The little fishing village called Chenna Patnam, which was founded in 1639, became prominent during the early part of the 18th Century when the East India Company was active on the East Coast. In the absence of the Harbour, the Company ships were anchored about quarter mile offshore and the cargo to and from the ships were transported through small lighters called Masula boats. As the loss of cargo while transporting through Masula boats was high, it was proposed to build a pier to berth larger crafts and an Iron screw pile pier was built in 1861 to a length of 1,100 ft., perpendicular to the shore during November 1881, due to violent cyclone over half a mile of breakwater was breached and equipments and human lives lost. Though there was a demand for relocating the entrance, the restoration was resumed in 1885.
Port of Chennai (Madras then!) until the year 1875, was simply an open roadstead on open sandy coast swept by storms and occasional monsoons.
Sir Francis Spring, the then Chairman of Madras Port Trust in 1904 created a new North-Eastern Entrance after closing the original Eastern Entrance to control the siltation of the channel in front of the basin. Subsequently Quays were constructed at different periods (i.e) South Quay-I in 1913, the five West Quay berths in 1916 to 1920, North Quay in 1931 and South Quay II in 1936 in the Inner Harbour which was later, christened as Dr. Ambedkar Dock.
The official inauguration of the wet dock was done on 6th November 1964 by Shri. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minister of India. The dock was christened Jawahar Dock in memory of Shri. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister.
The Bharathi Dock was originally constructed as an outer Harbour to handle vessels upto (-)16.2 M draft. An Oil jetty to handle Crude Oil imported by the Manali Oil Refinery (presently Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd) was constructed initially during the year 1970. An Iron Ore berth was constructed in the same dock in 1974 for exporting Iron Ore to Japan and other Far East countries. Subsequently one more oil jetty was constructed during the year 1985 to meet the additional demand for crude/products
In 1970s the Madras Port Trust started handling containers in Inner Harbour and as the container traffic was increasing, a Container Terminal of 380 M length was constructed at Bharathi Dock during the year 1983 as a first full-fledged Container Hub of the Country with Container Storage Yard of 51,000 sq.m and a Container Freight Station of 6000 sq.m. area. The terminal was provided with two shore cranes and other shore facilities required for Container Terminal.
Subsequently the terminal was further extended by 220 M during the year 1991 with additional two shore cranes and other matching infrastructural facilities. As the container traffic was constantly increasing the terminal was further extended by 285 M, during July 2002. This Container Terminal of 885 M total berth length with backup area was privatized under concessional agreement with M/s. Chennai Container Terminal Private Ltd., on BOT basis for 30 years from November 2001.
Consequent to the renaming of the city of Madras as Chennai with effect from 30.9.1996, the Madras Port Trust has been renamed as Chennai Port Trust.
With the number of car manufacturing companies located around Chennai, potential exists for large-scale car exports through pure car carriers (PCC) shipment. In fact shippers have already started from July, 2000 onwards.