On November 10, 1970, the freighter Anthemios arrives at the Port of Seattle's Pier 86 grain terminal, on the Seattle waterfront north of downtown below Queen Anne Hill, where it will take on the first 8,000 tons of grain to be loaded from the just-completed facility. The $13 million terminal is much more efficient than the Hanford Street Grain Terminal it replaces, allowing the Port to quickly set new grain-export records. But the new terminal provokes significant controversy over pollution from grain dust and the fact that it is far more visually intrusive than early plans suggested. One of the biggest complaints from conservationists and waterfront-access advocates is that the shoreline parkway depicted in those early plans was not built along with the terminal.
Hanford Street Grain Terminal
The Port of Seattle, the state's first public port district, was created in 1911 to build and operate publicly owned harbor facilities. Its early projects included what became Fishermen's Terminal on Salmon Bay, the piers that now compose Terminal 91 at Smith Cove, the original Bell Street Pier, and the Port's first docks on the Duwamish Waterway. With those underway, Port commissioners began making plans for a grain elevator on the Seattle waterfront.
The plans, approved in December 1913, called for a 500,000-bushel grain elevator and terminal at Hanford Street, on the waterfront just south of downtown. Completed in 1915, the Hanford Street Grain Terminal was then the second-largest on the West Coast, allowing Seattle to capture some grain trade from the inland Northwest that previously followed the Columbia River to Portland, in addition to opening up new export markets for farmers from as far away as the Midwest, who could send grain by rail to Seattle for shipment abroad. By 1916, the grain terminal and the Port's other new public harbor facilities led to a huge jump in trade moving through Seattle.
The Port's growth slowed in the 1920s, and trade plunged during the Great Depression. The maritime industry rebounded during World War II and the Port of Seattle embarked on new projects. One was an addition to the grain elevator at Hanford Street. But after the war, maritime trade slumped nationwide, due in part to the growth of trucking and rail. The decline was particularly pronounced in Seattle, where the seaport fell behind other ports it had previously far outranked. In the late 1940s, the Port embarked on a decade-long expansion program, but this did not include further expanding or replacing the grain terminal, and the grain-export market soon shifted back to Portland and Tacoma.
In some ways the slump proved a blessing for Seattle. The combination of reforms made in response to perceived lack of Port leadership and the fact that the Port of Seattle had little to risk led to Seattle being one of the first ports on the West Coast to invest in container shipping, which revolutionized the industry worldwide and boosted trade through Seattle.
Plans for New Terminal and Parkway
As they developed container facilities, Port officials turned their attention to replacing the aging Hanford Street grain terminal. On March 22, 1966, Port general manager J. Eldon Opheim presented plans for a new grain elevator to be built on the Elliott Bay waterfront below Queen Anne Hill north of downtown. Water depth at the site, 65 feet before dredging began, would allow the terminal to accommodate the largest ships then sailing and even-bigger vessels being designed. Onshore there was enough room for more than two miles of railroad track to accommodate some 175 rail cars, nearly six times as many as the Hanford Street terminal.
The aspect of the Port's plans that garnered most attention from Seattle city officials was inclusion of "a parkway along Elliott Bay from the foot of Bay Street to Smith Cove," with Mayor Dorm Braman (1901-1980) praising the Port for "not destroying the dreams many of us have had for a fine waterfront drive" (Wells, "Grain Terminal ..."). At least since 1956, when it was included in the city's Comprehensive Plan, officials had envisioned a waterfront park along Elliott Bay from Bay Street (near Broad Street at the north end of the central waterfront) to Smith Cove, with a roadway between the park and the rail tracks that paralleled the shoreline. Beyond Smith Cove, Braman and others envisioned the road extending along the shore below Magnolia Bluff -- part of their "dream of a drive circling the harbor from Alki [in West Seattle] to West Point" in Magnolia (Woodward).
There wasn't much room for a shoreline drive from Bay Street to Smith Cove. Until 1965, most of the shore there west (waterward) of the railroad consisted of tidelands covered by water at high tide. That year, during construction of Interstate 5 through Seattle, the future grain-terminal site was "improved" by dumping on it "considerable excavated material" from the highway project (Sherwood), but when the grain-terminal plans were unveiled in 1966, much of the site remained tidelands.
