Port Newark’s Container Shipping Origins

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Credits: Max Zhang/Unsplash
    Richard J. Kelly for Community News source about Port Newark and the Origins of Container Shipping.

Rutgers University professor Dr. Angus Gillespie 

Rutgers University professor Dr. Angus Gillespie takes delight in making the things we take for granted in New Jersey come alive.

Gillespie, who recently retired from being a coordinator of the annual New Jersey Folk Festival, set for April 29 (see U.S. 1’s “NJ Folk Festival in New Hands and New Format”), taught summer school courses in American studies up until just a few years ago.

Rutgers professor Angus Gillespie is the author of a new book on the history of Port Newark.

His way of making mundane course subjects come to life can be found in his award-winning books for Rutgers University Press.

In his first, “Looking for America on The New Jersey Turnpike,” co-authored with colleague Michael Aaron Rockland, Gillespie explains how the now iconic roadway was funded and built in the early 1950s.

What does the book include?

The book includes entertaining and funny anecdotes and interviews with those involved in building and working on a roadway designed from the outset as a function-over-form road.

Their recounting brings the roadway so alive that the New Jersey State Library declared the book among the 10 best books ever written about New Jersey.

Rockland mentions that honor in his introduction to Gillespie’s newest book, “Port Newark and the Origins of Container Shipping.” [Rutgers University Press, October, 2022]

Gillespie’s other books for Rutgers Press include “Crossing Under the Hudson,” the 2011 book about the construction of the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, and “Twin Towers,” about the construction of the World Trade Center. Released in 1999, it became one of Rutgers University Press’s most successful book after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

[Full disclosureI was paid for basic microfilm research at East Brunswick Public Library to initiate work on “Twin Towers.” That research included every single New York Times article about the funding and construction of the World Trade Center going back to when funding was first approved for the iconic towers and five other buildings in 1960. Gillespie and I also made field trips together to the site.]

In “Port Newark,” Gillespie examines — among other things — the diversity of products we purchase from numerous local stores that is all thanks in part to the development of uniform containers for the ships that haul millions of products from Japan, Taiwan and mainland China.

“In the early 1990s I was teaching summer school courses at Rutgers,” Gillespie says from his home in East Brunswick about the genesis of the book. “Rutgers summer school was keenly aware that many students go out of state to college and come home during the summers. They were trying to come up with courses that would be attractive for these out-of-state students.”

He says that around the same time he began accompanying Rockland, then chair of the American Studies Department, on the field trips that he planned for his four-week “Urban Adventure” mini-course.

Those field trips consisted of three consecutive Friday bus trips to Jersey City, New York City, and Philadelphia.

After a number of such trips, Rockland suggested that Gillespie start his own course. The result was one called “Maritime Adventure.”

Gillespie says he followed Rockland’s class model of one all day classroom presentation and three field trips to three different places.

“One field trip was the Coast Guard Station at Sandy Hook, a second trip was to South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan, and a third trip was to Port Newark and the Elizabeth Marine Terminal. All of this was new to me, so in organizing this course at the time I reached out to some colleagues at other places that had a record of maritime education,” he says.

One consistent recommendation was that Gillespie contact the Seaman’s Church Institute, where he made friends with a number of chaplains in lower Manhattan and at Port Newark.

“Port Newark and the Origins of Container Shipping” by Angus Gillespie.

“I really wanted to show my students around Port Newark and Elizabeth Marine Terminal, but I didn’t really know how to go about it,” he says.

“We’d get off the bus and go into the auditorium, and one of chaplains would give a little talk about the history of Port Newark. Then the chaplain and I would get on the bus with the students, and the bus would drive around the port and he would point things out. Over time, by paying attention to the chaplains, I would point things out myself, and in the process I really got fascinated. In the back of my mind, I had this book idea.”

Gillespie’s historical, anecdote-filled, long-view look at the evolution of Port Newark and its expansion into Elizabeth waters in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s is important for residents of central New Jersey who are still confused about the value of all this new storage space in close proximity to highways like Route 130, Route 1, and Routes 195 and 295.

Gillespie says research for “Port Newark” was postponed after September 2001 and the interest in the “Twin Towers” update.

Additionally, new security concerns and procedures instituted at past field trip locations, such as Earle Naval Weapons Station in Colts Neck and Port Newark, slowed down the process.

