Glance at a map that shows the major cities of the world and it’s easy to see that most of them share a crucial feature: They lie along a major waterway or coastline that affords them crucial access to waterborne cargo transportation.

Like most great cities, New Orleans can trace its roots to tiny cargo operations established by early entrepreneurs – including pirate Jean Lafitte – who knew that the ability to move cargo by water would be critical to building a viable economy. Three hundred years later, the city continues to draw its lifeblood from the powerful Mississippi River.

New Orleans’ strength as a port city is evident in the miles of wharves and cargo-handling facilities that line the riverbanks in Orleans and neighboring parishes. The Port of New Orleans has come a long way since traders carried furs, food and booty in canoes or flatboats and stored their cargo in makeshift “warehouses” built near the river.

Today’s warehouses are massive and protected; the cargo is amazingly diverse; and the freighters and container ships that come from ports around the globe call at technologically advanced docks manned by thousands of workers.

Recent figures released by the local port show that it continues to adapt to changing times by expanding its ability to handle cargo carried in containers.

The 20- to 40-foot-long boxcar-like containers have become the vehicle of choice for moving many types of cargo throughout the world. Filled with everything from construction materials to food products to wearing apparel, the containers are stacked high on oceangoing vessels and off loaded with relative ease by giant cranes that plop them onto trucks or trains to be moved on to inland destinations.

Last year the Port of New Orleans set a new record in the handling of such cargo, moving nearly 500,000 containers through the Napoleon Avenue terminal. The total was almost 9 percent higher than in the previous year.

Port President Gary LaGrange says the growth reflected a strong market for exports, including chemical and agriculture products made in dozens of industrial plants that lie between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Many such products have traditionally traveled by land routes from the plants to the port of Houston, for transfer to ships that would carry them overseas. Now, upgrades at the local port have enabled the export of the products directly out of New Orleans via huge “super bags” carried in containers. LaGrange looks for gradual growth in the overall volume of such cargo in coming years.

Meanwhile, in the last few months of 2014, the port got a sample of what’s to come from the return of Chiquita bananas to local docks. Chiquita, which left New Orleans for Gulfport, Mississippi, more than 40 years ago and recently was lured back with the help of state financial incentives, made weekly calls in November and December, and LaGrange says the company could move some 60,000 containers of bananas through the port this year.

In addition, the port has landed new weekly service from French container carrier CMA CGM, which made its first call in New Orleans in early February and will give the port new connections not only to Europe but to the Mediterranean region, Africa, India and the Middle East.

All of this business adds to an existing container customer base that includes Maersk, Seaboard Marine, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, Orient Overseas Container Line and Hyundai, among other clients that offer regular container services at the Napoleon Avenue container complex, which is jointly operated by Ports America Inc. and New Orleans Terminal LLC.

LaGrange says the port has an expansion under way that will enable it to handle still larger cargo volumes that lie ahead. Upgrades within the Napoleon Avenue Terminal will improve intermodal service by facilitating the transfer of cargo between ship and rail. A $25 million investment in the project, which includes a $17 million federal transportation grant, will add capacity equal to about 200,000 containers when the project is completed early next year.

The port and New Orleans Terminal also are jointly investing $8 million in a refrigerated container racking system in order to meet surging demand for refrigerated cargo, primarily including bananas and exported poultry.

LaGrange looks for a strengthening economy and increased demand for goods to keep cargo volumes climbing in New Orleans, predicting the total container count through the port could edge toward 600,000 this year.

Beyond that, the next landmark event may be the opening of the expanded Panama Canal. The long-awaited widening of the canal will enable passage by much larger ships and is certain to bring new cargo business to U.S. ports.

LaGrange says that marketing studies suggest Gulf Coast ports will receive between 15 percent and 20 percent of the total added cargo volume stemming from the canal’s opening. That could mean between 3 and 5 million additional containers crossing Gulf Coast docks.

The new business likely will be divided among four competing ports, in New Orleans, Houston, Mobile, Alabama and Tampa, Florida, LaGrange says.

The widened Panama Canal is slated to open in 2016.

Cruises Climb Too

Along with rising container cargo through the Port of New Orleans, the passenger cruise business is hitting new highs as well. Local terminals set a local record by handling more than 1 million cruise passengers last year.

The port hosts four cruise ships that offer either year-round or seasonal cruises from New Orleans to Caribbean destinations.

Recently, Viking River Cruises announced that the company’s first North American river cruise itineraries will make New Orleans their home port, beginning in 2017.