Fact or Fiction

Posted By: Tom Marian Port Bureau News, Port Watch,

Monday, Nov. 9, 1874, portended to be a morning like no other for the residents of Gotham, for a day of horror was unfolding throughout Central Park and the surrounding streets of Manhattan. The New York Herald’s front page was emblazoned with the headline banner that wild animals had escaped from the Central Park Zoo. It was a rampage precipitated by an enraged rhinoceros that had crashed through its cage and numerous others, which quickly cascaded into a parade of horribles: a panther mauling panicked citizens on 59th street; a Bengal tiger shot on Madison Avenue; intrepid citizens armed with rifles stalking a lioness on Broadway; and worshippers within the confines of a church on West 53rd street terrorized by a maniacal panther racing about the pews.

According to the Herald, 49 had been killed and two hundred injured by the rampaging beasts. Quite naturally, great trepidation ensued. Mothers dashed to nearby schools to rescue their children from the chaos; armed men rushed towards Central Park to eradicate the predatory beasts; scores of police officers sallied forth to protect the masses from the unleashed beasts roaming about the periphery of Central Park; and intrepid reporters were unleashed upon the city in search of the carnage.

The situation was incomprehensible. Readers of one of the nation’s largest newspapers were transfixed by tales of an anaconda devouring a giraffe and a tiger leaping onto a departing ferry and preying upon trapped passengers. That is, until the article’s last sentence stating, “the entire article given above is a pure fabrication.” Rest assured, the news you are about to read in this brief report is not of that ilk.

Central Park is certainly far afield from Hermann Park and located in a region with far fewer people; however, the port several miles east of its location welcomes nearly twice the number of ships as the port of New York. Why is that? Simply head east on 225 and try to count the number of storage tanks and flare stacks. There is no end to it as reinforced by the armada of chemical tankers that descend upon the scores of docks and gorge themselves with tons of hydrocarbon constituents. In September alone, nearly 200 chemical tankers moored along the upper Houston Ship Channel – 8% more than the previous month. Thus far, 2023’s chemical tanker count exceeds last year by 8% for Houston.  LPG vessels are also in positive territory for both the year and the month by 8% and 2% respectively. Container vessel calls trumped the aforementioned categories with a 12% year-to-date rise. Unfortunately, 2% fewer ships of this category arrived over the last month.

Overall, Houston’s vessel arrival picture trails 2022 by 2%, primarily due to a 6% decline in tanker arrivals; a 21% drop in vessels devoted to bulk cargoes; a 13% fall in general cargo vessel calls; and a 32% plunge in ocean-going barge traffic. This could be a taste of a more significant trade tapering associated with the ever-looming recession or a mere adjustment after the record post-COVID rebound of 2022. Whatever explanation one chooses, the picture will certainly be much clearer in a few months.

Sailing south, the Port of Texas City tallied its best arrival count for the year netting a 23% monthly jump. Like Houston, chemical tankers dominated the trade landscape with a 13% count climb in the last month and 7% increase over 2022. While 66% of the port’s trade portfolio is dominated by those vessels that carry chemicals, tankers logged a very robust 33% monthly gain. On a less sanguine note, tankers are down for the year by an unsightly 18% despite September’s bounty. If not for the year-over-year tanker arrival deficit, Texas City most likely would not be lagging last year’s vessel arrivals by 4%.

Nestled near the entrance of Galveston Bay, lies the port that bears its name. Galveston’s monthly percentage tally was nearly the polar opposite of nearby Texas City as evidenced by 13% fewer arrivals. One third of the fall was due to a 16% drop in chemical tankers – the port’s second biggest customer. Nonetheless, this is nothing to fret about since the cruise ship business continues to grow as reflected by an 18% higher count over the previous year. All told, Galveston currently outpaces last year’s arrival by 7%.

If one alters course to starboard upon entering the waters of the Gulf, the Freeport entrance channel would quickly appear on the radar. Freeport’s string of 100-plus arrivals per month has abated somewhat over the last year. It trails 2022’s wake by 3% after the recent monthly wane of the same. While the port is quietly luring evermore business to its docks, LNG, LPG and container vessels have been this year’s darlings with current year-to-date gains of 41%, 5% and 42% respectively. The primary reason for 2023’s lackluster number is . . . chemical tankers! Thus far, 8% fewer of these ships graced the docks of the port in 2023.

What Freeport lacked in the chemical tanker category, Corpus Christi gained. This vessel contingent is the 2nd largest vessel type that calls upon Corpus Christi. In spite of last month’s 8% dip, it remains 19% ahead of last year’s count. In total, the port lags last year’s record pace by a mere 1%; all of which is due to 3% fewer tanker arrivals. Tankers comprise nearly 50% of the total vessel arrival portfolio. This could not be further from the picture from the Port of Brownsville, an international maritime gateway that relies heavily on bulk vessel calls. Albeit, Brownsville’s arrival counts are a mere 10% of that of Corpus Christi. Be that as it may, Brownsville’s 2023 figures lead that of last year by 10% - in no small part due to the impressive 33% year-over-year gain in bulker arrivals.

On the opposite end of the Lone Star State’s border, the port of Sabine continues to attract a record number of ships to its waterways. Its arrival ledger is dominated by four vessel categories: tankers, chemical tankers, LPG and LNG. All of which – save tankers – are handsomely ahead of last year’s arrival tallies. Chemicals dominated the year-to-date gains by an impressive 32% followed by LPG at 13% and LNG at 8%. Tankers, on the other hand, despite a 9% monthly rally, remain 8% in the red for the year. No matter, Sabine continues to out distance last’s years arrival count by a comfortable 5%.

The color red also reared its head on the brownwater front given that 1% fewer tows sailed across the waters of Galveston Bay vis-à-vis 2022’s tow traffic. On a positive note, August posted the highest tow count for the year – a month that is typically tepid. Hopefully, the brownwater transits will rebound robustly during the final quarter of the year. Thus, eliminating the red.

Many a newspaper editor saw red after the Herald’s fabulist sensationalism of Nov. 9, 1874. James Bennett, Jr., the Herald’s owner, relished the outcry, noting that all publicity benefited the paper’s circulation regardless of the story’s conjuring. In fact, he opined, his article had accomplished an invaluable service by making the public aware of the deplorable conditions at the Central Park Zoo. Thus, if action was not taken, his tale of horror could become a reality. No doubt, a splendid piece of rationalization that failed to acknowledge the impact the media could have on the masses. Thankfully, we live in more responsible times where editors and newscasters would not permit H.G. Wells to broadcast an alien invasion or print the likes of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Certainly, the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird in the 1950s to test the manipulation of the public via television reinforced that all which is reported must indeed be true. Of course, in the event it isn’t, it must be for the good of the public!

About the Author

Tom Marian is the General Counsel of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the Port Bureau Board of Directors.