The city and port of Miami are the U.S. gateways to the Caribbean, Central and South America. Today, Miami is a bustling, cosmopolitan city in a state with approximately 21.5 million (third-most populous in the United States). 

The Port of Miami (or PortMiami) is located in Biscayne Bay at the mouth of the Miami River in far southeast Florida. It is east of the Everglades and south-southwest of the Port of Palm Beach. The area is one of the leading resort and tourism destinations in the nation. 

The Port of Miami is known formally as the Dante B. Fascell Port of Miami. It is named in honor of Fascell, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 19 two year terms (from 1955 to 1993). PortMiami is one of the busiest ports in the United States because it is both a major cargo gateway in the Americas as well as being the largest passenger port in the world. The city of Miami is also one of the nation’s major financial and commercial centers. While there are only a few major corporations headquartered in Florida, Miami is headquarters for the Latin American operations of over 1,400 corporations.

A ship off Miami in the 1920s. (Photo: Florida History Internet Center)

Early history

During their exploratory missions in the early 1500s, the Spanish found a village of Tequesta Indians on the site of what is today the Port of Miami. According to archeologists the village may have been as much as 2,000 years old. The Spanish built a mission on the site in 1567 as part of their unsuccessful attempts to conquer the Tequesta. 

By 1819 Florida had become a burden to Spain, which could no longer afford to send settlers or military garrisons to the region. In an 1819 treaty between Spain and the United States, the Spanish government ceded the territory to the U.S. in exchange for settling the boundary dispute between the two countries along the Sabine River in Texas, which was still governed by Spain at that time. 

The treaty took effect on February 22, 1821. Soon thereafter the U.S. Army built Fort Dallas in what is now downtown Miami. It was a base to fight the Seminole Wars. Concurrently a few European settlers moved into the area that is now the Port of Miami.

Hurricanes can cause immense physical and fiscal harm. However, a powerful hurricane in 1835 had a positive impact. It created a waterway in the barrier islands around Biscayne Bay that helped improve the port a few decades later. 

Early 1900’s photo of the mouth of the Miami River & Biscayne Bay.

Lieutenant John T. McLaughlin wrote about the limitations of Biscayne Bay and the fledgling Port of Miami in 1842. The Seminole Indian Wars were still being waged. “Fort Dallas [located on the north bank of the Miami River], which has been under the occupancy of the land forces since the early stages of the war, cannot be approached within eight miles by the vessels of this squadron…our operations [had to be carried out] in canoes…”

The U.S. Navy, which was responsible for the movement of personnel and materials, had to row supplies to the fort on the Miami River from a base on Key Biscayne. 

The problems encountered in the 1840s continued for decades. Due to the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, Miami had a relatively unimportant role in the development of Florida’s maritime trade. 

Port of Miami logo.

According to the census of 1900, Florida was thirty-second in population among the U.S. states and territories with about 528,000 people – and as few people as that was, its population had grown by about 35% since the census of 1890…  

In 1900, only 1,681 people lived in Miami. By 1910, there were 5,471 people; and in 1920, there were 29,549 people. Growth (and the growth of Florida as a whole) was due to a land boom created primarily by one man.

Henry M. Flagler

Henry M. Flagler had a great deal to do with the growth of Miami (and the growth of Florida in general). Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railway, and in 1896 the railroad reached Miami and its small port. The arrival of the railroad took place after a hard freeze had killed most of Florida’s citrus crops – except those in the orchards around Miami. The railroad allowed fruit from extreme southern Florida to be transported north before it spoiled.  

Henry M. Flagler (Photo: Flagler Museum)

The damage done by the 1835 hurricane allowed Flagler to sail the first passenger ship to the city in the late 1890s. For its time, it was a cruise ship and much larger than the freighters of the period.

Flagler did not stop there, however. He also dredged the harbor to make the Port of Miami more viable. He also built the Royal Palm Hotel to cater to tourists (who arrived in Miami via his railroad). Miami was incorporated in 1896 – in large part due to Flagler’s efforts.

Flagler had been operating ferry boats from Key West to Cuba for some time, but he wanted to extend service to Miami. A wealthy and persuasive businessman, he lobbied Congress to establish a deeper channel from the ocean to the downtown area. The channel is known as Government Cut. Congress approved its construction and it was finished in 1912. 

Also, a new channel to what is now called Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami was cut. The new access to the mainland created the Main Channel, greatly improving the shipping access to the new port. The dredged materials were placed on the south side of the new Main Channel, and Dodge, Lummus and Sam’s Island (as well as several smaller islands) were created.

From the ‘Roaring ‘20s’ to post-World War II

The state of Florida underwent a land boom in the years after World War I. Settlers moved to the state to make their fortunes. The population of Miami was about 12,000 in 1910 and grew to nearly 30,000 by 1920 (and to 111,000 by 1930). 

