On April 7, 1958, the Asotin County Board of Commissioners passes a resolution authorizing formation of a port district with the same borders as the county, pending voter approval. The idea is to take advantage of plans to make the lower Snake River navigable to Clarkston. Voters overwhelmingly approve the port district on September 9, 1958. Its early years are spent developing infrastructure and an industrial park along the river in Clarkston. When Lower Granite Dam is completed in 1975, the Port of Clarkston becomes the state’s farthest inland port. It loads grain and wood products on barges heading toward deep-water ports and attracts tourism via cruise vessels. Sediment buildup and drawdowns of the river intended to help endangered fish reach the ocean become perennial problems for maritime commerce at the Port. In 2010, the Port’s primary income will be from leasing property to tenant businesses. Adjusting to the changing economy, the Port will work to create jobs with a vibrant waterfront for tourists and residents. It will also begin to construct a sustainable business park that will double the Port’s size.
A Port With a Vision
The Snake River forms 40 miles of Asotin County’s borders. In the early 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan to create a 465-mile-long navigable waterway between the Pacific Ocean and Clarkston and neighboring Lewiston, Idaho, by building a series of dams on the lower Snake, connecting with a similar system on the Columbia River. Anticipating economic opportunities, the Asotin County commissioners passed a resolution on April 17, 1958, authorizing formation of a countywide port district. "It would be in the public interest of the residents of Asotin County to organize a Port District to study and develop facilities for river transportation to deep-water ports downstream, so that Asotin County can share in the industrial and economic benefits of cheap river transportation, especially in connection with farm products, raw materials, petroleum products, and fertilizers," the resolution said.
On September 9, 1958, voters approved the port district by a wide margin -- 2,232 to 588. Emmett Johnson, Earle Ausman, and Chalsey Floch were elected as the Port’s first commissioners, with Johnson becoming president. The Port’s first manager was Bill Behrens. Created the same year were neighboring port districts in Whitman County and in Idaho’s Nez Perce County, both of which would benefit from the coming navigable waterway.
Clarkston’s early port activity focused on developing about 90 acres along the south side of the Snake River within the city limits, at the confluence with the Clearwater River and close to the port that was being developed in Lewiston. Roads and a dock were built; power, water, sewer, and phone service was installed. Clarkston Industrial Park was created. Its first tenant would be Grassland West, a small family seed business established in 1972. The Port included another 30 acres, used primarily for recreation.
Slackwater, Trade, and Tourism
Completion of Lower Granite Dam in 1975 transformed the Snake into a slackwater pool named Lower Granite Lake. Clarkston, about 460 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River, now was connected to deepwater ports in Portland and Astoria, Oregon, and by extension to ports around the world. Levee paths and landscaping softened the new lake’s edges and increased recreational opportunities. But the biggest boost to Clarkston’s port -- in fact, a 140-ton boost -- came in 1985 when a Lima crane arrived by barge from the Port of Astoria. It was the biggest crane on the upper river until 2001. The Port of Clarkston already had grain elevators to load wheat and barley onto barges bound for distant markets. With the addition of the big crane, it also could load logs and wood chips. The crane even hoisted yachts, some as big as 78 feet and 90,000 pounds, onto trucks bound for inland buyers.
A new chapter began in 1989 with the arrival of the Sea Lion, the first tour boat to visit Clarkston. The 70-passenger vessel, owned by now-defunct Exploration Cruise Lines, landed at the Port’s 100-foot dock, which was adjacent to a Quality Inn, one of the Port’s tenants. In 1992, with more than 60 dockings at Clarkston expected that year, port commissioner John Givens said the Lewiston-Clarkston area had become one of the major tour boat markets in the northern hemisphere, with companies that served the Alaskan market in the summer and the Caribbean market in the winter touring the Columbia and Snake in the spring and early fall (Givens testimony, 1992).
