Waterborne transportation has played a large role in shaping Indiana, from the Ohio River’s earliest Native American populations and the Lewis and Clark expedition to Lake Michigan’s iron ore vessels and ocean freighters.
When the territorial boundaries for Indiana and Michigan were first established, the Indiana territory stopped 10 miles south of Lake Michigan. It wasn’t until Indiana officially became a state in 1816 that Congress established the current border providing Indiana with 45 miles of shoreline on the southern tip of the Great Lakes and laying the foundation for future development of the world’s largest steel producing region and Indiana’s first port.
The first attempts to secure a deepwater public port in Indiana can be traced back to the 1830s. But it wasn’t until a century later that interest in an Indiana deepwater port began to draw attention. In the 1930s, Indiana was the only state bordering Lake Michigan without a public port. In 1939, George A. Nelson, manager of the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, led the creation of the Indiana Board of Public Harbors and Terminals. The organization spearheaded fact-finding and political efforts to get support for creating a deep-draft harbor in the Burns Ditch area.
In 1961, the Indiana General Assembly proposed the creation of an organization with broader authority and funding resources to succeed the Indiana Board of Public Harbors and Terminals and begin constructing a port. Created as the “Indiana Port Commission” – known today as the “Ports of Indiana” – the new port authority was empowered to “promote the agricultural, industrial and commercial development of the state and to provide for the general welfare by the construction and operation, in cooperation with the federal government, or otherwise, of a modern port.” More than 50 years later, much of the original legislative charter for the Ports of Indiana remains largely unchanged.
After 35 years of struggle, the construction of an Indiana port became a reality when Gov. Roger Branigin and the General Assembly granted an appropriation of $15 million to the project in 1965, and $10 million over the next two years from cigarette tax revenues. On Oct. 10, 1966, more than 600 people stood on the edge of Lake Michigan in 50 mph winds to celebrate the ground breaking of the Port of Indiana. In 1970, Indiana’s first port opened for business.
After constructing a Lake Michigan port, state officials immediately set their sights on establishing a port on the Ohio River. An up-and-coming state senator from Evansville – future Gov. Robert Orr – rallied support behind the issue and moved to allocate funds in the Indiana legislature to conduct a feasibility study for a port in southwest Indiana. When the study was completed in 1970, the site just east of Mount Vernon was selected. In 1971, the General Assembly voted to provide an initial grant of $1 million toward the creation of the Mount Vernon port. The formal groundbreaking ceremony took place in 1973 and the port officially opened in 1976.
With the newly modernized Ohio River witnessing an upsurge in commerce and the construction of the Port of Indiana-Mount Vernon fully underway in southwest Indiana, the state turned its attention to the creation of another port further east in Jeffersonville. Initially, it appeared the development of Indiana’s third port would go smoothly, but that was not the case. Although the plan met little opposition in the General Assembly and the money was promptly appropriated for land purchases in Jeffersonville in 1973, outcries against the establishment of the Indiana port were issued by citizens south of the border claiming Kentucky owned Indiana’s Ohio River shoreline dating back to its statehood in 1792. Combined with a variety of other hurdles, the establishment of a third public port in Indiana took over a decade, finally opening in 1985.
Overall, the state invested $90 million to build the ports, but all three facilities eventually became financially self-sufficient by developing successful revenue-generating harbor activities and land leases with companies that ship cargo by water. Currently, the Ports of Indiana does not receive any tax dollars to support its operations and reinvests 100 percent of port revenues to maintain, operate and grow the ports.
By creating public ports, Indiana was able to harness the power of two major waterways – the Great Lakes and Ohio-Mississippi rivers – for attracting world-class, multimodal companies and millions of dollars in private investment. In 2010, an ethanol facility opened at the Port of Indiana-Mount Vernon that included a private investment that was four-times greater than the state’s cost to build all three ports. As magnets for business development, Indiana’s ports provide the state with a significant return by generating more than $6 billion per year in economic activity and supporting over 50,000 jobs.