In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age Rijeka has developed as a port-town under the Habsburg rule. The town could not scientifically expand its trade activity nor port due to a strong sea blockade from much stronger neighbour – the Republic of Venice. This city-state on the opposite side of the Adriatic coast perceived itself as the master of the Adriatic which also called Golfo di Venetia. Thus Rijeka’s port was used just for small ships which navigated along the shore under the Habsburg rule.
The new age in Rijeka’s history started with the Habsburg Emperor Charles the VI who due to the changes of the global political scene had the power to break Venetian dominance and declared free navigation in the Adriatic Sea. In 1717 he also proclaimed Trieste and Rijeka free ports. Those places were to become the key for the Habsburg expanding trade politics, the main import/export ports and maritime connections to other ports of the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. Charles the VI visited Rijeke in 1728 in order to be able to understand how the town and port is developing. Charles’ daughter Empress Maria Theresa went even further in development of the Habsburg sea power. In 1776 she suggested Rijeka to become a separate unit within the Hungarina-Croatian crown carried by the Habsburg family. Rijeka was to developed as a corpus separated governed directly by the Hungarian Diet represented by a Hungarian nobleman who obtained duty of the Rijeka’s Governor. This was the basis for the establishment of Rijeka’s autonomy. The first Rijeka’s governor was Josephus Mailath of Szekely.
The main port of Rijeka was on the river mouth Fiumara where smaller ships could berth while large ships would anchor in the fort of the city. At the second half of the 18th century there were many plans for building port’s infrastructure and improve the sail in the Fiumara area. The problems there were related to the fact that River Rječina would, especially in the winter/springtime period brought a lot of sand and stones which would increase the river bottom and impeded sailing into the port of Fiumara. Maintaining and cleaning of the river mouth was an expensive task which was repeated every year. Thus the new solutions were to found. Alongside with this, Andrija Ljudevit Adamić, a Rijeka’s entrepreneur started with huge investments into maritime and trade connections between Rijeka and United Kingdom despite French interference during Napoleon’s wars. Even then, the archival sources show that Rijeka had intensive maritime connections with Ottoman ports on the Mediterranean.
After the renewal of the Hungarian government in Rijeka (1822.) when the Rijeka Gubernium was re-established under the St. Stephens crown (after the Napoleon’s troubles), Hungarian government showed major interest in turning Rijeka into the main port for the export of the Hungarian agricultural products. This happened along with growing of Hungarian opposition to Habsburg government and economic strength was a way of liberation for the Hungarian revolutionists. In 1845 Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian opposition (and leader of the revolution 1848/49) came to Rijeka. His main interest was to explore possibilities to build the shortest railway between port of Rijeka and Hungarian grain fields. At the same time there were discussions what to do to improve the capacities of the port – to renew the port of Fiumara or to take a completely new approach in building the port in the open sea at the front of the town. According to the plans of a French engineer Hillarion Pasqual who was the author of the new Marseilles port project, in the 1840s the building of the new Rijeka’s port started. The first steps were undertaken in the zone of the Piazza Szapary (today there is the Rijeka open market and the theatre). There the first dams were made and gradually expanded into the piers which was the beginning of the new port in Rijeka. This was a completely new approach and Rijeka was along with Marseilles and Trieste the only port where this new technology of port building was applied.
The Hungarian revolution and war against Habsburgs (1848-1849) stopped the plans for the building of a railway between Rijeka and Budapest. This railway finally opened much later in 1873. In the mean time Rijeka lost a lot of traffic which was diverted to the port of Trieste. Nevertheless Hungarian government put great effort to improve the lost time and made Rijeka main port for the whole east part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The archival documents allow us to follow the increasing traffic of the Rijeka’s port at the end of the 19th century. Many important companies had their headquarters here (such as Ungaro-Croata shipping company). Rijeka became the main port for the emigrants to the new world – Americas. Majority of the people who left Austro-Hungary in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century to America passed through the port of Rijeka. The hotel Emigrant was built near to the port for the purpose of accepting all of these specific passengers. The British company Cunard Line had their ships sailing directly from Rijeka to New York twice a month.
After WWI Rijeka became a part of the Kingdom of Italy, cut off from its natural hinterland and isolated from economic connections on the far end of this new homeland. This caused slow decline of the city and degradation into a provincial town. On the other side of the newly established border (1924) between the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes a new port – the town of Sušak was growing. The border demarcation determined the river Rječina as the border and the main port infrastructure belonged to Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes including the main railway and other necessary infrastructure. Thus the port of Sušak (Porto Baross) began to grow its potential becoming the main port for the new country as well as for the countries which used to be eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Kingdom. While Rijeka was declining, Sušak was growing thanks to the connections to its wide hinterland which put it as the natural connection to the rest of the world by sea.
At the very end of WWII Allies bombed the port of Rijeka occupied by German Nazis. After the popular liberation in 1945 the port was rebuilt. The unified city – Rijeka and Sušak, allowed again development of the port under the Yugoslavian government where Rijeka became the largest and the most important port.
Turbulent years at the end of the 20th century again caused decline of Rijeka’s port. New independent Croatia passed through negative process of privatisation and transformation of economic system which negatively influenced development of Rijeka’s port. The old railway and not such as good road connections once again withdrawn Rijeka from the list of the most important Eastern – European Gates to the Sea.