Sternwheelers, modeled after the old Mississippi riverboats, joined Clarkston’s tourism traffic after a 200-foot public dock was completed in 1994. A regular for years was the Queen of the West, a 110-passenger vessel with a crew of 30. Its schedule called for 36 trips from Portland to Clarkston in 1995, boosting the Port’s number of visiting passengers to nearly 3,500 that year. With cruise vessel traffic increasing, the dock was expanded to 580 feet and named Gateway Dock in 2001. Six cruise lines soon were docking in Clarkston and the annual number of passengers was nearly 13,000. Cruise vessel traffic peaked at about 19,000 visitors per year around 2006 and 2007.
Drawdowns and Dredging
Although the eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers created many economic benefits, they also were barriers to fish trying to migrate from inland tributaries to the ocean. Fish runs dwindled to the point that juvenile salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Corps of Engineers considered various ways to mitigate the problem, including sending the fish downriver by barge. In 1989, two barges were built at the Port of Clarkston for that purpose, giving the Corps six such vessels. But some salmon advocates contended that drawdowns -- lowering the depth of the pools behind the Snake River dams -- were the only way to restore fish habitat and revive depleted fish runs. That approach limited river navigation and was strongly opposed throughout the 1990s by river users, particularly by the ports of Clarkston, Whitman County, and Lewiston, which saw drawdowns as a threat to their operations.
Dredging was another hotly contested issue related to fish. Sediment accumulates behind the dams, gradually causing problems for bigger vessels and heavily loaded barges. The Corps of Engineers conducted dredging operations in the winter of 1998-1999 to remove the buildup. When the Corps attempted to dredge again in 2000, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stopped operations to await more information on the impact on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs. Environmental groups contended that dredging would damage already degraded salmon spawning habitat, and a federal judge conceded they might be right, twice delaying further dredging attempts.
The Corps of Engineers wanted to dredge at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers near Clarkston, the ports of Clarkston and Lewiston, and the approaches to navigation locks at the Lower Granite and Lower Monumental dams. The Corps had a mandate from Congress to maintain a 14-foot-deep navigation channel. By spring of 2005, the berthing area at Clarkston was as shallow as 8.5 feet. Two barges became stuck in lower river ports. Finally, after seven years of litigation, the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups agreed in late 2005 to let dredging proceed in December, in exchange for a promise that the Corps would perform a long-term study of sediment problems in the river. The ports of Lewiston and Clarkson were billed roughly $200,000 each for dredging work in their berthing areas.
Sediment quickly returned, however, and was expected to be an ongoing challenge, particularly around Clarkston’s cruise boat dock. Already silt buildup had affected the Port. As sediment created a shallower channel, ocean-bound barges had to carry lighter loads. That raised shipping costs for grain farmers and wood-product companies such as Potlach Corporation and Clearwater Paper, causing them to consider other transportation options. Clarkston’s crane loaded its last yacht in 2005 and crane operation effectively stopped in 2007, although commissioners were still seeking business for the crane in early 2011. Cruise ship traffic dropped in roughly three years from a high of about 19,000 visitors a year to 7,000 in 2010 as a nationwide recession continued.
Meanwhile, the Port was growing in other directions. It had developed extensive recreational facilities, including a marina, a public dock, 3,400 feet of walking and biking paths, and a six-acre public park, Granite Lake Park, which opened in 2001 and became a popular site for weddings and summer festivals. Heading into 2011, the Port also had a diverse group of more than 40 tenants, whose lease payments were the main source of port revenue.
The tenants ranged from a grain terminal capable of loading 30,000 bushels an hour to a hotel, a restaurant, and a 50-unit antique mall. Also in its business park were a winery and a brewery, valued by port officials as attractions for visitors and a hint of things to come. The Port was moving toward alternatives to industrial use, especially along the waterfront where officials hoped to attract more of what they called experiential businesses -- ones like the winery that help attract visitors and contribute to a vibrant atmosphere. Also in the works was a major expansion. Phase One construction on a 120-acre sustainable business park was expected to start by the end of the year.
The new directions reflect the vision statement posted on the Port of Clarkston’s website. It describes the Port as a leader in economic development and says it will "will leverage resources to build infrastructure, diversify the economy, create family wage jobs, create a long-term, sustainable healthy business climate in our community, and encourage a strong, vibrant economy by retaining, developing and recruiting businesses of all sizes that enhance the community’s long-term economic health." It was working to do all that, despite a weak economy and trouble with the waterway.