Initially, the Romans’ objectives were purely strategic. Over time, however, interest in trade prevailed. In this sense, the easy access to the Ebro River valley and proximity of the Balearic Islands served as added incentives for the development of Tarraco’s port and Roman expansion inland. The city reached its maximum splendour in 45 BC, when it was officially designated a Roman colony and its port became a major trading hub for agricultural products such as oil, wine and wheat. These goods were exported in exchange for ceramic, glass and manufactured products from Italy and Northern Africa.
The port was abandoned following the invasions of the Visigoths and Moors. It remained stagnant until its resettlement in the 12th century, when interest in providing a port in good condition was revived in order to benefit from potential trade.
In the 14th century, using the ruins of the old Roman port, trade began to pick up again, driven, in part, by the privileges granted by King Peter the Ceremonious (Peter IV of Aragon). Separately, new inland roads (to Montblanc, Valls, etc.) facilitated the transport of products from the area to the port. A privilege dating from 1484 confirmed the earlier privileges and granted the city permission to build a new pier, whilst also permanently authorising the port for trade. It was decided that a new breakwater would be built under the oversight of a special committee, chaired by the prelate and with members representing the town and local cathedral chapter, which was also responsible for levying taxes on meat, bread and, later, wine. All towns in the Camp de Tarragona region were required to pay these taxes to trade at the port. When they refused to do so, traffic shifted from Tarragona to the nearby port of Salou.
In the 16th century, the death of Ferdinand the Catholic, the plague, international wars and piracy temporarily brought trade to a halt in Salou, providing new impetus for the dock works in Tarragona. However, it was the imposition of the so-called Decreto de Nueva Planta (Decree of New Regime), which designated Tarragona the principal city of its corregimiento (a territorial division), that truly drove the port’s reconstruction. In the face of opposition from Reus and other neighbouring towns, the authorities in Madrid ordered Captain Juan Ruiz de Apodaca to inspect several regional ports, including Tarragona’s.
In his report, Captain Apodaca confirmed the favourable conditions offered by the Tarragona inlet and the advisability of carrying out the works. In 1786, he submitted plans for the project, which included lengthening the old dock and building a new breakwater. The project was approved and, in June 1790, the works were inaugurated in a solemn ceremony.
Except for specific periods, such as during the French War, the Great Wine Blight and the loss of the Spanish colonies in Cuba and the Philippines, substantial works were undertaken at the port throughout the 19th century.
In 1835, jurisdiction over the port works and their management was transferred to the Spanish Ministry of Development. The former Protection Committee was eliminated and its functions were assumed by the civil governor and the provincial government. Shortly after, the Tarragona City Council managed to set up a new committee; however, it lasted only from 1841 to 1846.
From then on, and above all in the late 19th century, many major works were completed, which would form the basis for the modern Port of Tarragona. Resources were more efficiently managed and grants from the national government became a permanent source of income. This period moreover saw a sharp increase in traffic, especially with regard to exports. It was also when the engineer Saturnino Bellido built the Costa Dock and the Oeste (Western) and Transversal (Cross-cutting) breakwaters.
In the early 20th century, construction activity took a back seat to modernising and equipping the existing facilities. Cranes and general machinery were purchased and other infrastructure work, such as the construction of sheds, warehouses and silos, was performed.
At the same time, the Port of Tarragona participated in the construction of the ports of Cambrils, L'Ametlla de Mar and Salou, as, pursuant to a 1928 decree, Tarragona was responsible for administering and executing the works in these ports, which would thus come to form part of its own.
Tarragona is and has always been a fishing port. Indeed, fishing is one of the region’s most important economic activities, in terms of both the number of ships and the value of the hauls. Since the 20th century, fishing has primarily been concentrated in the Serrallo District.
As a result of the petrochemical boom of the 1960s, the port added new facilities to accommodate the industry’s needs. These included special docks for loading and unloading petroleum derivatives. Likewise, additional transportation links were built, including the new Eje Transversal road, which crosses Catalonia.
Ships, too, underwent major changes. Boats rigged with sails gradually gave way to steamboats, which, in turn, were replaced by large oil tankers, container ships and bulk carriers, classified according to their freight. This diversification led to the development of new transport, warehousing and cargo-handling techniques, including grain silos, refrigerated storage facilities, automatic unloaders, etc. At the same time, the port infrastructure has been adapted to meet the needs of these new vessels, for example, by increasing water depth at the docks and building new surfaces, such as the Catalunya, Andalucía, Cantabria or future Illes Balears docks. In the same vein, each dock has been specialised to handle specific products or types of freight. To this end, major infrastructure works have been carried out since the 1990s, including the movable bridge that links the Lleida and Reus docks and the new Catalunya, Alcudia, Navarra and Andalucía docks..
Attention should also be drawn to the marked interest that the Port of Tarragona has always shown in culture and the city. The city-port relationship has given rise to the Costa (Coast) Dock, which opened to the public in 1986 and has since become a veritable landmark for local residents.
The Tarragona Port Authority was among the first in Spain to set up a space to preserve and store its documentary and graphic heritage: the Port of Tarragona Archive. It subsequently created a separate space for its historical heritage: the Port Museum.
Additionally, the port has always provided exhibition spaces for renowned contemporary artists to display their work in avant-garde shows open to the interested public.