The ramp up the Big Four Bridge looking west towards Downtown Louisville
Why are there no longer so many chemical refineries, textile mills, riverboats and dockworkers hawking their trade along America's inland riverways? Why are so many inland riverfront parks being built on areas that were formerly railroad warehouses, brothels, and piers in cities spanning from Portland to New York? Why are the old warehouses being converted into chic industrial lofts and trendy restaurants, or lying abandoned, instead of housing wares? What changed in the 20th century to fundamentally rearrange the geographic relationship between ports and cities and labor and nations? When asked most people will grumble something about cheap foreign labor. But I think the answer, in large part, is containers.
The former riverboat and boxcar railroad transportation network of the late 19th century and early 20th century has been almost entirely displaced by multi-modal shipping, in which 40-foot standardized steel containers are seamlessly whisked between giant ocean-going container ships, specially designed freight railways, and trucks traveling America's interstate highways. It wasn't always like this.
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller
and the World Economy Bigger [Left]. The Big Four bridge [Right].
Dockworkers unloading bananas at the wharves in New York in 1905
[Photo from Shorpy.com]
Longshoremen loading the Sternwheeler Georgia Lee
with mixed cargo in Louisville, KY (1905)
[photo from Shorpy.com]
A crane loading a container ship at the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka
People often forget that humble innovations that completely change the living patterns of the whole world aren't always sexy, and they aren't always fast. World-changing ideas are not just about computers and rocket ships. It took half a century or more for the revolution in containerized shipping to rearrange the destinies of the waterfronts of Manhattan and Shenzhen, and launch those locations into completely different historical trajectories.
As you gaze down the Ohio River from the span of the Big Four pedestrian bridge in Louisville, or cast your eyes along the Thames from the base of the Tower Bridge, remember that we may have lost a little bit of the romance of the Dickensian docks and the Mark Twain riverboats. But we have gained so much more in livable city waterfronts, beautiful riverfront parks, less expensive imported goods and raw materials, and an increasingly integrated and thriving world economy. And for that, I'm thankful for The Box.
February Sunset at the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky