said, due to lack of storage space. “There has to be a balance on the waterfront. We can do more with better facilities.”
It’s not just cargo ships that appreciate the Delaware River. Once spring arrives, the river becomes a hub for cruise lines Norwegian and Royal Caribbean as well as the RiverLink Ferry operated by the Delaware River Port Authority
One of the most controversial subjects associated with the Delaware is the plan to deepen the river’s navigational channel to 45 feet. Advocates say the dredging of the channel is absolutely necessary to keep the port competitive with others on the East Coast. But environmentalists are concerned that the big dig will loosen toxic sediments and harm the fish and other sea life. On the table since 1991, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Congress authorized the deepening of the river, the job has never been completed because of disagreements between Pennsylvania and New Jersey over who will pay and who will accept the fill that would be displaced by the digging. The channel is currently 40 feet deep, but advocates say it needs to be deeper to accommodate the needs of newer ships.
Gov. Corzine of New Jersey and Gov. Rendell of Pennsylvania are locked in an impasse over who will pay for what, though Rendell has promised to accept the dredged-up fill and pay for any costs overrun, according to a New York Times story by Richard G. Jones (Jan. 3, 2007).
Dredging is of utmost importance, said the Maritime Exchange’s Rochford. And, it’s also important to invest in the infrastructure of the port, he said.
“We need to be sure that we preserve enough land and access in support of port operations. If you want to get right down to it, from retail to residential to traffic and all that — there’s one river and it’s the Delaware River. We’re the fourth largest port in the United States and the largest freshwater port in the world. Philadelphia and Pennsylvania needs to invest in the port infrastructure and support it.”
It is the goal of Penn Praxis to ensure that the riverfront meets its highest and best use, to borrow a real estate phrase, for all interested parties. To that end, it will continue to hold public meetings to give the people who live near the river an opportunity to express their hopes and dreams for the riverfront and to offer up their ideas.

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