A port in the storm: Eastport’s historic port navigates new challenges

The deepest seaport on the Eastern seaboard has been hurt by the pandemic and geopolitics, but has hopes and plans for a recovery.
An aerial view of the Estes Head terminal in Eastport.
Estes Head terminal in Eastport. Photo courtesy Lura Jackson.

After three of the slowest years in its 42-year history, the Eastport Port Authority is scrambling to find new business and continue operating in the black.

Once the second-busiest port in the country, Eastport’s enduring legacy as a connecting point for overseas shipments was endangered by global affairs that changed the trade networks. The Covid pandemic, plus the war in Ukraine and resulting European instability, upset a steady stream of shipments that averaged 300,000 tons a year and provided consistent work for about 70 direct and indirect workers.   

Local officials are exploring cruise ships, a railway line and additional cargo shipments to improve the port’s financial condition. But at the same time, the Eastport Port Authority has cut its budget and its longtime director is leaving.

As the deepest seaport on the Eastern seaboard with a natural depth of almost 65 feet, and with significant potential for growth, Eastport is a “gem” for the right partners, said Chris Gardner, the Port Authority director. But being shiny isn’t always enough.

“What started in 2020, everybody thought, ‘That’s only an anomaly, right? There’s no way this can get into 2021 and 2022,’ ” Gardner said. “Well, we’ve all learned that the world has been slow to recover to normal.”

For all its potential, the port of Eastport is contending with old and new challenges. How it got here — and where it may be headed — requires turning back the page to its earliest days.

A city defined by its port

Located on a small island in Passamaquoddy Bay in the far eastern stretches of Washington County, Eastport became a hub of trade with Europe in the 1600s. As the most eastern port in the country, it’s closest to both Europe and Africa, and was the first port met by ships traveling south from British Canada. 

In 1833, Eastport “was said to have had the second-busiest port in the United States,” according to Hugh French, director of the Eastport-based Tides Institute & Museum of Art. Most of the shipments, French suspects, cleared customs from Canada before traveling to points south and west along the Atlantic seaboard.

Regardless of where they were bound, the flow of goods proved vital to Eastport’s growth. Between 1840 and 1850, the city’s population boomed by 43.4 percent, reaching 2,876.  

Commodities weren’t the only thing stopping by the town. Passengers traveling to and from Boston and Saint John, New Brunswick, came by packed schooners and then crowded steamships, French said. Larger steamships soon made multiple stops in the city each week, carrying hundreds of people at a time. 

In 1876, Eastport launched the North American sardine industry, totaling 18 canning factories along its shores within a decade. The arrival of the railroad to Eastport in 1898 caused the port to further flourish as goods and passengers gained new access to the country’s rail network. As it did, the city’s population reached its peak at just over 5,000. 

Following the invention and spread of the automobile in the early 20th century, the massive steamships fell out of popularity, and in 1933 stopped coming to Eastport altogether. While freight continued to be shipped to and from the port via railroad, it dwindled until the railroad’s closure in 1978.

The city then decided to take its shipping future into its own hands by forming the Eastport Port Authority.

A new era of international shipping

In 1981, Eastport’s Port Authority effectively began with a shipment of kraft pulp wood from Georgia Pacific’s Baileyville-based mill, French said. Traveling on the freighter Ravenswood, the shipment was bound for Scotland. 

In two years, the port achieved 57,641 tons shipped, and more ships were coming, according to Gardner. By 1990, with 168,813 tons carried, the need for a new cargo pier was apparent. The downtown breakwater offered a respectable 40-foot draft, but a seaport built at Estes Head at the southern tip of the island could take advantage of the channel’s 64-foot depth.

Plans were drawn up, and in 1998 the Estes Head cargo terminal was finished. Within a decade, the port reached 376,873 tons shipped, and its future appeared bright. But 2009 saw the first big drop in tonnage, when the Georgia Pacific mill shut down before being reopened by its new owner, International Grand Investment Corporation (IGIC). That year, tonnage went down to 259,934; by the next year it was back over 300,000.

It was a brief but flickering indicator of a potential risk — relying on just one partner could be disastrous. For Gardner, who started with the Port Authority in 2007, the answer was clear. Diversification was needed. 

