Charleston and the Lowcountry have been shaped for millennia by its harbor, the foundation of the area's growth, starting with the Archaic era's First People drawn by its abundance of fish and mollusks. European colonists quickly recognized the protection and security the harbor and the mild Lowcountry climate offered, making Charleston an economic and cultural powerhouse of the colonial period and on into the 19th-century, when the Confederacy quickly grasped the importance of defending such a critical asset.
The harbor is just as critical today, generating more than $60 billion in revenue for the state through container shipping fees via the South Carolina Port Authority, which operates four container shipping terminals surrounding the harbor and two inland distribution centers. And now, Charleston boasts the deepest port on the East Coast thanks to a decade-long, $600 million dollar dredging project that deepened the port's shipping lanes from 45 to 52 feet, allowing the world's largest cargo ships to reach the terminals regardless of tide levels. Begun in 2011 and carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, the project's last phase was completed late last year. The project's successful completion brought one of the world's largest container ships to Charleston, the MSC Rayshmi. With a draft of over 48-feet, it became the largest container ship to ever visit the port, able to pass under the soaring Ravenel Bridge and reach the Wando Welch terminal in North Charleston.
The harbor's been deepened eight times over the past two centuries, starting in the late colonial period, when the port's depth was only twelve feet. The announcement of this latest project had an immediate economic effect, even before the first dredge load was brought up from the depth. Major automobile manufacturers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo quickly realized how the deepened harbor would streamline their supply and distribution channels, setting in motion new manufacturing plants in the Lowcountry; Walmart built a 600-acre distribution center supplied by rail lines running from the port.
Today, one out of every ten jobs in South Carolina is directly related to activities in and around the port, as Charleston's long relationship with the sea brings new benefits to the Lowcountry.