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Seattle Central Waterfront, Part 2: From Coal to Containers, Piers 46, 47, and 48

HistoryLink.org Essay 2481 : Printer-Friendly Format

Piers 46 and 47 are located south of Pioneer Square and Pier 48 is located directly west of Pioneer Square. Piers 46 and 47 serve as the Port of Seattle's vast loading apron for containers. Pier 48 is currently (2004) vacant pending possible expansion of the Washington State Ferry Terminal to the north, but visitors can find giant periscopes on its south side offering magnified views of the Port's container activity.

Reclaiming the Tideflats

When Seattle's founders settled on a small, level spit of land called Piner's Point in 1852, the area south and east of present-day King Street was flanked by tideflats. Before this was reclaimed by filling, developers built railroad trestles to transport coal and other freight to ocean-going vessels.

As the tideflats were drained and filled, the area south of Pioneer Square supported shipbuilding, including the yard of Robert Moran, who prospered during and after the 1897-1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and became home to Seattle's transcontinental railroad terminals.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployed workers built a shantytown called Hooverville in the area. The shantytown remained in existence for 10 years, until it burned down in 1941. By then World War II was underway, and the Depression was fading away.

The Container Revolution

In the 1960s, the Port of Seattle made a farsighted commitment to handling containerized cargo and redeveloped Piers 46 and 47 into a loading area for container ships.

The Port built the adjacent park in the 1970s. Its neighboring Washington Street Boat Landing was built in 1920 to house Seattle's harbor master and restored 50 years later as a landmark.

From Yesler's Mill to the Sea

The present Pier 48 sits in the area occupied by the original center of Seattle’s maritime trade -- a wharf extending from the foot of Mill Street (now Yesler Way). The wharf, built by Henry Yesler in 1852, was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1889. It was replaced by Piers 50 and 51 (known as Piers 1 and 2 in pioneer days), built by the Northern Pacific Railroad, and later operated by the Alaska Steamship Company. These piers were removed in the 1960s to accommodate the needs of the Washington State Ferry System.

Pier 48 was finished in the mid-1930s and taken over by the Port of Seattle in 1950 to serve a variety of shippers. Between 1967 and 1989, Pier 48 was the Seattle terminal for the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System, and later accommodated summer steamship service to Vancouver, British Columbia.

The pier currently (2004) provides berthing for trawlers and other large vessels. Its future, however, may rely more on its excellent proximity and access to the south end of the city's downtown. The Port and Washington State Ferries are jointly investigating a renovated and reconfigured ferry terminal at Colman Dock and Pier 48, reviving an earlier effort stalled due to a loss of funding.

Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916) and History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, Vols. 1, 2 & 3 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991, 1992 & 1999); Padraic Burke et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, 1998); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now & Then, Vols. I, II & III (Seattle: Tartu Press, 1984, 1988 & 1989); Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan Company, Publishers, 1950); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: Viking, 1951); David J. Olson et al., Port in a Storm: An Historical Review of the Founding of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1970); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past & Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City: Seattle (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1981).

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Port of Seattle

Port of Seattle cranes, Duwamish Waterway, Seattle skyline, September 2001
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long

Artist's depiction of Piner's Point during 1856 Battle of Seattle
Courtesy Michael Maslin

Railroad trestles over tideflats south of Pioneer Square, ca. 1881
Courtesy Paul Dorpat

Moran Shipyards, 1900s

King Street Station (Charles Reed and Allen Stem, 1906)
Courtesy MOHAI

Seattle's Hooverville, 1930s
Photo by James P. Lee, Courtesy Pacific NW Labor History Association

View of the Kingdome from Safeco Field on opening day, July 15, 1999
Photo by David Messerschmidt

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