Along with shipping IGIC’s paper goods to Europe and Asia, the port worked to take on new cargo — but new partners were hard to find. In 2010, Eastport became the first port in the country to ship impregnated cattle to Turkey, and in 2012 it reached its highest tonnage ever at 425,060. Eastport gradually sent 30,000 bovines before a conflict in Turkey caused the shipments to stop in 2014. More bad news came that year  the port’s breakwater caved in.

Despite the brief run of bad luck, Eastport maintained about 300,000 tons a year in shipments, supporting a healthy amount of jobs in the area — right up until 2020, when the world changed.

Global issues, magnified

The Covid outbreak caused maritime shipping around the world to drop by 10 percent, but for Eastport — where the loss of just one stream of goods could have dramatic effects — it was much worse. 

In 2020, tonnage plummeted to 95,060, then dropped again to just 35,801 in 2021. Last year the port managed only 7,584 tons, or less than 2 percent of its best year. The problems were multiple: Shipments going to Asia and Europe all but stopped due to the pandemic, and IGIC started sending its pulp to a paper mill in Jay after its pulp digester failed in 2020. 

While it managed to clear a surplus of $100,000 for the year, the Port Authority has taken drastic actions to survive. Gardner, its longtime director, is resigning and will be paid on a month-to-month basis while transitioning to a new job. The port is looking for a new executive director.

To save money, the Port Authority cut Gardner’s pay last year from $89,000 with benefits to less than half that amount with no benefits, as reported in The Quoddy Tides, an Eastport-based paper that closely follows the port’s actions. The port also sold its tugboat operations and further trimmed its payroll, reducing its 2022 expenses by $200,000.

The stakes are high, Gardner acknowledged. A collapse of the Port Authority would be devastating to Eastport, which, with less than 1,300 residents, doesn’t have a robust budget to readily absorb significant debt. But Gardner contends the likelihood of failure is slim. “We have assets of about $55 million and less than $2 million in debt. That’s a ratio of 25-1.” 

The port’s board of directors — half are elected and half are city or state officials — is acting cautiously. It voted last July to temporarily suspend a $820,000 trial run of the woodchip sanitization facility at Estes Head due to the lack of income coming into the port, Gardner said. If proven viable, the arrangement could lead to regular shipments of 20,000 tons a month or more to the United Kingdom. 

Climbing out of what Gardner calls “some of the worst consecutive times that the port has had to go through,” the future holds possibilities, including a few that have proven successful for the state’s two other deepwater ports.

Solutions on the horizon

Despite the global shipping collapse in 2020, the performance of one deepwater port in Maine towered above many on the Eastern seaboard. The International Marine Terminal in Portland has logged consistent 20 percent annual increases in volume since receiving $100 million in state and federal funds to improve its infrastructure in 2011.

Matthew Burns, the executive director of Maine’s Port Authority, said “finding niches and investing in port facilities” is critical to the future of Maine’s ports. Accordingly, a mobile harbor crane was moved from Portland to Eastport last summer, with the goal of being able to load pulp from IGIC’s Baileyville mill onto barges for domestic shipment. If the arrangement works, it could generate 6,000 tons of shipping a month.

Along with bulk pulp, the crane could be used for container shipping, Gardner said. To start, the port will need to aggregate about 200 containers a month. Getting the arrangements going will take time, but Gardner is optimistic it will be underway by early 2024. “It’s something we haven’t been able to explore because we didn’t have a crane before.”

Cruise ships offer tourism boost

Though Covid wreaked havoc on Eastport’s cargo shipments, it also resulted in a new plausible revenue stream: cruise ships. The Riviera, a 785-foot cruise ship that docked — without passengers — in Eastport in June and July 2020, opened the door to Eastport’s potential as a cruise ship destination. With Eastport’s breakwater located downtown and new limitations on how many passengers can disembark per day at Bar Harbor, local officials see potential in cruise ship business.

While Eastport is not interested in ships carrying 1,000 passengers or more due to a lack of amenities, Gardner said Bar Harbor’s limitations are also affecting smaller cruise ship lines, and that’s where Eastport comes in. “We’re going to do our best to service the cruise ships that are affected by the new limitations in Bar Harbor,” Gardner said. 

