Because of the difficulties of navigating the Yarra River for large ships, much of Melbourne's shipping trade was formerly handled by piers and jetties.
At Williamstown, a pier was built at Point Gellibrand by convict labour, starting in 1852. This was incorporated in the Breakwater Pier, completed in 1860. Gellibrand Pier, originally Railway Pier, was opened in 1859 for direct railway access to shipping for the export of wool and grain. Both of these piers are now used for oil imports. Another pier, used in conjunction with the government patent slipway, was opened in 1858. Nelson Pier, formerly New Railway Pier, was completed in 1878 to provide additional rail access to shipping. It took its name from the Victorian naval vessel. Incorporated in the naval dockyard in 1967, it was replaced by a new pier in 1979. Reid Street Pier was built for the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1891 and was for a long time the home of the tug fleet. It became part of the dockyard in 1993. Ann Street Pier, originally New Pier, was built in 1853 and was subsequently taken over by the Harbor Trust as a home for its floating plant. Gem Pier is the oldest in Melbourne, construction being first ordered by William Lonsdale as a stone jetty. It came into use in 1839 and was known as the Old or Steamboat Pier until it took the name of its most notable ferry boat. Rebuilt three times, it has been used by ferries, customs and pilot steamers, and is presently the berth of the museum warship Castlemaine.
At Port Melbourne, Station Pier is the successor to the original Railway Pier, which was built to give shipping access to the first railway in Australia in 1854. Station Pier was built in 1924-30 on a slightly different angle and until recently retained the spur jetties once used by the excursion paddle steamers. It has always been of great importance for passenger ships and was the regular berth of large overseas liners. It became notable as the first point of disembarkation for a great number of postwar European immigrants to Australia. The last immigrant ship was the Australis in 1978. With the revival of cruise-shipping trade, the pier is seeing a new generation of passenger vessels call each summer and it is the terminal for the Tasmanian ferry. Princes Pier was completed in 1916 and named for the Prince of Wales on the occasion of his royal visit in 1920. Although fitted with facilities similar to Station Pier, including rail access, it was usually a berth for cargo shipping. It was the site of clashes between strikers and police during the 1920s. Town Pier, at the end of Bay Street, no longer exists, but it included coal-unloading facilities with rail access to the South Melbourne gasworks.
At South Melbourne, Kerferd Road Pier was built in 1887 to cater for the popularity of seaside recreation, with bandstand and boat club, and is still a favourite fishing spot. The first St Kilda Pier was built in 1853 and replaced by a stronger structure in 1857. It was an important landing place for excursion vessels, and it was here that visiting royalty and other dignitaries would be formally welcomed when they came by ship. Of all the Melbourne piers, it has become a favourite promenade and the only one with a restaurant at its head. Opened in 1904, the kiosk was destroyed by fire in 2003, and plans were announced in 2004 to rebuild it to a slightly modified original design. The breakwater was constructed at the time of the 1956 Olympic Games and is now home to a colony of fairy penguins.