Those plans and accompanying artist's drawing depicted a modestly sized grain elevator in a landscaped waterfront setting, with the long-dreamed-of parkway running between the elevator and the shore, under the overhead conveyor that would carry grain to ships at the dock. While the Port accommodated the desire for a waterfront drive in its terminal design, "construction of the parkway would be a project for the city" (Wells, "Grain Terminal ...").
Building Pier 86
Two years after the grain-terminal plans were made public the Port Commission entered an agreement with Cargill, Inc., the private company that operated the Hanford Street terminal, to build and operate the new terminal at what was already being referred to as Pier 86, although there was no pier there. The March 1968 lease agreement between the Port and Cargill was for 20 years, with provisions for 5-year extensions after that. Work got underway a month after the lease was signed.
In a brief ceremony on April 19, 1968, U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) dumped the first load of fill for the new grain terminal. Praising the project, he looked forward to opening up trade with a billion people in Asia "eager for knowhow and food this terminal will provide" ("Port Begins Work ..."). Although he did not (at least as quoted in The Seattle Times) name the country, Magnuson's reference to opening up trade with a billion people reflected his longtime advocacy for restoring diplomatic relations and re-establishing trade with mainland China, which the U.S. had refused to recognize or trade with since the Communist Party took control in 1949. Before that, trade with China was an important part of the Seattle and Northwest economy, and Magnuson believed that it could play such a role again.
The following February, the Times reported that two thirds of the fill on which the terminal would be built had been placed, and contracts for constructing the grain elevator, wharf, and other components would soon be awarded. Noting that the berth would have 70 feet of water depth and accommodate ships up to 1,400 feet long -- "Picture the Seattle-First National Bank Building and Space Needle laid end-to-end, then add another 18-story building" -- the article said "the grain terminal will offer vantage in a park-like setting of trees, shrubbery and benches" for visitors who wanted to admire the sight of such massive ships, in addition to being "bisected by a four-lane marine drive which the city has agreed to finance" (Henderson). On June 23, 1969, workers began pouring the 3,600 yards of concrete that would serve as the base for the 130-feet-high silos (36 in the first phase, followed by another 32) making up the grain elevator.
The First Ship
Although the $13 million project was expected to be completed by the summer of 1970, it was not until that fall that the grain terminal was ready to load its first ship. Indeed, when the freighter Anthemios docked at Pier 86 on November 10, 1970, the overhead loading gallery that conveyed grain from silos to ship was still not finished. Once the conveyer began operating a few days later, some 8,000 tons of wheat were quickly loaded aboard the Anthemios (or Anthemious -- both transliterations of the ship's Greek name were used in the Seattle press), and the freighter departed for Japan to deliver its load of wheat.
The Anthemios was quickly followed by the Covenas. On November 24, as nearly 12,000 tons of wheat destined for India were loaded aboard the Covenas at Pier 86, the Port surpassed 1 million tons of grain loaded for the year, the earliest it had ever done so. By the end of the year, the Port of Seattle had exported 1,157,400 tons of grain, a new record for its largest-by-weight export item. Most was loaded from the old Hanford Street terminal, and indeed both the Anthemios and Covenas took on tons of wheat there before completing their loads at Pier 86. Even with the new terminal in operation, the Port kept the old one active into 1971 until all the grain in its silos was shipped out. Then the Hanford Street terminal was demolished to make room for more container terminals.
The new grain terminal was a little smaller than the one it replaced -- the 68 silos at Pier 86 could hold 4.2 million bushels, while Hanford Street had room for 6 million. But its potential capacity to load ships was "a phenomenal 3,000 tons per hour ... more than twice the rate at the old Hanford Street Terminal" (Burke). With the new, more-efficient operation, the Port expected to double the amount of grain shipped in less than five years.
But Where Is the Parkway?
Despite its economic success, the Pier 86 terminal was the subject of fierce criticism. Well before it opened, some citizens, especially those on Queen Anne Hill overlooking the grain elevator, began raising concerns, including over discrepancies between the plans presented in 1966 and what was rising into view in 1969.
At a time when other road-building proposals were hotly contested, one of the biggest criticisms was the lack of the waterfront parkway shown in the original plans. Despite opposition to highways elsewhere (both the R. H. Thomson Freeway planned through the Central Area and Montlake neighborhoods and the Washington Park Arboretum, and the proposed Bay Freeway along the south shore of Lake Union, provoked years of controversy before being canceled in 1972), conservationists and neighborhood activists of the period evidently joined city officials in seeing the planned four-lane parkway along Elliott Bay as an amenity, rather than an intrusion.
