April 7, 2017 4:40 PM, EDT

Reviving Historic Richmond Marine Terminal Extends Port of Virginia as Far West 'as Deep Water Will Allow'

A few months ago, the letters “O-N-D” – each maybe a foot high or so – hung high up on the front wall of a warehouse building at Richmond Marine Terminal.

Maybe there was a freight company operating at the site with that name – OND Inc.?

Nah. A closer look showed the stubby remains of 11 letters, apparently lost over time, that once preceded the three left standing.

Any “Wheel of Fortune” watcher could put it together: “PORT OF RICHMOND.”

The Richmond Deepwater Terminal, as it was known before being dubbed the Port of Richmond, has seen its share of hard times, perhaps reflected in those 11 missing letters in the signage.

Within the past year or so, though, there’s a fresh breeze of sorts blowing through the place.

After signing a five-year lease of the facility in late 2010, the Virginia Port Authority signed another one early last year, enabling it to invest in and operate the facility – rebranded as Richmond Marine Terminal – for 40 years, through 2056.

The signing of the longer lease also was marked by the unveiling of a $4.2 million, 350-ton crane, bought with money from a federal grant, that will speed up container handling.

Also, a dozen ocean carriers now offer bills of lading directly to Richmond, maybe the maritime freight equivalent of having an airline boarding pass right through to one’s destination.

Pieces are slowly beginning to drop into place.

“We know the Richmond Marine Terminal has not had any capital expenditures for a long, long time,” John Reinhart, the port authority’s executive director and CEO, said in the first State of the Port address held in Richmond last year, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch report.

“It was getting by, but it wasn’t thriving,” The Times-Dispatch quoted him as saying. “The men and women that worked there were doing the best they could with what they had. What we’re trying to do is energize the facility.”

A lifeline connecting the Port of Virginia and the Richmond operation, however, actually had been thrown in 2008, with the startup of the James River Barge Line’s 64 Express, a service linking the Port of Virginia’s container terminals to the facility, recently enhanced with the addition of a new barge that can carry 125 of those 40-foot-long containers hauled by trucks and trains in and out of the port.

Custom-built to make three round trips a week, the vessel is helping position the Richmond operation as a kind of safety valve for the port, which is preparing to expand its two largest terminals.

The port’s investment in the Richmond terminal is a way for it “to extend itself westward as far as deep water will allow,” said Ed Whitmore, owner and president of Norfolk Tug Co., which owns the James River Barge Line.

“The timing of this is critical,” port spokesman Joe Harris said. “This is a very important piece of the puzzle, keeping cargo moving during our expansion.”

The facility has the capacity to handle 50,000 to 60,000 TEUs – containers measured in 20-foot units – which may seem like a drop in the bucket compared with the port’s total volume of 2.6 million TEUs last year.

Add that to the 78,000-TEU capacity of the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal, and there’s the promise of at least a little relief.

“This allows us to push our operation in, 100 miles,” Harris said about the barge link.

Last year, the Richmond terminal moved more than 34,000 TEUs, a 32.8% increase from 2015.

While the operation is preparing to move more cargo, there’s one thing it already has in abundance: history.

Owned by the city of Richmond, the terminal opened in 1940 as a general marine-cargo facility on the west bank of the James River, about 5 miles from downtown Richmond.

It was built on land that once had been part of the unincorporated town and port of Warwick, burned by British troops in 1781, according to city records.

Because of the rapids that block any ship traffic west of Richmond as well as a sandbar in the river, Warwick was about as far up the James as many vessels could get.

In its heyday, the facility moved a lot of sugar, tobacco and newsprint.

As markets, logistics and supply chains evolved, the Richmond terminal began to show its age.

As the recession surged about 10 years ago, the facility’s business dried up and waterborne cargo moving through the complex fell by 78%, according to the city.

It was at about that point that the Virginia Port Authority came to the rescue, though more than a century earlier, Richmond seemed to have a future as a port on its own.

The now-defunct Chesapeake & Ohio Railway once envisioned Richmond as a coal-export center, so much so that it built a tunnel through the Church Hill section of the city, with the hope of linking the city’s docks to the railroad’s main lines, said Walter Griggs Jr., a retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has written several books about Richmond history.

The tunnel opened in 1873; the last train passed through it in 1902. It collapsed in 1925 while it was being restored to service, killing several people After that it was sealed.

Richmond’s port-city status lasted about eight years, Griggs wrote in “The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel.”

“Excellent docks and the Church Hill Tunnel could not make the James River deeper or straighter to accommodate the large oceangoing vessels being built at that time.”

After a promised dredging project on the James River failed to materialize, railroad tycoon Collis Huntington decided to extend the C&O tracks 74 miles to Newport News and its deep-water harbor.

“Now trains rolled through Richmond to the new terminal without stopping,” Griggs wrote.

The city, though, got excited in the winter of 1942, when news broke that the Navy had plans to build a shipyard in Richmond. A site had been purchased at the end of 4th Street in South Richmond, and there were plans to lease a site close to what’s now the Richmond Marine Terminal, according to another of Griggs’ books, “World War II: Richmond Virginia.”

It didn’t take long for the plans to unspool, though: U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia announced on April 30, 1942, that the shipyard was canceled.

“Richmonders took the demise of the shipyard in stride but regretted all of the federal government funds that were used for no purpose,” Griggs wrote.

With the size of oceangoing vessels today challenging ports all over the country and the world, the idea of a containership making its way up the snaky James River seems a little ridiculous.

Yet the big barge that threads its way up and down the river from the port, in water depths that range up to about 24 feet near the Richmond terminal, offers some promise of a gradual transformation.

To walk the 121-acre site today is, in some ways, a journey back in time, offering a glimpse of what port facilities everywhere were like before cargo containers revolutionized the maritime industry.

Like a Hollywood set for a film about life on the docks back in the day, the cavernous warehouses are a mix of empty space and breakbulk cargo – noncontainerized goods packed in or on bales, drums, crates and the like.

Here are pallets of tile bound for Kentucky; there, giant bags of plastic pellets bound for Pakistan and India.

What appear to be connecting rail tracks lie just outside the doors of the warehouses, though they haven’t been used in decades.

There is, though, an active CSX line on the property, which runs parallel to Interstate 95, adjacent to the terminal grounds.

The operations aren’t restricted to the riverside warehouses.

In another area of the site, trucks wait to dump their loads of soybeans and other grains from around the region onto a conveyor belt system that whisks them into waiting containers already on the backs of trucks.

It’s a work in progress, and port officials say they’re in it for the long haul.

Years ago, the terminal was a bustling regional hub.

“Our plan is to make it that again,” Harris said. “It’s going to take some time.”

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