Mason County commissioners certify the formation of the Port of Shelton on September 24, 1948.

  • By Brian Gann
  • Posted 2/07/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9709

On September 24, 1948, the formation of the Port of Shelton is certified by the Mason County Commissioners, pending voter approval in the general election of that year. The Port is originally formed in order to better utilize and develop the Shelton waterfront. After rising costs dash initial plans, the Port will dramatically alter its focus in 1957 when the Mason County Airport is deeded to it. Eventually, Port of Shelton will come to operate two industrial parks, an airport, and a marina. It will become the most active of the five ports in Mason County and will play a large role in diversifying the city’s timber-based economy. The Port of Shelton will join the Washington Public Ports Association in 1975.   

Shelton's Early Airport

 

On July 29, 1927, the City of Shelton celebrated the beginning of the construction of its new airport. Located next to the county fairgrounds, it was originally named the Mason County Airport. The airport would see only light use in the pre-war years. During that era the runway and facilities were still not fully developed.   

By 1942, the United States had entered World War II and had begun expanding its military infrastructure. In July of that year, the U.S. Army purchased the Mason County Airport for development, but eventually sold it to the U.S. Navy, which would rename it Naval Auxiliary Air Station Shelton. The navy built two 5,000- by 150-foot asphalt runways. Barracks were constructed that could house upwards of 1,300 men. 

Originally, when the threat of Japanese invasion loomed, the Shelton airfield was intended to station army interceptor aircraft. But as the war developed Shelton shifted towards Navy Utility Squadrons or "VJs." The primary focus of the Shelton VJ squadrons was target towing, providing services for aircraft, and managing an anti-aircraft gunnery school.

The navy began phasing out the Shelton airfield two months after the war ended. By 1947 all operations ceased. After the war, the Civil Air Patrol maintained the airport, known once again as the Mason County Airport. But for most of the next 10 years it would lie idle.

Creating the Port of Shelton

 

In June 1948, William J. Murphy, an agent of the Shelton Chamber of Commerce, noted that, paradoxically, Shelton is "the only major port on Puget Sound which does not have port facilities, and which has not formed a port district" (Shelton-Mason County Journal, June 17, 1948). Shelton at that time was heavily dependent on the lumber industry, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce believed a port district would help diversify the local economy.

After being certified in September 1948, the vote to form the port district was put on the general election ballot on November 2, 1948. Voters approved 2,721 to 639, thus creating the Port of Shelton or, officially, Mason County Port District No. 216. The Port’s first three commissioners were Chairman Herbert G. Angle, Wilbert S. Catto, and H. L. Olstead.     

The first public meeting to discuss the Port’s initial developments occurred on March 29, 1949. The opinion at the time was that the Port would lead the development of Shelton’s waterfront, specifically the dredging and channeling of Hammersley Inlet by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Unfortunately, at the March meeting the Corp of Engineers announced that the project would cost $250,000. It was quickly determined to be unfeasible at that time.    

After the failure to develop the Hammersley Inlet, the Port turned its attention to the tidelands and the building of a marina. In 1950, the Port announced at a public hearing its comprehensive scheme for harbor development. It also announced that the City of Shelton was deeding tidelands for the construction of a marina. Actual construction began the next year.   

During the early 1950s, Port of Shelton owned very little and public commissioner meetings were held infrequently. A major acquisition in 1957 would dramatically change its direction.   

Sanderson Airfield

 

After the U.S. Navy left Shelton, the fate of the Mason County Airfield was unclear. Although the Civil Air Patrol had been in control since the late 1940s, the City of Shelton and Mason County sought greater community involvement in the airport. On September 10, 1953, the Shelton-Mason County Journal reported that Representative Russell V. Mack (1891-1960) had written to the Secretary of Defense asking for the release of the airfield. Representative Mack noted that the navy had no further use of the airfield and that putting it "into productive use" would create jobs in the Shelton area (Shelton-Mason County Journal, September 10, 1953). The Air Force briefly considered turning the $2 million airport into a guided missile site, but the plan was abandoned. 

