Theodore Roosevelt Cargo Ship (copy)

Onlookers gathered at Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park to watch the arrival of the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, the largest cargo ship to visit the Port of Charleston. Brad Nettles/Staff

As the Port of Charleston greeted it biggest ship to date, the federal government announced a deal to ensure a new generation of supersized cargo vessels won't run aground, even at low tide.

The Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday that its local office awarded the first construction contract for the long-planned deepening of Charleston Harbor.

Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. won the $47 million job to pull up material from the entrance channel, which begins about three miles past Fort Sumter.

The announcement coincided with the morning arrival of the CMA CMG Theodore Roosevelt.

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The CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt cruises toward the Ravenel Bridge on Thursday on its way to the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. Leroy Burnell/Staff

A 1,204-foot-long cargo-carrying colossus, the Theodore Roosevelt can haul up to 14,885 20-foot containers. It was hard to miss as it cruised past Sullivan's Island and under the Arthur Ravenel Bridge on its way to the State Ports Authority's Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant.

The Theodore Roosevelt recently became the largest ship to pass through the expanded Panama Canal. It's expected to remain at Wando Welch for at least part of Friday before leaving for Hong Kong.

SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said in a Twitter post that if someone told him 15 years ago that such a large container ship would visit an East Coast port in 2017, "I would have said 'no way.' Well ... Never say 'always' and never say 'never'!"

As the big vessels become more commonplace, U.S. ports are racing against time to deepen their waterways to accommodate them. The plan for Charleston is to dredge the navigation channel to as much as 54 feet from its current 45-foot depth.

"Our harbor will ultimately be the deepest on the East Coast, allowing vessels like the Roosevelt to transit without tidal restriction," Newsome said in a written statement Thursday. 

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The Army Corps is in charge of the $529 million dredging project, which has been in the works for at least six years.

The contract the agency awarded to Oak Brook, Ill.-based Great Lakes late last week calls for the removal of about 6 million cubic yards of silt, rock and other material by spring 2020.

The presence of threatened and endangered species will restrict dredging operations to a roughly four-month window each year, typically from December to March, the Army Corps said. The material will be placed at an offshore disposal site. 

The Great Lakes contract is the first of two that will be required to deepen the port's entrance channel. The second likely will be awarded before January, the Army Corps said.

The upper and lower portions of Charleston Harbor will also require dredging. Those contracts have not been awarded yet.

The entire project will take between 40 and 76 months to complete, depending on federal funding, weather, availability of equipment and other factors.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott