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Voters approve creation of Port of Vancouver on April 6, 1912.

HistoryLink.org Essay 9410 : Printer-Friendly Format

On April 6, 1912, the voters of Vancouver by a large margin give the go-ahead for the establishment of a port district, a new type of municipal corporation that had been authorized by the Washington State Legislature just over a year earlier. The three-member port commission will prepare a comprehensive scheme for port's development in 1913, but for the next five years it is largely inactive due to a lack of resources. The United State's entry into World War I in 1917 creates a critical need for new ships, and in January 1918, Vancouver voters approve the City's  purchase of 52 acres of mostly swampland along the Columbia River for the development of a shipyard. The land is turned over to the Port of Vancouver, which fills the swampy tract and leases it to Portland entrepreneur Guy M. Standifer. Standifer's company, which  already runs a yard for building wooden vessels farther upstream, will establish a facility at the new site for the construction steel ships to support the war effort. The two shipyards will operate for barely three years, but the properties that house them will become the core holdings of the young Port of Vancouver. Shipbuilding will return in force during World War II with the Kaiser Shipyard, and in the years following that war the Port of Vancouver will continue to grow, providing thousands of jobs and adding millions of dollars to the local economy. In later years the port authority will develop extensive new facilities and become one of the leading ports on the West Coast. It will also tackle environmental problems inherited from industries that operated on port land, and work to restore the health of Vancouver Lake. Today the port district encompasses an area of 111 square miles, provides facilities for both regional and international trade, and is a major contributor to the economic life of the region and the state.

From Private to Public Enterprise

Vancouver's location on the Columbia River, with its outlet to the Pacific Ocean just over 100 miles away, made it a natural site for an international port, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries nearby Portland on the Willamette River dominated Northwest sea trade. The Port of Portland, created in 1891, had extensive deep-water berths, docks, and warehouse facilities; Vancouver has only scattered private docks and factories. One thing holding Vancouver back was the shallowness of the Columbia above the mouth of the Willamette. Until this problem was resolved, most oceangoing vessels had no choice but to dock at Portland.

The first waterfront terminal in Vancouver was a two-level dock built by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1901. In 1903, local business people financed the first dredging of the river, and by October they had created a channel 150-200 feet wide and 14 feet deep, running from the mouth of the Willamette to the Vancouver waterfront. This was still not deep enough to accommodate large ocean-going vessels, however, and in 1905 the federal government provided $60,000 to increase the river's depth to 20 feet.

Three years later, on November 17, 1908, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway railroad bridge opened, extending track across the Columbia River and Hayden Island to Portland's booming port. Private interests still prevailed on the Vancouver waterfront, but public sentiment was swinging to the idea of public ownership of this valuable resource. What was needed was legal authority to raise capital for the purchase and development of riverfront land, and that was a matter for the state Legislature in Olympia.

A Port of Sorts

Governor Marion E. Hay signed Washington's Port District Act on March 14, 1911, and on April 6, 1912, voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of the Port of Vancouver. Three commissioners were elected to manage the new entity: George W. Lamka, W. B. DuBois, and George McCoy. But it was one thing to cast a ballot for a port district; it was quite another to actually build a working port. The nascent Port of Vancouver owned no land and had no money. The commissioners adopted a comprehensive scheme for the future port in 1913, but other than that there was little or no progress. And Vancouver was having a hard time being noticed -- as late as 1911 President William Howard Taft had referred to the military base at Vancouver as a "suburb" of Portland (Mockford, p. 73).

For the first five years of the port's existence, private enterprise would continue to dominate as businesses built docks and factories at random on the riverbank. This was not a recipe for stability or sustained success -- the fortunes of private enterprise ebbed and flowed, and the early fortunes of the waterfront followed suit. Establishing a public port that would become a lasting asset for the common good would take central planning and public funding. And, as it turned out, it would take two World Wars.

World War I

America's entry into World War I in April 1917 created an immediate need for merchant ships to move troops overseas and to keep them supplied. A group of Vancouver and Portland businessmen quickly signed a lease for the land where Vancouver's single municipal dock stood, just west of the new Interstate Bridge that had opened to vehicle traffic two months earlier. There they built a shipyard, commonly known as the Standifer Wooden Yard, after Guy M. Standifer (1886-1974), a Portland entrepreneur with investments in railroads and shipbuilding.