The city’s sweet spot is cruise ships that hold between 150 and 500 passengers. Gardner has about a dozen smaller cruise ships on his schedule for the summer, totaling about 2,400 passengers. The port has agreements with Norwegian Cruise Lines (operator of the Riviera) and American Cruise Lines, and is developing plans with Holland America and Ponant Cruises, according to Gardner. Inquiries have come from “several, several” others, he added. 

Eastport regularly handled 100,000 or more steamship passengers annually just over a century ago. But at the time, it had an abundance of shops, restaurants, and hotels; there are far fewer today.  

The railway and righting cultural wrongs

The lack of a railroad is one of Eastport’s primary shipping bottlenecks, with cargo currently traveling by freight truck along the Route 190 causeway. Building a modern railway is not out of the question, Gardner said. It’s an issue being raised at the same time as another: relocating the causeway.

Running directly through the Passamaquoddy village of Sipayik, the current causeway was built in the 1930s — before Sipayik residents were allowed to vote. Its presence has caused negative environmental issues, said Ralph Dana, multimedia specialist for the tribe’s environmental department, and alternatives are being considered in two projects. One would be the outright relocation of Route 190, including potentially building a bridge with railway support. With infrastructure money available, “the timing seems right to pursue it,” said Dana.

“It gives us a chance to correct cultural and environmental wrongs,” Gardner said. “And at the same time, it allows us to build new infrastructure and a new road for Maine that could eventually lead to bringing rail back.”

Even in the face of global uncertainty, he said, rail access would provide versatility — as illustrated by Searsport, the state’s other deepwater port, with Eastport and Portland.

Searsport keeps steady

In Searsport, the effects of the global pandemic were barely a blip compared to Eastport. Its dry tonnage in 2017 was 428,716. It increased to 542,921 in 2020, then dipped to 440,000 in 2022, leaving its five-year average unfazed. 

According to Burns, if Eastport had rail access, it could tap into the state’s newer export commodities in the same way Searsport does. As an example, a new partnership is in the works to export wood pellets from Millinocket to Europe via Searsport, generating up to 650,000 tons of cargo a year. Searsport and Eastport are both vying for another opportunity from the state: becoming the site of an offshore wind farm port. According to Gardner, Sears Island has the long-term advantage, but for the short term, Eastport’s low traffic flow and 100 acres of available area for development make it the best choice. 

“There is no port in Maine that is more ready to accept the initial stages of wind than the Eastport port,” he said.

Holding fast

Both Burns and Gardner said they are confident that Eastport’s port has made it through the worst of the financial storm. This is already a better year than 2022, with one ship carrying approximately 10,000 tons on the schedule for January. 

The woodchip sanitization test that was suspended last July is moving forward with an as-yet undisclosed private company providing the funds. “It will be completed this year,” Gardner said. If successfully concluded, it would bring 240,000 tons a year, nearly meeting the port’s past averages on its own.

Rather than counting on just one commodity as it did historically, the port is branching out with the help of solid partners. The recent addition of the crane at Estes Head could mean 60,000 tons a year in barge shipping, and the ability to load containers. “That’s a growing market and a growing opportunity,” Gardner said.

Cruise ships are bringing new life to the port, and while the year’s anticipated passenger count is modest compared to Bar Harbor’s, it represents a solid step toward a growing industry. The added revenue from docking agreements and tourism will be boons for the city, and could lead to a revival of interest in its small-town coastal lifestyle.

Other possibilities are more ambitious, including building an offshore wind power port and bringing back the railway. While they may not be quick or easy solutions, Gardner insists they remain worthwhile to consider.

Acknowledging that getting a railway built to Eastport is a generational project, Gardner said, “The decisions we make right now are about our children. Honestly, that should motivate us more than if these decisions were simply about us.”


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Lura Jackson

Lura Jackson is the managing editor of the Quoddy Tides in Eastport, and has written for various Maine publications since 2013. She is the author of Images of America: Eastport (2022) and Images of America: Calais (2020).
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