The Historic Harbors

A couple of weeks ago I attended a leadership retreat where a speaker touted the longtime importance of Hampton Roads as a harbor and host to very important events in American history. This got me thinking: what are the most historic harbors in the history of the United States?

After considerable deliberation, here is my list of the top harbors in American history. The focus is on the body of water, not on the port city. Harbors were judged by longevity of importance, critical events they hosted, and general importance to the U.S. today.

Here goes.

Honorable mention II: Tokyo Bay. Two key events regarding U.S. involvement in Asia occurred here. Matthew Perry’s mission to Japan 1853-54 altered Asian history and was an important moment for the U.S. Navy as a global force. In 1945 the Japanese surrender occurred on the deck of the USS Missouri anchored in the harbor, which helped forge a partnership between Japan and the United States that endures to this day.

Honorable mention I: The South and West English Coast – Portsmouth to Liverpool. These harbors merit collective mention because for so many years they were (and are) departure points between Britain and Europe to the Americas. One end of the 1700s Iron Triangle located here, and since 1607 immigrants have left this area for the U.S. The commerce is not one way, as these are transshipment points from the Americas to Europe. Most notably in the World Wars, convoys from North America came in to Liverpool and Bristol. The south coast harbors also were the departure points of millions of U.S. troops to France from D-Day on 6 June 1944 to the German surrender in May 1945. Lastly, Liverpool hosted the surrender of CSS Shenandoah, last Confederate force on Earth, on 6 November 1865.

5. Manila. One of the finest harbors in Asia, Manila and its bay hosted three major American battles. The U.S. victory here on 1 May 1898 made the U.S. a world power and an Asian colonial power. During U.S. rule of the Philippines, Manila’s harbor became one of the busiest in all Asia. The Battles of Bataan and Corregidor in 1941 and 1942 resulted in a terrible defeat, but the gallant stand inspired the Allied world and helped define Filipino national identity. The horrifically destructive Battle of Manila in 1945 still scars the city today and reduced the port’s importance relative to other places less damaged by the war (like Hong Kong). Until 1973 the U.S. Navy maintained an important base at Sangley Point, and even today uses Manila and Subic Bay as a key visiting port.

4. Charleston. Gateway to the southeastern United States and one of the most important colonial ports, Charleston Harbor has long been a key location along the Atlantic Seaboard. It hosted several clashes during the War for Independence. The Civil War started in Charleston Harbor, it hosted several battles throughout virtually the entire war, and the first successful submarine operated out of there.

3. Pearl Harbor. The events of 7 December 1941 loom large in this ranking, but are not the entire story. Ever since the U.S. began interacting with Hawaii, Pearl Harbor has been the key connection point. Since annexation, it has been an essential outpost of American power in the Pacific, a status it fully maintains today.

2. Hampton Roads. This body of water in southeastern Virginia is one of the finest natural harbors in the world. Since 1607 and Jamestown it has been an active harbor, making it one of the oldest in North America. It hosted important events in the War for Independence, War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II. Hampton Roads was a key port of embarkation from both World Wars, including 1942’s Operation Torch. Since 1917 it is home to the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk. The first clash of ironclad warships occurred here in 1862, along with the arrival of the first permanent English settlers, the first slaves, and the first bridge-tunnel complex constructed in the world. It is today the second-busiest port on the East Coast.

1. New York. For most of U.S. history, New York was the busiest and most important port in the world; it remains the busiest port in on the East Coast. It is a key connection point with the world and arguably the most famous U.S. harbor. New York Harbor is part of American culture, from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to countless movies filmed there, to 9/11.

I welcome your reactions in the comments below.

Illustration: Convoy routes in the Western Atlantic, 1942-43.

20 Responses to The Historic Harbors

    1. Ranks in the next 5 based on less longevity, less critical events, and less relative importance to these others in the 20th Century.

  1. One that comes to mind for me, though admittedly it does not meet the tests for longevity and relevance to the USA today, is Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Throughout most of the 60s and the early 70s, it was absolutely crucial to the US war effort in Vietnam. The news reports that came forth from Vietnam each week always seemed to have some mention of it. It’s name will always invoke that long, drawn out tragedy that was the Vietnam War.

    1. San Francisco ranks with New Orleans. In terms of longevity, it gets a relatively late start compared to at least 4 of the 5 on this list. True, San Francisco was an essential port from the Gold Rush through at least World War II, but today not even the most busy or important port in California – that honor goes to Long Beach. San Diego has also passed it in terms of military importance. Those factors dropped it in to the second 5.