On June 28, 1917, the federal government announced that the Standifer yard had contracted to build six wooden merchant ships at the Vancouver facility. By August, a local newspaper could report, with a mixture of braggadocio and relief:

"On the river they are building thousands of feet of dock. Six ways for building ships are almost completed ... . The entire waterfront from the railroad tracks out to the harbor line is being utilized ... . Many men are now at work, and hundreds more will be employed there within a short time. Surely there is a new day for Vancouver. Surely the dream of the old timer when our waterfront would be occupied, is about to come true" (Vancouver Weekly Columbian, August 2, 1917).

And come true it did. At its peak, the Standifer Wooden Yard would employ more than 450 workers and would build six vessels for the merchant fleet before the federal government canceled all wooden-ship contracts in December 1918.

The Standifer Steel Yard

In December 1917, Standifer contracted with the U.S. government's Emergency Fleet Corporation to construct ten 9,500-ton steel steamships. Just weeks later, on January 16, 1918, Vancouver voters approved $185,000 in bonds to purchase and prepare a site for a new Standifer yard. This marked the first significant infusion of public capital into Vancouver's port development, "seed money" that was to prove crucial to the port's future.

Fifty-two acres of mostly swampland just west of the railroad bridge were purchased by the city and turned over to the Port of Vancouver. On January 27, 1918, just 11 days after the vote, a U.S. flag was raised over the property and work began. The swampland was filled with material dredged from the Columbia, then leased to Standifer for a 30-year term.

Due largely to supply problems, not one steel ship was completed by the Standifer steel yard before the war ended on November 11, 1918. Nonetheless, the yard went into full production, and over the next two years produced a total of 15 cargo ships and five tankers, providing employment and housing to more than 3,500 workers.

Something to Build On

The voters of Vancouver took another big step for the port on June 15, 1920, when a $130,000 bond issue to finance new docks passed with a 95 percent favorable vote. The bond measure was motivated in part by the hope that it would persuade the federal government to provide additional funds for dredging the river to accommodate larger vessels.  

Standifer vacated the wooden shipyard property on January 14, 1921, and the first piling for a new city dock on the site was driven the following October. On February 6, 1922, the Paraiso became the first oceangoing vessel to load cargo there, taking on 600,000 board feet of lumber. The federal government deepened the river channel to 25 feet later that year, and in 1926 the dock was expanded and a 32,000-square-foot warehouse added. The Port of Vancouver formally took over the site, which was known from then on as Terminal 1. It would be the only terminal located upstream from the railroad bridge, which had to be opened and closed to accommodate large ships.

Meanwhile, the City and Port were eying with eager anticipation the Standifer steelyard site farther downstream. The fortunes of the yard declined, and by July 1921 Standifer was being pushed to either use the land for some productive activity (as required by the lease) or to abandon it. Finally, on February 19, 1923, Standifer threw in the towel and formally deeded back all its interest in the 52-acre property. 

Over the next 10 years the Standifer steelyard site (later called the Old Industrial Area) was home to a variety of businesses, including lumber and veneer mills, a linen mill, and a fruit packing plant. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the Vancouver waterfront remained a patchwork of private and public uses, its vast potential as a unified public asset almost entirely unrealized.

The 1930s: Defying the Great Depression

Despite the economic trauma of the Great Depression, by 1933 the port was showing signs of renewed life, aided by federal funding, civil works projects, and a $190,000 bond issue approved by Vancouver voters in August. New docks and warehouse space were built at Terminal 1, still the port's only publicly owned dock. In 1934, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway built a 2,100,000-bushel grain-elevator facility on the old steel shipyard site, which was leased to the Pacific Continental Grain Company. The federal government stepped in again, dredging the Columbia to a depth of 35 feet and creating large turning basins for ships in front of Terminal 1 and Pacific Continental. Between 1933 and 1936 the Port added storage facilities and railroad spurs to accommodate increased cargo handling.

