Port of Buenos Aires

Year:1897

Duration:13 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: Argentina

Build a port to serve the capital of Argentina

The Port of Buenos Aires is the main port of Argentina. The state-run dock complex – sometimes known as Puerto Novo (New Port) – handles around 11.7m tons of cargo every year. The complex is in the Retiro area of the city.

Buenos Aires’ other main dock – Dock Sud – is to the south of the city. Owned by city authorities, Dock Sud handles another 17m tons of cargo annually.

Buenos Aires port was founded by the Spanish navy in 1580. Until the 19th century, it was a natural harbour. There was little infrastructure and mooring spaces were in relatively shallow water. This meant larger merchant ships would have to anchor several miles offshore. Cargoes were unloaded onto smaller boats and carried to the port.

City bosses wanted to create a port for Buenos Aires that would help make Argentina a more effective trading nation. They hired British engineer Sir John Hawkshaw – a former ICE president – to design a new facility.

Hawkshaw and his team started work on a four-dock complex in 1884. The first dock opened in 1889. Work was delayed by a major financial crisis – known as ‘the Panic of 1890’.

‘The Panic’ was largely caused by fears that London investment bank Barings Brothers – who were funding the dock project – was bankrupt. The crisis ended when a consortium of banks agreed to guarantee Barings’ investments. Hawkshaw’s dock complex was finally completed in 1897.

Later works saw the construction of a southern dock – Dock Sud – in 1911. The scheme was designed by British engineer Sir Brodie Haldane Henderson – later an ICE president. The scheme had 10,000ft (about 3km) of quays and included a refrigeration plant.

Further work from 1911 saw construction of a breakwater to the north and more space added for ships to berth and unload. The scheme opened in 1925 – making Buenos Aires the biggest port in the southern hemisphere.

Difference the project has made

The extension and development of the port of Buenos Aires helped make Argentina a major trading nation.

The docks continue to be a key employer. With a workforce of thousands, the complex is a major contributor to the local economy.

Regeneration works since 1994 have turned some of the docks into a popular waterfront area for tourists and locals – attracting income to the area.

How the work was done

John Hawkshaw’s design for Buenos Aires port saw engineers building a complex of four impounded docks between 1884 and 1897.

An impounded dock – also called a wet dock - is one where the water level is controlled by a lock or gates. This means water in the dock can be kept high enough to unload a ship even if the tide is low.

Hawkshaw and his team decided to build the docks parallel to the coast with locks fitted at either end.

Once the area had been dredged, engineers excavated lock channels 20m wide. Each was fitted with three sets of lock gates to hold back water. The gates were made of iron – weighing 301 tons apiece.

The project team used granite to line the docks and construct the lock walls. Over 13,300 cubic metres of rock were used for the first dock alone.

Engineers created temporary wood dams around construction sites so workers could build the structures in dry conditions.

Hawkshaw’s first dock was completed in 1888 and officially opened in January 1889.

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Without the streets or dusks of Buenos Aires, a tango cannot be written.

Jorge Luis Borges

Argentinian writer

Fascinating facts

London bank Barings Brothers (later Barings bank) invested heavily in Argentina in the 19th century. An appetite for high risk ventures left Barings on the point of bankruptcy in 1890 amid fears the bank was running out of cash.

The Barings crisis led to a recession in Argentina as promised investment money ran out. Construction projects – such as Buenos Aires docks – were abandoned when bosses couldn’t get loans for materials and wages. Other banks stepped in to underwrite Barings’ schemes – averting total economic meltdown.

Barings recovered and traded successfully for another century. It collapsed in 1995 with losses of £827m after trader Nick Leeson made a series of disastrous high-risk investments. Leeson was jailed for fraud. His story was made into a film, ‘Rogue Trader’, starring Ewan McGregor.

People who made it happen

1897 scheme

  • Client: government of Argentina
  • Designer: Sir John Hawkshaw (ICE president)
  • Finance: Baring Brothers (later Barings bank)

1911 scheme

  • Designer: Sir Brodie Haldane Henderson (ICE president)

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