Miami after the 1926 hurricane.
(Photo: Hurricanes: Science and Society)

However, the short-term speculation on land and the ensuing land boom ended in the mid-1920s. In addition, a major hurricane struck the Miami area in 1926. For these reasons and others (the Great Depression for one), Miami and its port floundered for more than a decade. 

A great deal of construction in the 1930s is responsible for the many Art Deco buildings in Miami and Miami Beach. America’s entry into World War II interrupted the area’s growth. U.S. soldiers replaced tourists, and the beautiful beaches became rifle ranges. However, impressed by the climate and opportunities, many of those who first saw Miami while in the military returned to the area to live as civilians.

The 1950s-1980s

Miami became the premier destination for Latin American immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s. Following Castro’s Communist takeover of Cuba, thousands of Cubans emigrated to south Florida.

Although there had been rudimentary docks and piers in the area for nearly 150 years (and many improvements since), the Port of Miami was not officially established until 1960. The port’s improved shipping access and the rapid growth of south Florida led to an expansion of the port. On April 5, 1960, a resolution (Joint Resolution Providing for Construction of Modern Seaport Facilities at Dodge Island Site) was approved by the Dade County Board of Commissioners. The next day the City of Miami approved a resolution to construct the new port. 

The Port of Miami in 1964. (Photo: Miami History Channel)

The new Dodge Island port required the island to be expanded. Fill material joined it to the nearby Lummus and Sam’s Island. Port of Miami operations were moved to the new facilities after the seawalls, administrative buildings, and a vehicle and railroad bridge were completed. Additional fill material enlarged the island further when it was joined to North, South and NOAO slips.

In the 1980s, the Port of Miami gained a reputation as a center of illegal drug trade. Then in the early 1990s, several incidents of violence against tourists discouraged people from visiting the city. However, by the late 1990s, tourists were returning to the area.

Improvements of the 1990s/2000s

In 1993, the PortMiami basin was dredged, deepening it to 42 feet. A $40 million project to expand the South Harbor was finished in 2006. A project to reconnect PortMiami to the mainland via railroad was begun in 2011. And in 2013, the harbors around PortMiami were deepened from 44 feet to 52 feet by a major dredging project.

A PortMiami infographic. (Image: PortMiami)

Cargo at the Port of Miami

As one of the busiest U.S. ports, Miami primarily handles containerized cargo with small amounts of breakbulk, vehicles and industrial equipment. It is the ninth-largest container port in the nation and the largest in the state.

According to fiscal year 2018/2019 data, over 9.6 million tons of cargo and over 1 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) of intermodal container traffic move through the port annually.  Cargo operations at PortMiami account for $35 billion in economic impact.

Overall, the port operates eight passenger terminals, six gantry cranes/wharves, seven roll-on-roll-off docks, four refrigerated yards for containers, break bulk cargo warehouses and nine gantry container handling cranes. 

The port undertook a redevelopment program of over $250 million that began in 1997. Its focus was to accommodate the changing needs of cruise vessel operators, passengers, shippers and carriers. To improve accessibility, construction of the PortMiami Tunnel was begun 2010 and finished in 2014. The tunnel provides direct vehicle access from the port to the interstate highway via State Road 836, bypassing the congestion of downtown Miami.

In addition, a new gantry crane dock and container storage yards were built. The Port also acquired two super post-panamax gantry cranes, which are among the largest in the world. Coupled with the Deep Dredge Project, Port Miami will be capable of handling the largest containerships in the world.

An aerial view of PortMiami. (Photo: PortMiami)

Economic impact

As of 2018, PortMiami accounts for approximately 334,500 direct, indirect, induced and related jobs and has an annual economic impact of $43 billion to the state of Florida.

The total value of the economic impact created by cargo containers moving through PortMiami is estimated at $35 billion to Florida. This economic impact includes increased value added during the production of export cargo, as well as transportation, warehousing and retail distribution activities for import cargo. This import and export activity generates state income equaling $10 billion, and state and local taxes of about $2 billion annually.

As of December 31, 2016, the port generated $5.8 billion of direct business revenue; $34 billion of output supported by related port users; and $41.4 billion of total economic activity (which is 4.4% of Florida’s GDP).

In addition (again, as of 12/31/16), port activities generated $288.3 million of direct, induced and indirect state and local taxes and $1.2 billion of state and local taxes from related exporters and importers supported by port activity. 

The local and regional economic impacts of marine cargo and cruise-related business activities at PortMiami are huge. Work over more than 100 years has turned a port that was not viable into one of the busiest ports in the world. Because of the pandemic, the cruise industry had a horrible 2020. But it will rebound, which will put that part of PortMiami back in business.