In May 1935 the Port purchased 22 acres of property downriver from the railroad bridge, and in January 1936 it received a $136,000 grant from the federal Public Works Administration. This was pooled with the remaining funds from the 1933 bond issue and used to develop Terminal 2, which had an 860-foot dock and a warehouse enclosing 88,000 square feet. Additional dredging was done, and the turning basins were enlarged. The Port of Vancouver now had a modern terminal west (downstream) of the railroad bridge, offering an unobstructed path to the Pacific Ocean. This was real progress, and the local newspaper was enthusiastic:

"Less than 15 years ago, the port was virtually unheard of. Today it values its properties at one million dollars; it owns its own roads, railroad trackage and water system; it has over 2,000 feet of dock space available to ships of virtually any size plying the Columbia river; it offers over 100,000 square feet of roofed and protected warehouse space for cargo handling; and it boasts the most unimpeded modern facilities on the Columbia ... . Three hundred and eighty-seven vessels called in 1935 at the port dock and at the DuBois, DuBois-Matlack and grain elevator docks. The total tonnage swept up the 160,000 mark" (Vancouver Columbian, November 21, 1936).

Terminal 2 was dedicated on December 3, 1936, and two months later the 527-foot cargo ship Lewis Luckenbach, the largest to ever visit the port, moored at the new dock.

1940-1945: Alcoa, Kaiser, and War

In August 1940 the Alcoa Aluminum Company opened a huge smelter on a 300-acre site on the Columbia downstream from Terminal 2, taking advantage of the cheap electrical power provided by Bonneville Dam. Japan's December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, and the country's economy pivoted to war production.

On January 20, 1942, the federal Maritime Commission announced that a gigantic shipyard would be built at Vancouver to support the war effort. The Kaiser Corporation leased a 157-acre tract, including 30 acres of port-owned land, three-quarters of a mile upstream from the Interstate Bridge. Before war's end the Kaiser Shipyard at Vancouver would employ more than 38,000 workers, including 10,000 women, and would produce 143 ships. Many Kaiser workers stayed in Vancouver when the shipyard closed after the war, more than doubling Vancouver's population.

The Post-War Years: Consolidation and Growth

In 1947, the port sold a 98-acre site along the river near the grain elevators to the Carborundum Corporation for a silicon carbide plant, and in 1953 the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway Company leased more acreage at Terminal 2 for additional grain elevators. Later that year, Columbia River Paper Mills and the California Packing Company also became Port tenants. In terms of exports, grain dominated trade in the early post-war years -- in 1951, more than 97 percent of total exports from the Port of Vancouver consisted of wheat, barley, rye, and corn.

The Kaiser Shipyard property was deeded back to the Port after the war, but its location upstream from both the railway bridge and the Interstate Bridge made it less than ideal for ship traffic. During the 1950s and 1960s, the port gradually sold off all ownership in the site, completing its divestment in 1968.

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the port was constantly improving its facilities -- building and leasing multiple warehouses, adding cargo-handling equipment, and issuing bonds and revenue warrants to finance the work. It was also acquiring additional land, including a 53.5-acre tract purchased from Alcoa in 1964 and 600 acres known as the Kromminga Farms/Ridgeport Dairy property, which the Port sold to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in 1991.

The 1970s saw the Port's development of Terminal 3 on land just west of the Carborundum site. This facility would be developed initially as a "laydown" storage area for cargo and automobiles. An opportunity to unify the terminals came in 1986, when the port purchased the Carborundum plant, which had shut down in 1982. This land was developed and added to Terminal 2, making it a multipurpose facility and giving the port an unbroken stretch of working riverfront west of the railroad bridge, encompassing the grain elevators complex and dock and Terminals 2 and 3.

The Port made a major land purchase from Alcoa in 1991, some 807.8 acres known as the Columbia Gateway. The easternmost portion of this purchase, separated from the rest by land retained by Alcoa, was developed into Terminal 4, a 200-acre auto-processing facility completed in 1995. This facility was built specifically to offload and process Subaru automobiles imported from Japan, and for several years it was the car company's sole American port of entry. The remaining acreage in the Columbia Gateway, combined with the purchase in 2004 of the 265-acre Rufener Farm property, will be divided in roughly equal proportion between additional industrial development and land to be used for environmental mitigation.

