Column: Did Suez Canal Back-Up Have a N.C. Connection? – Southern Pines Pilot

Posted: April 19, 2021 at 7:05 am

Who is responsible for last months jam-up in the Suez Canal? Could it be a North Carolinian with ties to Pinehurst?

The damages to the quarter-mile-long container ship Ever Given, which ran aground in the canal, are just the beginning. Egypt lost millions in toll revenue from hundreds of ships backed up. Somebody has to pay for the earth moving equipment and tugboats that dislodged the Ever Given from the canals banks, where it was stuck for six days.

Then there are damages that will accrue to owners of the cargo items for late delivery charges and for the spoilage to time sensitive agricultural products.

Could all this have been caused by a North Carolinian?

Yes, it is easy to argue that Malcom McLean, the son of a sharecropper tobacco farmer in Robeson County, shares responsibly.

McLean (1913-2001) is known as the Father of Containerization because he developed the modern intermodal shipping container that revolutionized freight transportation.

Prior to the 1950s, most shipping cargo was loaded by longshoremen in a time-consuming and costly operation.

McLean began the revolution that led to using strong truck trailer-sized containers to load ocean ships.

How dirt farmer McLean came up with the idea and built businesses around it is a great American story of entrepreneurism and determined work.

Malcom not Malcolm spelled his name without the extra l. Though born in Maxton, he finished high school in Winston Salem in 1935. His family did not have enough money to send him to college. They used the little money they could scrape up to buy a used truck. It was the beginning of McLean Trucking Co., which started operations in Red Springs.

In 1937 McLean drove a truckload of cotton to a port in Hoboken, N.J., where, as he remembered, I had to wait most of the day to deliver the bales, sitting there in my truck, watching stevedores load other cargo. It struck me that I was looking at a lot of wasted time and money. I watched them take each crate off the truck and slip it into a sling, which would then lift the crate into the hold of the ship.

He put that thought about wasted time aside for almost 20 years while he built McLean Trucking, then headquartered in Winston Salem, into the largest trucking fleet in the South.

But he saw the possibility of a container sized to fit on a truck bed or railcar, or stacked on a ship. He saw how to eliminate the wasted time he had experienced in Hoboken. He developed and patented a standard steel reinforced container that fit on a truck bed and was stackable on ships. He founded a new company, SeaLand, to exploit the opportunity.

As McLeans first container ship left Newark harbor in 1956, someone asked Freddy Fields, a top official of the International Longshoremens Association, What do you think of that new ship? Fields replied, Id like to sink that sonofabitch. Fields knew that McLeans way of transferring freight would put longshoremen out of work.

The world found out that the new way of loading and transferring freight opened doors for increased world trade and for more and more container ships, larger and larger ones, carrying more and more containers like those stacked to the sky on the Ever Given.

McLeans Pinehurst ties didnt surface until his shipping enterprise was awash in success. Diamondhead Inc., a real estate development company controlled by McLean, bought Pinehurst Inc. in the late 1970s from the Tufts family, for $9.2 million. Diamondhead had several divisions, but its main business was developing resort communities. In less than a full decade, the company spent millions more on developing homes, condos and much of what you see today in Pinehurst, including the Members Club and Course No. 6. It also built what you dont see today: a Golf Hall of Fame that eventually closed and was torn down.

The whole relationship eventually soured, and Pinehurst incorporated as a village in 1980. Club Corp., owned by Bob Dedman Sr., bought the resort and golf business.

As for McLean, his revolution in containerized shipping brought us cheaper products from other parts of the world. It gave us the opportunity to produce and sell our goods internationally without having to pay exorbitant shipping and handling costs.

And it made possible the gigantic Ever Given loaded with 18,300 containers that plowed into the Suez banks.

Give McLean the credit he is due for revolutionizing world trade. And then you can hold him partly accountable for the jam-up of the monster container ship in the Suez.

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV).

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Column: Did Suez Canal Back-Up Have a N.C. Connection? - Southern Pines Pilot

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