By 1955, the federal government had agreed to give the airfield, free of any cost, to Mason County, under the assumption that the county would then deed the facilities to the Port of Shelton. In May 1957 the County handed over to the Port all 1,080 acres of the airport and its facilities. After the transfer, the Port began refitting the airport for civilian use, dismantling the navy barracks, and consolidating the two runways into one.    

In May 1966, the airport was renamed in Sanderson Field in honor of Shelton native United States Marine Corps Major General Lawson Sanderson (1895-1979). Dubbed by one biographer "Shelton’s most spectacular personality," General Sanderson was a famous early aviator, holding the world air high-speed record from 1923 to 1930. He was a distinguished Marine commander in the Guadalcanal Campaign in World War II (History of Mason County, Washington).    

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Sanderson Field continued to grow. From seven aircraft based there in 1965, the number grew to 42 by the late 1980s. In 1989 Sanderson Field received a $75,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, which was matched by the Port, in order to significantly expand its capabilities and facilities.    

Today, Sanderson Field operates one 5,000-foot runway and bases around 100 aircraft. Reminiscent of its navy heritage, Sanderson is operated under joint use agreement with the military, which composes a large portion of its traffic. The airport hosts a variety of craft including single- and multi-engine planes, helicopters, and ultralights, and welcomes commercial, corporate, and recreational aviation. Sanderson Field is a major aspect of the Port of Shelton today and continues to drive investment and interest to the Port.

Shelton's Industrial Parks  

The Port of Shelton currently operates two industrial parks: Sanderson Field Industrial Park and the Johns Prairie Industrial Park. The two sites simultaneously began large-scale development in April 1980.   

The Sanderson Field Industrial Park, developed on the same 1,080-acre site occupied by the airport, was designed from the outset to be a multi-use, flexible industrial park. One of its first uses came after the Washington State Patrol Academy opened close to the Port in 1969 -- the Sanderson Field complex was home for a time to its nationally acclaimed driving course. In 1987, the Port constructed an 11,550-square-foot manufacturing building for Olympic Tool and Engineering Inc. Olympic -- an aircraft parts manufacturer -- eventually expanded its operation to a 60,000-square-foot building. By 1990, the Port had overseen the addition of a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing building for Techwood LLC, a wood-paneling specialist.   

Johns Prairie Industrial Park is located on a 407-acre property close to Sanderson Field that the Port purchased from the navy in 1960 for $25,000. Although Johns Prairie had great potential, the site sat mostly unused for much of the first 20 years of Port ownership. By the time the major development plan was announced in 1980, the area was already tabbed for heavy industry and served by rail, making the new direction an obvious move. For much of its history Johns Prairie has been home to many different forest-products industries.

In the early 1990s, the  Washington State Revitalization Board oversaw a $1.2 million project to improve the infrastructure of the two industrial parks, including water, sewage, and road upgrades. At present (2011), Sanderson Field and Johns Prairie continue to grow and expand, both parks attracting an ever-diversifying group of tenants.

Oakland Bay Marina

 

After initial development in the 1950s, the Oakland Bay Marina -- originally known as the Shelton Marina -- continued to be a part of the Shelton community. A new boathouse and visitors' moorage was installed in 1961 and two other major public access improvements occurred in 1962 and 1964. For much of the 1960s, Shelton was known for having some of the lowest moorage fees in Puget Sound. For many years the Shelton Yacht Club operated the marina, but by the late 2000s had fallen into a state of disrepair. The Port elected to assert itself in order to bring the facilites up to standard and took back control in 2007.

Currently, in addition to the marina, the Port operates a boat ramp and a public visitors' dock, and is home to more than a hundred boats at Oakland Bay. When the Port updated its comprehensive plan in 2010, it indicated that the marina would be a site of future development. The commissioners reported that they hoped to purchase more land around the marina and, in a move strikingly similar to the Port’s original plan in the late 1940s, revitalize the Shelton waterfront and increase public access.   