In 2009, the port added to its portfolio the remaining Alcoa property and the adjacent site occupied by Evergreen Aluminum, financed by a $32.55 million bond issue. In 2010 this area was being developed into Terminal 5, and was used primarily for offloading wind-power equipment. When completed, Terminal 5 will extend the port's unbroken riverfront facilities from the railroad bridge to the eastern edge of the Columbia Gateway property.

In addition to adding new facilities, the port has invested millions of dollars in the first decade of the twenty-first century redeveloping and upgrading existing operations. A two-phase, $37 million renovation of Terminal 2 was completed in 2002, and in 2003 a $13.5 million renovation of Terminal 3 was undertaken. The port has also purchased and put into service three cranes in the last decade, including two mobile harbor cranes that are the largest on the west coast.

On the Environmental Front

Since the 1970s, the Port of Vancouver has had to address multiple environmental issues, often involving ground and water contamination caused by the historic use of properties that have come under its jurisdiction. As of 2010, more than 55 acres of port land have been successfully remediated, and work is ongoing at several sites, including at a landfill on the recently purchased Alcoa property.

One project of which the Port can be particularly proud is the restoration of Vancouver Lake, which lies to the east of what would become the Columbia Gateway property. The lake suffered from pollution caused primarily by agricultural runoff and sewage, aggravated by shallowness and poor outflow. The effort to reclaim the lake began with studies in 1971 and stretched over 12 years. The Port was the lead agency in dredging the lake to deepen it and remove sediments and in digging a flushing channel connecting the lake to the Columbia River, work that was completed in 1983. Although the lake still needs monitoring and continuing interventions, the Port's early efforts brought it back from the brink.

The Port has also been a leader in alternative energy sources, particularly wind power. In 2006 it installed a harbor crane that was dedicated primarily to offloading the components of 127 giant wind turbines for Puget Sound Energy. And the port is more than a mere transit point for wind energy equipment -- 60 percent of its annual power consumption is wind-generated.

Today and Tomorrow

Although the port's business has been impacted by international economic woes, recent statistics illustrate just how far it has come in the 87 years since the Paraiso became the first oceangoing cargo vessel to dock at Terminal 1. In 2009, port facilities:

  • Handled more than 4.8 million metric tons of cargo, including 715,808 metric tons of imports;
  • Provided dockage and load/unload facilities for 403 vessels;
  • Exported 3.2 million metric tons of wheat;
  • Handled 53,965 Subaru automobiles;
  • Off-loaded 2,700 pieces of wind-energy cargo;
  • Contributed $1.6 billion in economic benefits to the region and state;
  • Provided 2,300 direct jobs with the port or businesses located on port land;
  • Generated annual payrolls approaching $99 million;
  • Provided approximately $88 million in tax revenues to support schools, police and fire services, roads, and other essential public services.

As it looks ahead to its centennial year in 2012, there is every indication the port will continue to play a vital role in both the regional economy and international trade. Current projections are that an additional 3,000 to 4,000 jobs will be added over the next 15 years as it continues to develop a growing portfolio of properties. The motto of the Port of Vancouver is "Port of Possibility," and after coming so far, the possibilities do seem bright.

