The port of Oakland, California was the first important port on the West Coast of the United States. While it is overshadowed today in terms of volume by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it is the third key gateway on the West Coast. Moreover, it handles 99% of the containers that move through northern California. 

Early history

The estuary that the Port of Oakland was constructed on and around was originally only 500 feet wide and had a depth of only 2 feet at low tide. Oakland was incorporated as a town by the California legislature in 1852. That same year, shipping wharves were built along the Oakland Estuary, which had been dredged in order to create a viable shipping channel. In 1874 the shipping channel was deepened to allow the port to handle the ships of the time.

The Southern Pacific Railroad was granted exclusive rights to the port in the late 1800s. However, city leaders determined that this was not in the best interest of the port or the city. In 1906 a Western Pacific Railroad work party built a crossing over the Southern Pacific line to connect the Western Pacific with tracks built on a landfill. This action was later upheld in court and ended the Southern Pacific’s monopoly on the port area, and made an expanded Port of Oakland possible. 

A dramatic overhead photo of a berthed container ship at night. (Photo: Port of Oakland)

20th century improvements

On May 6, 1915, the Admiral Dewey became the first large ship to dock at the Oakland wharf. Following World War I, a 30-foot deep channel was dredged from the estuary to Brooklyn Basin (4.75 miles). This was followed by the dredging of a channel 25-feet deep around the basin of the port and 18-feet deep to San Leandro Bay (a distance of 4 miles). 

Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1922, which benefited a number of ports around the U.S. with federal funding. In Oakland, $6 million underwrote projects including: a 30-foot deep and 800-feet wide channel through the shoal south of Yerba Buena Island (which  narrowed to 600 feet at the Oakland jetties); further widening of the estuary channel to 600 feet; and dredging of the south channel basin to 30-feet deep and the creation of a turning basin. 

The port was officially named the Port of Oakland in 1927.

A sea of containers at the Port of Oakland. (Photo: Port of Oakland)

Container ships 

Earlier than at many other ports, container ships began docking at the Port of Oakland in 1962.

The amount of cargo unloaded/loaded at the port significantly increased because of the container traffic. By the end of the decade the Port of Oakland was the second-largest port in the world in container tonnage. 

However, the port’s capacity was limited by San Francisco Bay’s depth and navigation restrictions. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach passed Oakland as the major West Coast container ports in the late 1970s. 

Part of the Port of Oakland’s intermodal container transfer facility is visible in this photograph. (Photo: Port of Oakland)

Positioning for growth 

A key limiting factor that impacted the Port of Oakland is a lack of intermodal rail facilities. While its cranes moved cargo to and from ships and trucks successfully, it needed the rail capability. The port began a study in the 1980s to facilitate the development of an intermodal container transfer capability. 

Construction of a $700 million rail intermodal facility was completed in 2002. Some shippers changed their destination port from either Los Angeles or Long Beach to Oakland because of the new facility and congestion at the other ports. 

In addition, the Port has benefited from its investments in post-panamax cranes, additional dredging and the transfer of nearby military property to the port. That land has been used for port expansion.

The main dredging project cost $432 million and deepened the port from 42 feet to 50 feet. Completed in September 2009, the dredging removed 6 million cubic yards of mud. The mud was used to create a 188-acre shallow-water wetlands habitat for marine and shore life.

Several of the Port of Oakland’s huge cranes are visible in this photo. (Photo: Port of Oakland)

Facts and figures

The Port of Oakland is an independent department of the city of Oakland. It is governed by seven commissioners nominated by the mayor and appointed by the city council. It is run on a day-by-day basis by an executive director. In addition to the maritime facilities, the Port of Oakland also includes Oakland International Airport and nearly 20 miles of waterfront that includes the famous Jack London Square.

The port’s annual container volume is 2.5 million TEUs, and its leading trading partners are Asian nations. The port is self-funded (port fees, rent, etc.); its annual operating revenue was

 $513.6 million in fiscal year 2020. It receives no tax revenue; however it does occasionally receive federal or state grant funding.

According to a 2017 economic impact study, the total economic value to the area from the Seaport was $60.3 billion. This consists of direct business revenue of $2.2 billion, an impact of 1.5 billion from re-spending and local consumption and the related output of $56.6 billion. The Seaport terminals generated $5.6 billion in total personal income/local consumption. It also generated nearly $700 million in direct, induced and indirect federal and state tax revenues.

An evening photo shows a portion of the Port of Oakln

In 2017, the Seaport supported 520,328 jobs in California. Of those jobs, 11,393 jobs were directly created by Seaport activities, while another 10,507 were induced jobs, generated in the Bay Area as a result of local purchases made by those directly employed due to Seaport activity. In addition, nearly 493,000 related jobs in California are supported by the cargo moving through the Seaport. More than 84,000 jobs were generated by the port in northern California. The port itself has about 475 employees.

In size, the Oakland Seaport encompasses 1,300 acres. There are four marine terminals and 33 ship-to-shore cranes that load/unload more than 1,500 ships each year. More than 20 shipping lines call at the port, and it provides direct service to six continents.

The port handles about 2.5 million TEUs each year. The port has an almost 50/50 balance of imports and exports, which is the highest export percentage of all the West Coast ports. Every 1,000 containers loaded or unloaded accounts for eight local jobs.