Continuing Development

 

The Port of Shelton has been growing steadily since it first acquired the airport in 1957. Currently, the Port directly employs 10 people and owns approximately 1,600 acres spread across its Sanderson and Johns Prairie complexes. The various businesses on Port property employ roughly 570 people. Despite its numerous varied tenants, the Port still possesses much unused land and is actively seeking high-tech or manufacturing businesses for its industrial parks.    

Since 1953, the Mason County Fair had taken place on Port property adjacent to Sanderson Field. But in 2009 Mason County commissioners voted to terminate the 50-year lease three years early and end the 101-year-old fair. The Port of Shelton opted to clean up and repair the fair grounds for local business owners who will now operate the fair. The Port hopes it can work with local business leaders to relocate the fair to a site close by.

In recent years, the environment has become an increasing concern for the Port. The Port was fined in 2007 for not properly disposing of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined Shelton for possessing PCBs -- in a type of coolant no longer manufactured in the United States -- for more than a year without disposing of them.

The Port of Shelton made national news in 2010 when its proposal to build a biomass generator on Port property erupted in controversy. A biomass generator, a form of renewable energy, takes wood waste from the forest floor and converts it into electricity. Maryland-based ADAGE LLC wants to build the plant on the Johns Prairie Industrial Park.

Proponents claim the plant would create jobs and bring more renewable energy to Mason County. Critics decry the potential pollution the plant would generate, which would harm human health and the environment. As of the writing of this essay (2011), the controversy is still ongoing.


Sources:

Associated Press, "Navy Airport At Shelton May Be Missile Site," The Seattle Times, April 26, 1956; Brian Gann interview with John Dobson, Port of Shelton Executive Director, January 14, 2011; Dr. Harry W. Deegan, History of Mason County, Washington, revised edition (Shelton: The Author, [1943], 1971); "First Phase of Port's Master Plan Addresses Future Needs at Airport," Shelton-Mason County Journal, July 27, 1989; "History," undated transcript, in possession of the Port of Shelton; Roy A. Grossnick, Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons Vol. 1: The History of VA, VAH, VAK, VAL, VAP and VFA Squadrons (Washington D.C.: Naval Historical Center Department of the Navy, 1995); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Airports Owned by Washington's Public Port Districts" (By John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org (accessed February 2, 2011);  "Port Fined for Not Disposing of PCBs," The Olympian, May 15, 2007; "Port of Shelton," Shelton-Mason County Journal, March 28, 1985; "Port of Shelton Sets Two Industrial Parks," The Seattle Times, April 6, 1980; "Port of Shelton Through the Years," undated pamphlet, in possession of the Washington Public Ports Association, Olympia, Washington; Port of Shelton website accessed February 2, 2011 (http://www.portofshelton.com/); "Proposed Shelton Biomass Plant Stirs Opposition," ABC News, May 2, 2010, ABC News website accessed February 2, 2011 (http://www.abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=10535151); "Sealaska announces new Olympic Fabrication manufacturing division," Olympic Fabrication website accessed February 2, 2011 (http://www.olympicfabrication.com/object/io_1204738278055.html); "Shelton Airport Release Asked by Russell Mack," Shelton-Mason County Journal, September 10, 1953, p. 1; "Shelton Port Hearing for March 29," Shelton-Mason County Journal, January 27, 1949, p. 1; "Shelton Port Seeks Airport," Shelton-Mason County Journal, January 20, 1955, p. 1 "Shelton Seeks Port District," Shelton-Mason County Journal, June 17, 1948, p. 1; M. L. Shettle Jr., United States Naval Air Stations of World War II: Vol. 2 -- Western States (Bowersville: Schaertel Publishing Co., 1997), p. 224-225; "State Officials Tour Port's Road, Water Improvements," Shelton-Mason County Journal, July 29, 1993; John Dobson (Port of Shelton) email to Brian Gann (HistoryLink.org), February 3, 2010, in possession of HistoryLink.org, Seattle; "Mason County cancels lease for county fairgrounds," The Seattle Times, October 6, 2010. 


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