Sources:
"Port Snapshot," Port of Vancouver website accessed April 22, 2010 (http://www.portvanusa.com/community/port-snapshot); "Timeline," Port of Vancouver website accessed April 22, 2010 (http://www.portvanusa.com/about-us/timeline);  "Community," Port of Vancouver website accessed April 22, 2010 (http://www.portvanusa.com/community); Weekly Columbian, April 6, 1912, p. 1;  Ibid., April 8, 1912, p. 1;  Ibid., August 2, 1917, p. 6;  Ibid., November 7, 1918, p. 5;  Ibid., December 12, 1918, p. 1;  Ibid., February 27, 1919, p. 1; Vancouver Columbian, May 21, 1920, p. 1;  Ibid., June 16, 1920, p. 1;  Ibid., January 14, 1921, p. 1;  Ibid. April 29, 1921, p. 1;  Ibid., July 19, 1921, p. 1;  Ibid., February 6, 1922, p. 1;  Ibid., February 17, 1923, p. 1; Jim Mockford, "Historical Currents of Trade and Transportation on the Columbia River -- PartTwo," Clark County History, Vol. 35, 1994, pp. 68, 72, 74, 77, 81, 82; Ted Van Arsdol, "World War I Brought Boom Times to Vancouver Area," Clark County History, Vol. 17, 1976, pp.  58, 64, 70, 78, 86, 87; "What the Columbia River Metropolis is Accomplishing Today," Pacific Marine Review, July 1918, p. 142; "Activities in Oregon Ports," Pacific Marine Review," September 1918, p. 113; "The Progress of Shipbuilding," Ibid., p 113; "The G. M. Standifer Construction Corporation,"  Pacific Marine Review," November 1918, pp. 136-142; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Alcoa plant at Vancouver produces the first aluminum in the West on September 23, 1940" (by Kit Oldham), "Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver launches its first escort aircraft carrier on April 5, 1943" (by Kit Oldham), and "Train carries James J. Hill across the new Columbia River railroad bridge from Portland to Vancouver on November 5, 1908" (by Gregg Herrington) http://historyling.org/ (accessed April 22, 2010); Donna Sinclair, "The Waking of a Military Town," Center for Columbia River History website accessed April 18, 2010 (http://www.ccrh.org/center/VNHRHistoryPartTwo1898_1920.pdf); Donna Sinclair, "Riptide on the Columbia," Center for Columbia River History website accessed April 18, 2010 (http://www.ccrh.org/center/VNRH%20HistoryPartThree1920_1942.pdf); Frank G. Pender, Report to the Citizens and the City Commissioners: Port System (Vancouver: Vancouver City Planning Commission, 1945), 33-35; "The Ports of Astoria, Oregon and Longview and Vancouver, Washington" Port Series No. 33 (Revised 1952) prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1952), 163-206; "History  of the G. M. Standifer Construction Corporation Steel Shipyard Plant, Vancouver, Washington,"  (author unknown), undated typescript, copy provided by Matt Oftedahl, Port of Vancouver Records Officer;  "Terminal No. 1 Property,"  (author unknown), typescript dated  April 10, 1979, copy provided  by Matt Oftedahl, Port of Vancouver Records Officer;  Dorothy Olander, Matt Oftedahl, "Port of Vancouver USA Highlights of Commission Meeting Minutes 1912-1979," undated typescript,  copy provided  by Matt Oftedahl, Port of Vancouver Records Officer; Matt Oftedahl, Port of Vancouver Records Officer, emails to John Caldbick, April 14, 16, 19, 23, and 26, 2010, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.


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Terminal 4, Columbia River, Port of Vancouver, ca. 2000
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


Waterfront, Vancouver, ca. 1912
Courtesy Clark County Historical Museum (Image No. P17.0.1)


Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway Bridge under construction, Vancouver, Washington, June 9, 1908
Courtesy UW Special Collections


Vancouver-Portland Interstate Bridge (Waddell & Harrington, 1917), 1917
Courtesy Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)


Guy M. Standifer (1886-1974)
Courtesy Pacific Marine Review


Standifer Wooden Shipyard, from Interstate Bridge, Vancouver, 1917
Courtesy Clark County Historical Museum (Image No. P76)


Standifer Steel Shipyard montage, Vancouver, 1918
Courtesy Pacific Marine Review


Terminal 1, Columbia River, Port of Vancouver, 1928
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


Archer Daniels Midland grain elevators, Vancouver, 1939
Courtesy Clark County Historical Museum (Image No. P03.4.3)


Kaiser Shipyards on Columbia River, Mount Hood in distance, Vancouver, 1943
Courtesy Clark County Historical Museum (Image No. P77)


Railway bridge, grain elevators, Port of Vancouver, 1948
Courtesy Clark County Historical Museum (Image No. P09.2.159)


Old Industrial Area (foreground), railway bridge, grain elevators, Port of Vancouver, late 1940s
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


Grain terminal, looking west to Terminal 2, Columbia River, Port of Vancouver
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


Waterfront, Columbia River, Port of Vancouver, 1959
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


Flushing channel, Vancouver Lake (background) to Columbia River, Port of Vancouver
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


Terminal 3, looking east, Port of Vancouver, August 2004
Courtesy Port of Vancouver U.S.A.


 
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