Port celebrates 50th anniversary of arrival of first containers

In a year when Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary and Montreal is marking its 375th birthday, the Port of Montreal is also celebrating a very special milestone: a half century of container handling.

Indeed, on April 4, the Montreal Port Authority (MPA) and its clients celebrated the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the very first containers in the Port of Montreal. It’s mind-boggling to think that nearly 35 million containers have transited through the port since then!

The introduction of year-round navigation on the St. Lawrence River in 1964 and the worldwide growth of container shipping in the 1960s helped make possible the start of container handling in Montreal in 1967. More importantly, this shipping phenomenon would end up defining the port’s future.

Manchester Liners Ltd. unloaded the first containers in Montreal in 1967. That year, the port handled 11,374 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) containers, all of which were transported across the sea by Manchester Liners.

On November 15, 1968, Manchester Liners and the port inaugurated Canada’s first container terminal, appropriately named Manchester Terminal, and the shipping line launched the first regular weekly container transport service between Manchester, United Kingdom, and Montreal. Trucks and trains transported containers to final destinations in Quebec and Ontario. Smaller ships also moved them through the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes region.

The National Harbours Board (NHB), which administered the Port of Montreal at the time, built the terminal. It was located near where Maisonneuve Terminal now stands.

“We favoured Montreal as the centre of the huge consuming and manufacturing area surrounding and embracing this great city and, since pure container service to any Great Lakes ports was, in our opinion, impractical, it was the nearest port through which we could handle imports to and exports from the vitally important Toronto/Hamilton complex and the high industrialized eastern section of Ontario,” said Peter Evans of Manchester Liners at the terminal inauguration.

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Added NHB chairman Howard A. Mann: “This new overseas container terminal – Canada’s first – is the result of the confidence of many people. It is the result first and foremost of the confidence of Manchester Liners Ltd. and its Canadian agents, Furness Withy & Co. Ltd., in the viability of a container service between the United Kingdom and Montreal. It is the result of the confidence of Canadian National Railways in its ability to adapt itself to the changes being brought about by containerization. It is the result of the confidence of the National Harbours Board in the ability of Montreal and other suitable Canadian ports to compete successfully in the container age and so to retain traffic and jobs in Canada.”

Container traffic continues to grow

From that moment on, container traffic through the port continued to increase. In response to demand, the NHB built Cast and Racine terminals in 1972 and 1978, respectively, in Montreal’s east end. The port’s container facilities were constructed there so as not to encroach upon the downtown area. Maisonneuve Terminal was built in 1987 by the Montreal Port Corporation, which replaced the NHB in Montreal and preceded the MPA.

Today, eight regular services operated by five shipping lines – CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Line (MSC) and OOCL (which acquired Manchester Liners in 1980) – link Montreal to some 140 countries around the world. Furthermore, Oceanex operates a container shipping service linking Montreal and St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2016, the Port handled 1,447,566 TEUs, or more than 13 million tonnes of containerized cargo traffic.

Today, the Port of Montreal is the only container port on the St. Lawrence River and the largest container port in Eastern Canada.


Goods such as food products, fresh produce, electronic equipment and forestry products that are transported by container through Montreal mainly originate from, or are destined to, Northern Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean.

“In this year of festivities for Montreal and Canada, I am pleased to celebrate the 50 years of containerization that forged our history,” said Sylvie Vachon, the MPA’s President and CEO, at the MPA’s annual client reception in Montreal. “Containers are literally in our DNA at the Port of Montreal. It’s what sets us apart and it’s our strength, right on par with the great diversity of cargo that we handle.

“Like a magnet, the Port of Montreal attracts companies and services that benefit from its presence, and that’s why the logistics industry is so important in Greater Montreal.”

To accommodate growth in the container market, the port inaugurated the new Viau Terminal in November 2016 and it is currently working on plans for a container terminal at Contrecoeur, thereby ensuring the future of container handling for Montreal and Quebec.

To see a photo history of containerization in Montreal, click here.

The origins of containerization

Malcom McLean, an American entrepreneur, is known as the “father of containerization.” McLean was actually a trucker. He developed the metal shipping container in 1956. It replaced the traditional method of handling all dry goods in crates, on pallets, etc. This faster, more organized and less costly way of moving goods revolutionized the transport of cargo worldwide. McLean later founded Sea-Land Service, Inc., one of the pioneers of the intermodal cargo transport business.