The Port of Mobile, the State of Alabama's only seaport, lies on Mobile Bay off the United States' shores on the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mobile River. This river port is about 85 kilometers northeast of the Port of Biloxi, Mississippi, and some 95 kilometers northwest of the Port of Pensacola, Florida. North America's Mardi Gras was born in the Port of Mobile, Alabama's third largest city. In 2000, the Port of Mobile was home to almost 199 thousand people, and over 540 thousand people lived in the Port of Mobile metropolitan area.
Industrializing after the early 20th Century, the Port of Mobile was an important ship-building and -repair center during World War II, and it continues to be a center for that industry. The Port of Mobile is also home to manufacturers of paper products, apparel, chemicals, computer hardware and software, and aircraft parts. The city's major industries are construction, aerospace, manufacturing, medicine, and services. The major service industries in the Port of Mobile are education, government, and healthcare. Oil and natural gas taken from the Gulf of Mexico are also important to the local economy.
Named after the indigenous Mobilian tribe of Mobile Bay, the Port of Mobile was a colony of France, Britain, and then Spain during its first century. The Port of Mobile was the first capital of French Louisiana in 1702 when it was called Fort Louis de la Louisiane.
The Port of Mobile's founders were French Canadian brothers to establish control over French Louisiana's claims. The Mobile Roman Catholic parish was created in 1703, and it was the first parish established on the Gulf Coast of the United States.
In 1704, yellow fever arrived at the new Port of Mobile aboard the Pelican. While the French women that it carried mostly survived, the yellow fever killed many colonists and Native Americans. During this period, the first African slaves arrived as well. By 1712, about 400 people lived in the new colony. In 1720 when the capital of Louisiana was moved to Biloxi, the Port of Mobile continued to be a trade and military center. In 1723, a new brick Fort Conde replaced the old fort.
The Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War in 1763, and it ceded the Port of Mobile territory to Great Britain. The British made it part of their West Florida colony and changed the name of Fort Conde to Fort Charlotte after King George III's queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
Eager to keep as many productive inhabitants as possible, the British promised religious freedom to the French residents of the Port of Mobile. Jewish residents were attracted by the policy of religious tolerance (the French had not tolerated any but Catholics). The new Jewish residents were largely merchants and traders, and they helped the Port of Mobile's commercial development.
By 1766, about 860 people lived in the Port of Mobile. Then during the American Revolution, the West Florida colony and the Port of Mobile were a refuge for British loyalists escaping the rebelling colonies.
The Spanish Empire in the New World wanted to remove the British threat to their colony in Louisiana (won from the French by the Treaty of Paris), and they captured the Port of Mobile in 1780. The Spanish renamed the fort Fortaleza Carlota, and they made the Port of Mobile a part of West Florida. It remained under Spanish control until 1813 when it was taken by the United States during the War of 1812.
In 1813, the Port of Mobile was part of the Mississippi Territory. Its population had shrunk to about 300. When Mississippi gained statehood in 1817, the Port of Mobile became part of the Alabama Territory. By 1819 when Alabama won statehood, over 800 people lived in the Port of Mobile. Farmers had settled the riverfront areas, and the southern plantation economy was well established. Statehood brought a boom in population growth.
The growing Port of Mobile attracted doctors, attorneys, merchants, mechanics, and many others wanting to take advantage of the busy upriver trade. By 1822, the city was home to almost 3000 people.
After the 1820s, the Port of Mobile grew as a commercial center, particularly due to the brisk cotton trade. The waterfront gained wharves, terminals, and warehouses. By 1840, the Port of Mobile was outstripped in United States' cotton exports only by the Port of New Orleans. Mobile's economy was based on cotton, and its fortunes were tied to the cotton crops. It was also the center for slave trade until the 1850s.
By 1860, almost 30 thousand free people lived in the Port of Mobile. A scant 1785 people owned more than 11 thousand slaves in the Port of Mobile, bringing the county's population to over 41 thousand. The Port of Mobile was a Confederate city during the American Civil War. The first submarine to sink an enemy ship was built in the Port of Mobile.
In 1864, the Union took the Port of Mobile in the Battle of Mobile Bay. In order to avoid the destruction that other southern cities had suffered, the city surrendered to the Union just three days after General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomatox Courthouse. Despite that caution, a federal ammunition depot exploded in Mobile in 1865, killing about 300 people, sinking ships docked in the river, and destroying the northern part of the city.
The post-Civil War Reconstruction of the Port of Mobile lasted from the end of the war until 1874 when local Democrats won the city government. In the last decades of the 19th Century, the Port of Mobile suffered economic depression and insolvency like many other southern cities.
The 20th Century brought new economic and population growth to the Port of Mobile. By 1920, about 60 thousand people lived there. In the first decades of the 20th Century, the Port of Mobile and the harbor were improved. The shipping channels were deepened, and new port infrastructure was added.
Manufacturing, ship-building, and steel production became important to the city's economy during and after World War I. However, racial relations deteriorated over the same period. The first segregation ordinance was passed to segregate streetcars in the Port of Mobile in 1902, bringing a two-month unsuccessful boycott by the city's black population. Over the following decades, de facto segregation was replaced by formal Jim Crow laws.
The Port of Mobile's shipyards and the Brookley Army Air Field brought tremendous growth during World War II, as workers came to join the war effort. Almost 90 thousand people moved to the Port of Mobile between 1940 and 1943. The Port of Mobile was one of 18 cities in the United States that produced Liberty ships. Its Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company made war ships faster than the Axis could sink them. The Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation constructed freighters, destroyers, and minesweepers.
After World War II, ship-building in the Port of Mobile took a back seat to the paper and chemical industries, and most of the old military bases were closed. After having served the war effort, African Americans began to press for social justice and equal rights in the Port of Mobile. Although more moves toward integration had taken place in the Port of Mobile than in other southern cities, the black minority was not satisfied.
In 1963, the Mobile County School Board was sued by three black students for denial of admission to Murphy High School. The following year, the court ordered the students' admission, and the desegregation of the Port of Mobile's county school system began as the end of legal segregation in the country came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
When Brookley Air Force Base was closed in the late 1960s, the Port of Mobile's economy felt the blow. The city entered a decade-long era of economic depression. In the 1980s, the city took on a new initiative to make the Port of Mobile a more competitive city. They built new facilities, undertook municipal projects, and restored many historic homes and buildings. Violent crimes decreased, and new businesses began to move into the city. Ship-building began anew in 1999 when Austal USA was founded in the Port of Mobile.