However, the Gillespie’s background suggests an understanding.

The son of a U.S. Navy flight surgeon father and high school English teacher mother, Gillespie earned his undergraduate degree at Yale and his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught high school in Philadelphia for a time before coming to Rutgers in 1973, where he launched the New Jersey Folk Festival in 1975.

Asked about the process for creating “Port Newark” at a talk he gave at the Monroe Township Library in late February, Gillespie says he signed a contract to deliver the book by spring of 2022 in 2018. He credits Rutgers for giving him time off from teaching responsibilities to research and write the book.

He adds that although he had conducted several initial interviews, he began to experience trouble getting others to agree, thinking he was planning some sort of expose on Port Newark, “but in most cases, people were pleased to be approached as they had a story to tell. They were pleased with the attention they were getting. There was one conspicuous exception: One time I was interviewing the president of a small trucking company that was engaged in the business of hauling containers from the port to the local warehouses. It became apparent to him that I didn’t know much about the nature of that business . . . He was kind of annoyed with me because I was asking so many dumb questions. He said, ‘Come back when you know what you’re talking about!’”

Much of the book centers around Malcolm McLean, who worked with a banker, an engineer, and others to develop the universal, standard shipping containers that we see stacked on ships at Port Newark as we drive by on the Turnpike.

Interestingly, McLean was in the trucking industry and was not a ship expert at all.

“He started out with one truck in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1936,” says Gillespie. “One day he was driving up to Port Newark with a truckload of cotton to be unloaded onto a ship in Bayonne. He fell in line with the other trucks, it was nearing Thanksgiving, and the longshoreman were all unloading trucks box by box, barrel by barrel, and he was getting frustrated because he wanted to turn around and head back to North Carolina.

“He’s thinking, ‘Why don’t we just come up with a way to put the whole truck bed right on the ship? Then we don’t have to wait around anymore.’ That was the genesis of the idea, but it would take another 20 years, until 1956, for standardized containers for ships to begin to be produced.”

Naval architect Charles Cushing

McLean began seeking experts and encountered Keith Tantlinger, who developed the uniform, standardized containers that could be detached from the cabs of trucks and loaded on to ships and stacked one on top of the other.

Other key people were Naval architect Charles Cushing, who proposed using old tanker ships and putting a framework on top of the deck so ships could be modified inexpensively to accept the containers; Walter Risdon, an ambitious young National City Bank of New York banker who saw the brilliance of the idea and arranged financing; and civil engineer Ron Tatums.

The team began to manufacture and use these uniform shipping containers, and McLean’s Sea Land Corporation began to grow quickly — so quickly they had to expand Port Newark into the Elizabeth Marine Terminal, and it was Tatums who quickly designed the southward expansion of Port Newark into the Elizabeth waterfront.

Gillespie says, “I once asked Tatums, ‘How did you design this? How did you expand the place so quickly?’ He said, ‘Well, I started with a piece of paper.’”

McLean was already a wealthy man at the helm of Sea Land Corporation, so after Tantlinger had designed these standardized 20 and 40 foot shipping containers, McLean released the patents.

Gillespie calls that a wise decision. “This way, anybody, anywhere, in any country, could use the [standardized] system. On the one hand, it sounds like a generous thing to do, but on the other hand, it was in his self-interest to release the patents because this led to the universalization of these shipping containers.

“His goal was not to have a monopoly but rather to continue to have a successful business.”

Rapid expansion of the port in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s

“Port Newark and The Origins of Container Shipping” goes far behind the rapid expansion of the port in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The book starts with Colonial times and a very small port on the Passaic River that could only accommodate shallow draft ships.

Gillespie then covers the history of the port through both World Wars and chapters on how the ship pilots often have a stress-filled job coming in from the Ambrose Channel to Lower New York Bay and then Upper New York Bay, though the Kill van Cull and underneath the bridge to Newark Bay — research that included discussions with the Sandy Hook Pilots’ Association, the Harbor Pilots’ Association, the Vessel Traffic Service [VTS], and the Coast Guard.

At the end of the book he includes some speculation about how things may change in the future for container ships and how automation — robots and cranes that need fewer people to work with them — will change things in coming years.

“There is an increasing dependence on automation, although at the present time the Germans are way ahead of the Americans in terms of automation.”

 

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Source: Community News

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