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Baltimore's China connection


The dull gray containership flying a blood-red flag eased up the icy Patapsco River and berthed at the Seagirt Marine Terminal at Point Breeze.

The Min He had an unceremonious arrival early yesterday morning. Within minutes overhead cranes were unloading rectangular metal boxes from the 774-foot ship. Soon tractor-trailer trucks and a CSX diesel locomotive arrived to move the cargo to other destinations. And fresh containers from local and regional shippers were loaded aboard, inaugurating the first direct service from Baltimore to China in recent history.

By 2 p.m. the ship was gone, clearing the Key Bridge and heading down the Chesapeake Bay toward Charleston, S.C.

The Min He's docking here was a noteworthy event for the port of Baltimore -- the first visit by the giant conglomerate Cosco, the China Ocean Shipping Co., mainland China's maritime link with world ports. The new service enables the port of Baltimore and Middle Atlantic shippers to have a direct connection with lucrative Far East markets.

Cosco's huge fleet helps make China one of the world's leading maritime entities. Its sea power has emerged in the last 15 years in the same way that Baltimore and its harbor were rapidly growing when the China connection was first established more than 200 years ago.

The Min He's voyage began in Xingang, the port of the city of Tianjin. The ship crossed the Pacific Ocean and came through the Panama Canal to reach the port of New York. On the regular run, Cosco ships will call in Baltimore three times a month, using the Suez Canal route from the Far East.

The Min He -- it means River Min, a waterway that empties into the Straits of Taiwan at the city of Fuzhou -- docked on the shores of Canton, just south of a former Western Electric manufacturing plant, in an old Baltimore industrial neighborhood named two centuries ago in honor of Canton, China.

Customs officials said the Min He, which displaces 47,625 tons, discharged a cargo of mixed goods.

Massive containerships cut a far different image than the sleek wooden clippers with their billowing sails. It takes about five weeks for modern vessels to sail from China to Baltimore -- compared with the months that clippers took rounding the Cape of Good Hope in search of calm seas and favorable winds.

During the 1840s and 1850s, the Baltimore shipyards along what is now Key Highway hummed as carpenters laid the keels and raised the masts of clippers.

In the days before World War II, the Glenn L. Martin aircraft factory in Middle River produced a China Clipper, and other seaplanes berthed at a municipal airport adjacent to the spot where the Min He docked.

There is one true clipper ship left in the world, a British vessel named the Cutty Sark, berthed in Greenwich, England. But that era for Baltimore lives on in its Canton neighborhood and in the models, Chinese porcelain and and paintings of the Maryland Historical Society.

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