The Port of Lake Charles is located in southwest Louisiana on the Calcasieu River. It is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east-northeast of the Port of Beaumont in Texas and almost 140 kilometers (86 miles) west-northwest of the Port of Iberia in Louisiana. All three ports are part of the Mississippi River Delta waterway system. A port of entry into the United States, the Port of Lake Charles linked to the Gulf of Mexico by a 55-kilometer (34-mile) deep-water channel and Calcasieu Lake.
The Port of Lake Charles was at one time a pirate port that Jean Laffite frequented. Today, the Port of Lake Charles is a national leader in the petrochemical industry, due in part to the productive development of mineral resources like natural gas, sulfur, and oil. The 2010 US Census reported a population of almost 72 thousand in the Port of Lake Charles and over 199 thousand in the metropolitan area.
Before Europeans came to the future Port of Lake Charles area, it was populated by the Ishak people. French and Spanish explorers adopted the name that the Choctaw used for the Ishak, calling them the Atakapa. The Atakapa-Ishak people lived in what is now southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas.
The indigenous Atakapa-Ishak were a peaceful people, yet many have served in the United States armed forces during wars. While once thought to be extinct due to diseases brought by Europeans, the Atakapa-Ishak are now a united people seeking to be a federally-recognized tribe.
In 1781, a couple from Bordeaux, France, were the first Europeans to settle in the future Port of Lake Charles. The LeBleus lent their name to the earliest settlement. Marrying their daughter, settler Charles Sallier constructed their new home on the site of modern Port of Lake Charles. Known as Charles Town, the settlement on Lake Charles grew steadily. In 1861, the future Port of Lake Charles was incorporated as Charleston, Louisiana.
During the 19th Century, lumber was a booming business in the Port of Lake Charles. Agriculture was a major contributor to the economy. The waterways of the area supported commerce, but they needed improvement.
By the end of the American Civil War, the demand for Louisiana lumber was tremendous as the South rebuilt. Saw mills began to appear in Calcasieu Parish surrounding the Port of Lake Charles. Sailing vessels navigated the shallow river to move lumber and other cargo. Local Port of Lake Charles leaders asked the federal government to develop a deep-water channel to facilitate traffic on the river, but their requests were not fulfilled.
In 1880, the US Congress created a deputy harbor tax collector for the Port of Lake Charles, but he did not arrive for another decade. By the end of the 1880s, a channel was dredged to 21 meters (70 feet) wide and 2.1 thousand meters (7500 feet) long in the Port of Lake Charles.
Although the Port of Lake Charles lumber industry was in decline by the end of the 1800s, the rice industry was growing. Much of the failure of the lumber industry in the Port of Lake Charles could be attributed to the lack of proper marine transportation on the Calcasieu River. Even so, the demand for rice created a need for better waterborne transportation from the Port of Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1915, the Intracoastal Canal was completed to connect the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers. The canal was 33 kilometers (20.5 miles) long with a 27-meter (90-foot) bottom width, and a depth of 3.7 meters (12 feet). The new canal brought opportunities for more commerce to the Port of Lake Charles.
In 1921, the Louisiana Legislature authorized the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury to conduct elections for bonds to the purchase of rights of way and finance the widening and dredging of the Calcasieu River and Lake Charles. Port of Lake Charles voters approved the bond issue to create a navigation route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Sabine River through the Intracoastal Canal.
In 1924, the Legislature created the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District (also called the Port of Lake Charles), charging it with building, operating, and maintaining port facilities in the Port of Lake Charles. It also created a Board of Commissioners to be appointed by the Governor. In 1926, the Port of Lake Charles got its first port director, H.J. Luhn.
In 1926, the ocean-going S.S. Sewalls Point docked in the Port of Lake Charles to unload 8.2 thousand tons of fertilizer and canned goods. The official opening of the Port of Lake Charles had not yet been held, but local leaders envisioned a new era of prosperity for the Port of Lake Charles. Later that year, the Port of Lake Charles was formally opened for business, and the S.S. Cleveland docked at the new wharves on its way to Nicaragua.
The Port of Lake Charles opened with a creosote timber berth and two steel-frame transit sheds. At the time of the opening of the port, Calcasieu Parish contributed 66% of the rice grown in the US. Shortly after the opening, acreage devoted to growing cotton increased to 9000 acres.
The Port of Lake Charles and the city flourished with the new commerce. New rice and lumber mills were constructed. Increasingly more diverse cargoes traveled through the Port of Lake Charles. The improved waterways, rail connections, and the new port made Lake Charles an attractive site for industries.
In the late 1930s, the US Congress appropriated over $9 million for channel dredging and the construction of the Calcasieu jetties in the Port of Lake Charles. In mid-1941, dredging of the 55-kilometer (34-mile) long channel with a depth of 10 meters (33 feet) from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico was complete. Now, vessels could move from the Gulf to the Port of Lake Charles in seven hours.
US entry into World War II, combined with the newly-completed channel, brought a new era of growth to the Port of Lake Charles. New companies like Continental Oil, Firestone, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and many others built plants along the river. Vessels filled the docks with cargoes of rice, lumber, tires, cotton, walnuts, resin, and many other goods.
In the 1950s, the Opelousas refinery was constructed in the Port of Lake Charles with three storage tanks and a total capacity for 1200 tons. In the 1960s, Bulk Terminal No. 1 was built on the West Bank of the Calcasieu Ship Channel.