  2. I vote for Tokyo Bay only because of all the military I’ve seen deployed there to try (unsuccessfully) to repulse attacks by Godzilla. 😉

    On a more serious note, what about Boston? I think it’s overall military role has been relatively small compared to others on your list, but I think its symbolic importance looms large in American memory because of a certain tea party.

    1. LOL good one, Chris.

      Boston was not included because it lacked longevity and enduring importance as a harbor on the national stage. Boston would probably fall into the “second 5” because of the events in the 1770s and colonial importance. Before 1800, Boston was one of the (if not the) most important ports on the East Coast, but it fades as New York surges ahead in the early 1800s and never really regains the national stature it once had.

      Like cities (see my Second City post), harbors rise and fall in importance. These ones I included have had enduring national-level importance to the U.S. and its position in the world.

      1. Boston would’ve been one of my nominees, but I see your point too. Just for the sake of arguing (LOL), how about New Bedford? 19th Century whaling capital of the world after Nantucket’s decline. A lot of economic profit came through that harbor that literally fueled the country in the first half of the 19th Century and continued to strengthen the U.S. maritime industries.

  3. One could argue that the Shenandoah never surrendered. Former Rebels just sailed into neutral Liverpool harbor seven months after Appomattox, dropped anchor, lowered the last banner, and (after some British bureaucratic fuss) walked off the ship.

    1. It was not a surrender to U.S. forces like what occurred on land. Nonetheless, the Shenandoah’s officers and crew ceased military operations and handed over their unit to the control of another power for disposition. The British let the crew go free, but the ship ceased to exist as a fighting unit.

  4. New Orleans, i.e., the point where the Mississippi River discharges into the Gulf of Mexico, certainly was a significant Nineteenth Century port. I know you limited yourself to seven, but what is your view of the importance of that harbor? A lot of the production from the center of the country came down the Mississippi and still does.

    1. This list is a Top 5 with two ones that I felt deserved inclusion as honorable mentions. New Orleans is one of the most important harbors of the 19th Century, you’re absolutely right. But it fades somewhat as the 20th Century passes – today, while a busy and important port, it is not even the busiest or most important on the Gulf Coast (that is Houston, which took the crown after WWII). That, plus its relatively later start compared to several ports on this list, causes New Orleans to lose ground on longevity and relative importance today. The harbor also hosted relatively few critical events compared to the others on this list. I’d put it in the “second 5” with Boston.

  5. I’m not sure how Charleston gets its ranking since one of the three factors is importance today. Charleston’s importance – at least in a way that sets it apart – effectively ended 150 years ago. And during the Civil War it seems to me that Wilmington and New Orleans should get equal billing. Charleston may have had Fort Sumter but there’s a reason the Union targeted New Orleans in early 1862. There’s also a reason the Brits targeted it in late 1814-15. By 1864 I’d argue that Mobile probably was in the mix, as well. Nice restaurants and annual festival, though. (:

    1. A little known fact is that Charleston remains among the busiest ports on the East Coast today – ranking 3 or 4 depending on how it is scored. For virtually its entire existence, Charleston has been among the top 5 ports on the U.S. Atlantic coast. Charleston also was an important U.S. Navy base until the end of the Cold War.

      1. i didn’t know that. Thanks. After checking, it appears that today New Orleans ranks 7th (and that’s excluding the Port of South Louisiana just up the River, which is 1st), Charleston 34th, and Boston 35th. So I still think Charleston’s getting a bit of a break here vs. New Orleans. The latter also was a primary driving factor in the 1803 deal which added what today is a vast chunk of the lower 48.

  6. How about Buffalo or Cleveland? Your requirements did not mention anything about having to be seaports. The Erie Canal and Great Lakes have been and are important? Would they rank on your list? Just came to me as I was reading comment. Thanks for the article so much to think about.

    1. Good point. The Great Lakes are important, no question. Much of what I said about San Francisco can also apply to them. I did consider Chicago for this list.

  7. Not mentioned in your summary of the importance of the port of Hampton Roads is that it is the home of Newport News Shipbuilding, founded in 1886, and currently the largest shipyard in the United States. NNS is the sole builder of aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy, and is one of two yards (the other being Electric Boat in Groton, CT) that builds submarines for the U.S. Navy.

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