History of Savannah Pilots

The profession of American pilotage began in 1789 when the First Congress of the United States recognized the occupation and under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, drafted legislation leaving state pilotage under the direction of the respective states. Savannah’s international trade, however, was launched long before, in 1749, when James Habersham and Charles Harris formed an export/import company and sent the first commercial vessel to England loaded with deer skins, lumber, cattle, hogs and poultry, valued at $10,000.00. Prior to this venture, all international trade in and out of Savannah had to pass through Port Royal or Charleston, SC.

By the turn of the century, 1800, international trade between Savannah and England had passed the $2 million a year mark, and more and more able pilots were needed to guide the ships of commerce through the muddy waters of the Savannah river channel. At that time the river was only 10 feet deep, but even then the pilots took advantage of tide rise increases of several feet to maneuver deeper vessels into port.

During the War Between the States, when Savannah river became cluttered with sunken ships and the dangers posed by the Union Blockade, the brave pilots continued their responsibilities. Yankee steamers were constantly patrolling the coast, obstructing the commerce that was the very lifeline of Savannah’s economy, and some of Savannah’s pilots risked all to run the blockade again and again, keeping trade moving during that critical time.

In April 1864, the city of Atlanta fell beneath the onslaught of Sherman’s Army, and in the following months Union destruction marched through the state enroute to the sea. During this chaotic time a troupe of farsighted state pilots met to formally organize the group they called the Savannah Pilots Association. Aware that Savannah’s port was certain to grow and develop after the war, these men charted their future course in the best interest of their profession. They defined their peace-time role and re-emphasized the port’s contribution to the state’s economy, and their commitment to the growth and development of Savannah’s port.

The pilots were soon proved right in their forward thinking and expectations. Soon after the Civil War ending in 1865 the reconstruction era was launched by the people of Georgia, supported by state leadership. Deepening on the Savannah river was begun, first with city funds and later with federal assistance provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1889, work was completed that took the channel to a depth of 20 feet to facilitate the passage of ever larger vessels calling on Savannah‘s port.

Since its founding, members of the Savannah Pilots Association have seen and experienced an evolution of the Savannah river, the gradual deepening of the channel from 10 feet to its present depth of 42 feet; the replacement of many bridges; the establishment of Garden City Container Terminal and Ocean Terminal.

MSC Roma & Savannah PortThe Savannah Pilots Association has always played an important role in the growth and development of the Savannah port, Savannah economy, and Georgia’s economic well-being. Their top priority is “SAFETY FIRST” and that has saved lives and vessels along the 25+ mile journey from the sea entrance to the Savannah ports. Along with all the facilities and conveniences provided by the Georgia Ports Authority, the skills and strict professionalism of the pilots have been instrumental in making the Savannah ports an international transportation hub and a favorite choice for many shipping lines.

These pilots, their fathers, grandfathers, and back through the centuries, have seen it all, war and peace, the Union blockade, the German submarines patrolling of the coast during the World Wars, and now, today’s giant container ships like the MSC Roma.

One of the nation’s oldest pilots association, the Savannah Pilots Association has matured with time, has become better skilled with new experiences, and has solidified it basic philosophy of “SAFETY FIRST” above self. The Savannah Pilots Association is a glorious example of what men with commitment, skill and craftsmanship can do in the interest of industry, economy and human well-being. These are the vanguards of a brighter future, built upon a proven past. Their call of duty, their profession, and their status as members of the Savannah Pilots Association demand superior skills, judgements and alertness. They have performed above their own standards for all these years to help vessels in their charge, to help the Savannah ports grow, and to help the economy of the city and state continue to grow and flourish.