Making Ends Meet

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

On August 3, 1923, Room 328 at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue became the official residence of the president of the United States. As the grieving widow of President Harding – who had succumbed to a heart attack in San Francisco in the midst of his much-heralded western tour – headed east with her husband’s body, President Coolidge returned to his hotel suite in Washington, DC.  That same morning, he had been sworn in as the nation’s president by his father – a notary public – in his boyhood home of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Given that the house lacked both electricity and telephone service, Calvin Coolidge was notified of the death of his boss via a messenger.

The Coolidge’s informed the newly widowed and former first lady that she could take as much time as she needed to vacate the White House. Thus, for 18 days the Willard housed the First Family and President Coolidge’s executive staff. In some respects, this was not a drastic change for the president since he had been residing at the Willard since he was first sworn in as President Harding’s vice president on March 4, 1921. As such, his $8/night suite was his respite from the official duties and a quiet place where he could recharge his batteries via his coveted afternoon naps. 

Unfortunately, the president was in a for a rude awakening during one such nap when he was roused from his slumber by an intruder rifling through his clothes in the adjoining room. A startled commander in chief upon assessing the situation asked the thief to refrain from taking his pocket watch as it had been a gift from his father. Where upon the man opened the pocket watch and read the engraving, “To my son, Calvin Coolidge.” The incredulous thief asked if the person whose clothes he was rifling through were those of the president of the United States. The president calmly replied he was and reiterated his request to not take the watch. Needless to say, the thief was dumbfounded.

Fortunately, as the first quarter of the year wrapped up, the surprises were mostly positive as four of Texas’ ports logged monthly vessel arrival highs. This culminated in an impressive finish to a strong quarter that saw 4% more arrivals over the last month and a 2% increase vis-à-vis last year’s first quarter. Not to be outdone, brownwater tow traffic across the region outpaced last year by 4% and climbed 5% month-over-month.

Two ports posted double digit gains over the last month in the vessel arrival arena. Galveston jumped 21% and Brownsville was up handsomely by 17%. While the latter’s bounty was primarily due to a monthly high of bulker arrivals, the former was due to the increasing number of cruise ship arrivals. Indeed, Galveston is enjoying the descent of an even greater number of cruise lines due to the growing popularity of this vacation mode. Additionally, tanker arrivals have continued to increase as the port’s petroleum terminal benefits from its recent expansion. All told, Galveston is up 6% for the year and remains bullish on its growth trajectory.

A few leagues to the north, the Port of Texas City also basked in the glow of a robust first quarter. While March saw only one more vessel arrival than February, this railroad port is outpacing 2023’s count by an impressive 11%. Tankers and bulkers were primarily responsible for the positive gains albeit, over 72% of the vessels that call upon the port are chemical tankers. Ironically, this category lags by 2% on a year-to-date basis as compared to tanker arrivals. Tankers are currently eclipsing last year’s numbers by 31%.

Texas’ second busiest port – Sabine – on the other hand, remained even with last year’s vessel count after a monthly gain of 7%. Ordinarily such a monthly gain would be noteworthy but even in a leap year February lags March by two full days. Thus, January remains the top month in terms of vessel arrivals. LPG and tankers saw their best performance of the year as they exceeded the prior month by 6% and 11% respectively. Chemical tankers may not have had their best month of the year. Nevertheless, their count rose 12% in the last month. Finally, bulkers hit their nadir netting a 14% monthly decline.

Corpus Christi lost ground against 2023’s first quarter as evidenced by a 6% year-to-date wane. Unlike Sabine, March welcomed the lowest number of LPG and tanker vessels for the year resulting in an ebb of 29% and 7% respectively. Conversely, bulkers were a bright spot for the month as reflected in a 44% monthly jump. This category is currently outdistancing last year’s tally by a torrid 51%.

The port of Freeport, despite its lowest vessel count of the year, managed to stay ahead of 2023’s arrivals by 4%. Things were far less sanguine in the final month of the first quarter as the port saw 17% fewer vessels in the last month. Both LNG and LPG vessels recorded lows for the year with 38% and 16% declines respectively. Tankers followed suit as those arrivals plunged by 46%. Even chemical tankers – the port’s most frequent visitor – were off by 4% for the month and 10% year-over-year.

Houston’s first quarter of the year was quite heartening. It out-paced the prior year by 3% and chalked up its best month thus far in 2024. Chemical tankers played a substantial role in the port’s positive gains with an 18% monthly rise. Ironically, this category is off 3% for the year. On the other hand, the port’s most numerous vessel category – tankers – was off 7% for the month but remains 6% above last year’s pace. LPG and oceangoing barges put up their best numbers for the quarter due to their respective upticks of 3% and 9%. 

General cargo thrashed all other vessel types – percentage wise - with its 54% monthly ascent. Alas, that was not enough to pull this category into positive territory for the year given that it trails last year’s count by 3%. Finally, containerships were down 2% over the last month but remain up for the year by 4%. This only conveys part of the story with respect to the region’s appetite for containerized merchandise and world’s hunger for exports via container. The former is 14% higher than 2023’s first quarter; the latter 15% above the same period. Yet, despite such positive news, the port’s total container count dropped 4% over the last month. That was a bit of surprise given that March had two extra days and container volumes should be trending higher through April. Perhaps the penchant to consume is being tempered by the availability of fewer dollars to spend. 

President Coolidge’s plea that his prized possession not be taken was rejoined by a penitent confession that the intruder was desperate for cash so that he could purchase a train ticket home. He lamented that he had meant no harm but was in dire fiscal straits. Filled with compassion, the nation’s new leader calmly arose from his bed, gave the would-be absconder $30 and told him how to sneak past the presidential security detail. As President Coolidge later recounted this incident to a national civic group he opined, “There is no dignity so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.” Today, those words would serve our elected officials quite well as our debt mounts. 

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.