The Port of Norfolk lies on the banks of the Elizabeth River in Tidewater Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Located about seven nautical miles from another Virginia Port, the Port of Newport News, it is about 150 nautical miles south of the Port of Baltimore via the Chesapeake Bay. The Port of Norfolk is part of an urban area that also contains Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, Newport News, and Hampton. The Port of Norfolk is the site for the grave and memorial for U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. In 2008, over 234 people called the Port of Norfolk home, and more than 1.6 million lived in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News metropolitan area.
Because the Port of Norfolk is the heart of the cultural and commercial center of a unique region called Hampton Roads, it is difficult to identify a distinct separate economic profile for the city. Shipping, shipbuilding, and light industry are important economic activities in the Port of Norfolk. The surrounding waterways, its location at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and its protected deep-water channels make the Port of Norfolk an important trade center for goods traveling between the North American Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions as well as for international goods. The second most important contributor to the Port of Norfolk economy is the region's three cargo ports owned and operated by the Virginia Port Authority. The Norfolk International Terminals boasts the world's biggest and fastest container cranes. The three ports combined handled more than two million TEUs of containerized cargo in 2006.
The Port of Norfolk is an important military center for the US Navy, with the headquarters for the US Fleet Forces Command located in the city's northwest corner. It is also the home port for the Second Fleet and the headquarters for NATO's Allied Command Transformation and the US Joint Forces Command. Given the strong military presence, it is no surprise that the Port of Norfolk is also home to many defense industries, particularly those that build and repair ships. Several important private shipyards are located in the Port of Norfolk area, and the US Navy's Norfolk Naval Shipyard is located in Portsmouth. Economists report that over 35% of the Gross Regional Product and 75% of all 21st Century regional growth is attributable to US defense spending.
Before Europeans arrived in the area, the Powhatan Renape, a confederacy of tribes and a subdivision of the Algonquian Nation controlled the area of the future Port of Norfolk. Although they failed to do so, this proud tribe sought to drive the invading English settlers out of their lands. Attacks on the Europeans from 1622 to 1644 brought cruel reprisals from the English, and by 1646, the Powhatan Confederacy had been all but destroyed, both by the infectious diseases the whites brought to them to the Port of Norfolk and the wars with the English.
The Virginia Colony's Governor, Sir George Yeardley, created four incorporations (cities) in 1619 for the developed portion of the colony on the Chesapeake Bay. The future Port of Norfolk was part of the Elizabeth Cittie incorporation (with Newport News). In 1622, an indentured servant named Adam Thoroughgood came to Virginia from Norfolk, England. After earning his freedom, he became a leader of the new colony and the Port of Norfolk.
England's King Charles I reorganized the colony into shires in 1634, and the earlier Elizabeth Cittie became Elizabeth City Shire. Adam Thoroughgood convinced 105 people to join him in settling along the Lynnhaven River in 1636, and he was granted a large parcel of land. He suggested the new settlement be named after his birthplace. When New Norfolk County was split in two, Lower Norfolk County became the birthplace of the future Port of Norfolk.
In the late 1600s, "Half Moone" fort was built, and the Port of Norfolk purchased 20 hectares for 10 thousand pounds of tobacco. In 1680, the Towne of Lower Norfolk County was established by the colony's House of Burgesses. The Port of Norfolk was incorporated in 1705. In 1736, King George II granted a charter to establish the Port of Norfolk as a borough.
By 1775, the Port of Norfolk was arguably Virginia's most prosperous city. It was a busy export port for goods to the British Empire. Due to its close ties with Great Britain, it was also a strong Loyalist base during the American Revolution. The Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, tried to make the Port of Norfolk his base when he fled Williamsburg in the face of American forces. While he was able to maintain control for a short time, Dunmore was eventually forced into exile by the rebels, bringing to an end over 168 years of British rule in the Port of Norfolk and Virginia.
In 1776, a fleet of three ships led by Lord Dunmore bombarded the Port of Norfolk for more than eight hours. The shelling and fires within the town destroyed almost 66% of the city, including more than 800 buildings. As part of their strategy, the American patriots destroyed the surviving buildings. The only structure left standing was the walls of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, and a cannonball is still in the wall.
After having been burned down during the Revolutionary War, the Port of Norfolk had a slow start in the 1800s. A bad fire in 1804 destroyed about 300 buildings on the waterfront, and the Port of Norfolk underwent a difficult economic decline as a result. When the southern States suffered a long recession in the 1820s, many families moved to the north and west. Migrants also left the Port of Norfolk area because tobacco cultivation had exhausted the Tidewater soils.
In the 1830s, the State tried several times to phase out slavery or to repatriate blacks to Africa. Many of the blacks from North Carolina and Virginia departed the United States' shores from the Port of Norfolk. A native of the Port of Norfolk, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, later became the first president of Liberia.
In 1861, the delegate for the Port of Norfolk was instructed by voters to support Virginia's secession from the Union. In early 1862, the Battle of Hampton Roads saw the first fight between to ironclad vessels, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, off the northwest shores of the Port of Norfolk. Neither side won that battle, but the Mayor surrendered the Port of Norfolk to Union forces led by General John E. Wool later that year. The Port of Norfolk was under martial law for the rest of the Civil War, and thousands of slaves escaped to the Port of Norfolk during and after the war.
In 1907, the Virginian Railway arrived, and the Jamestown Exposition commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the ill-fated colony was held in the Port of Norfolk. A huge Naval Review was held at the Exposition, making the way for the world's largest naval base. In 1917, the United States was preparing to enter World War I, and the Naval Air Station Hampton Roads was built on the old Exposition grounds in the Port of Norfolk.
During the first years of the 20th Century, the Port of Norfolk expanded by annexing nearby communities. When the Interstate Highway System was created, the region of the Port of Norfolk was opened to more traffic and commerce. Bridges and tunnels linked the Port of Norfolk with Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and the Peninsula.
In the middle of the 20th Century, the Port of Norfolk and the State of Virginia reacted to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to segregate schools. The State adopted a policy of "massive resistance" and denied state funding for public schools that were integrated. The Port of Norfolk had voluntarily integrated its schools. However, when the US district courts ordered the State to open integrated schools in 1958, the Governor ordered public schools to be closed. After many political struggles and court decisions, the State rescinded its "massive resistance" laws in late 1959, and 17 black children entered six segregated public schools in the Port of Norfolk.
Suburban development combined with desegregation to motivate middle-class white residents of the Port of Norfolk to move away from the city, causing the population to decrease. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, suburban shopping centers and freeways drew much of the retail business from the Granby Street commercial corridor near the Port of Norfolk waterfront.
City leaders began to look to the Port of Norfolk waterfront to revive the city. Outdated shipping facilities and warehouses were demolished, and a new boulevard, Waterside Drive, was created and lined with high-rise buildings.
In 1983, the Port of Norfolk and The Rouse Company collaborated to create the Waterside festival marketplace. Other facilities began to return to the urban core. The Harbor Park baseball stadium, home to the city's Triple-A minor league team, was recognized by Baseball America as the best minor league baseball facility in the US in 1995.
The Port of Norfolk's revitalization efforts have been praised by urban planning and economic development professionals across the United States. The Port of Norfolk's downtown area continues to recover, increasing the city's revenues and enabling the city to look to other areas.