Back in 1967, 200 feet of dock at the northerly end of the Port of Albany collapsed and slid into the Hudson River. Four years later, combined imports and exports at the port dropped to 543,000 tons, the least since the end of World War II.
And as recently as 1973, a local businessman discovered first-hand just how little esteem Albany's port had. "You would be surprised at how many people didn't knew we had a port here at all," recalls Ted Southworth, who helped drum up millions of dollars in state money for port rehabilitation.
They know now.
Since 1967, almost $20 million in state funds, mostly grants, have been appropriated to fix up the port, Perhaps more significantly, private industry has invested $35 million in the port since 1972.
And signs of continued growth -- such as the recent announcement by Kansas City's Seaboard Allied Milling Corp. that it intends to substantially expand its flour mill at the port -- have been popping up with regularity.
Today the Port of Albany is commonly cited as the biggest source of industrial development in New York's capital city. Excluding millions of tons of petroleum moved through private oil company facilities, port volume last year totaled 1.44 million tons, second only to 1956 in the post-World War Ii period.
Cargill Inc., which alone generates about 60 percent of the port's tonnage, started work recently on a $4.5 million overhaul of its massive grain elevator, one of the state-funded projects. Although the work was prodded by the need to comply with federal pollution and job safety standards, Cargill branch manager Larry Miller says the project also will speed the loading of vessels be 20 to 25 percent.
"With the right combination of supply and demand, we could double our business without any trouble at all," Miller said.
Because of such activity, the Port of Albany finally and unabashedly is being billed for what it is -- the northern-most, year-round inland port on the East Coast.
Although the Hudson River usually freezes in the winter, Coast Guard ice breakers and other ships en route to Albany keep the channel clear of ice. Despite it other problems, the port hasn't been closed because of ice since February 1951.
The dawning perception of Albany as a viable, growing hub of waterborne traffic may be the port's most important asset of all, especially because of its Proximity to highly competitive -- and bigger -- East Coast ports. Companies have no desire to set up facilities in a port that is dying. p
"When business see that our port facilities have been renovated and that other businesses are using the port, they know it's thriving," said Richard Conners, and Albany assemblyman who also played a key role in getting state funding for the port.
Port tonnage this year is expected to decline marginally, mostly because Cargill anticipates that its grain elevator overhaul will slow the loading of ships. But Frank Dunham, general manager of the Albany Port District Commission, the operator of the port, predicts consistent increases in tonnage in future years as new port facilities continue to be built and attract more companies to the port.
"I certainly think our tonnage can eventually reach the 2 million mark," he said.
His estimate may be too conservative. After the state commissioned the New York City consulting firm of Frederic R. Harris to study the potential of New York's five upstate ports in 1975, the firm concluded that Albany had the greatest promise of all.
And the developments in more recent years strongly reinforce that conclusion, say backers of the port.
As an inland river facility, the Port of Albany will never become an international shipping center like New York or Baltimore. But ports in general are said to be heavily overtaxed, and Albany has plenty of room for growth.
In addition, the port lies in a centrally located area that boasts in excellent highway system, putting it within easy access to Canada, the rest of the Northeast, and the Midwest.
"The port probably has unlimited potential," said Mark Tebbano, a staff member of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, which recently got a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop an economic growth strategy for the Albany area.
Tebbano bases his optimism on the port's year-round operation and the fact that it operates on both sides of the Hudson, giving it a potential 360-degree service area.
He also points to the tremendous room for expansion on the Renssalaer side of the port, where the reconstruction of a 475-foot dock is expected to be completed in September 1980.
The partial collapse of the port's dock in 1967 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The next year, the state offered the port district commission a $3 million interest-free loan to help rebuild the dock and other port facilities, and it was supplemented by a $2.5 million port commission bond issue.
The work set the stage in 1971 for the arrival here of the United Brands Co., which had been plagued by congestion and labor problems at the Port of New York and was looking for a new base for its Northeastern distribution operation.
Albany began shaping up as a promising candidate, and United Brands sent its first ship here on a trial run in November of that year, loaded with 1,136 tons of bananas. The presence of United Brands finally injected a dose of desperately needed attention into the port.
Before the company came here, the port's two principal activities were the Cargill operation and the importation of wood pulp from Scandinavia, and the latter was gradually diminishing because of rising prices.
"Community interest in the port just didn't exist in those years," said the port's Frank Dunham. "But after the banana ships started coming here, the Albany Chamber of Commerce and others suddenly realized that the port had economic potential.
"They figured if Albany was a good location for handling bananas, it should be a good place for handling other types of cargo."
But with the recognition that the port had potential also came the realization that it would need substantially more rehabilitation before companies could be lured here. And it was obvious that the cities of Albany and Renssalaer, which jointly own the port, didn't have the kind of money it would take.
So in 1973, local chambers of commerce formed a joint port development committee, headed by Ted Southworth, and began the difficult task of convincing the state legislature that Albany needed money for its port -- and that it needed it in the form of grants.
Persistence said off. The port got $4 million for major shed improvements in 1975, and three grants totaling $9.3 million in 1978 to rebuild the port's railroad system, overhaul Cargill's grain elevator, and to reconstruct the Renssalaer dock, which was destroyed by fire in 1976.
Earlier this year, the port got $3.5 million to construct a seawall to prevent shoreline erosion along the southernmost bank on the Albany side of the port and for the dredging of dockside berthing.
Private investments, meanwhile, have more than kept pace with state funding. Seaboard Allied Milling, Corp. built a $7.5 million flour mill at the port in 1975, and Cibro Petroleum Products built a $20 million crude oil processing plant in 1978. Last August, Cibro pumped another $6.5 million into the construction of additional oil storage tanks, plus a rail tank car loading facility.