One of the first criticisms of the grain terminal to appear in The Seattle Times, an August 27 letter to the editor from a Queen Anne resident complaining that "each phase of construction ... has been accompanied by its own brand of noise, some loud, some moderate, but all irritating, sometimes 24 hours a day," said that (before the noise began) although "understandably ... less than enthused" about the new facility "many of us prepared to live with it if not love it" based on assurances that it would be as unobtrusive as possible and because "some concession was made to esthetics in providing right-of-way for a marine parkway" (Smith).
Months before the terminal opened, The Seattle Times columnist Herb Robinson summed up the feelings of many in a May 21, 1970, opinion piece titled "Ugly Grain Elevator Far Cry from Artist's Sketch." Recalling Mayor Braman's comments about not destroying the dream of a waterfront drive, he wrote that "public officials hailed the project not only for its economic potential, but as a civic asset with esthetic values," adding that "conservationists who care about such things doubtless were lulled into false confidence" in part by the "artist's sketch which to a casual viewer suggested the terminal would be an interesting structure of rather modest proportions" (Robinson).
"Today, the ugly reality of the wall-to-wall concrete and appurtenant wharf structures now looming along the shoreline has convinced crusaders against visual pollution that they have been flim-flammed to an outrageous degree.
"The silos and headhouse rise nearly 300 feet in places, blotting out water views ...
"Moreover, the much-vaunted marine parkway from the foot of Bay Street northward ... is nowhere in sight.
"The marine parkway is still part of the city's ... long-range plan, but no funds are available" (Robinson).
Port general manager Opheim acknowledged the criticisms, but stressed the terminal's importance to Seattle's economy and noted that the Pier 86 location was the only one available. He offered esthetic improvements, including landscaping, waterfront viewpoints for watching the operation, and even the possibility of "decorating the silos with 'attractive colored lighting'" (Robinson). The idea of making the "bulky ... complex" colorful was quickly rejected -- "asked by the port to comment on a color scheme for the much-criticized facility," members of the Seattle Design Commission strongly recommended against even painting the elevator gray or green, suggesting instead that it be "left in its natural concrete color" ("Paint Grain Complex? NO! ...").
Mitigation Efforts but No Parkway
Once the terminal began operating, concerns over the missing parkway and blocked views were joined by complaints about air pollution from "the daily clouds of wafting grain-dust" (Rising Tides ... 79). In an era of increasing environmental awareness, concerns over pollution and visual blight at Pier 86 combined with increasing criticism of aircraft noise and pollution resulting from the rapid expansion of Sea-Tac Airport (another Port of Seattle facility) to cast the Port, in the minds of many, "in the role of an uncaring monolith" (Burke, 128). In response to the pressure and increasingly unfavorable public opinion, the Port over the next few years increased efforts to mitigate adverse environmental effects.
At the grain terminal this included installing $200,000 of equipment to reduce grain dust at ships being loaded, on top of $800,000 already spent on dust-control equipment within the elevator. Over the years, the Port landscaped the property around the grain elevator and developed an 11-acre shoreline park (originally Elliott Bay Park, renamed Centennial Park in 2011 to commemorate the Port's 100th year) on its property south of Pier 86. Port and city officials worked together to develop a pedestrian and bicycle pathway through that park and the city's adjoining Myrtle Edwards Park to the south.
The parks and pathway extended along Elliott Bay from Broad Street past the grain terminal to Smith Cove, the route of the once-dreamed-of waterfront drive. As public attitudes changed, however, so did that dream. By 1976, Port deputy general manager Richard Ford (1930-2013) noted "community pressure against the parkway" ("Port Given ..."). No parkway was built there or below Magnolia Bluff.
Terminal 86 Grain Facility
As shoreline amenities were developed around it, shipments from the grain terminal continued to grow. In April 1979, when the M.V. Liu Lin Hai became the first ship from the People's Republic of China to visit the United States, it did so to pick up 37,000 tons of Midwest corn at Pier 86. The visit followed restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, fulfilling the longtime goal Senator Magnuson had referenced as terminal construction began. As Magnuson envisioned then, China went on to become both the Port of Seattle's largest import trade partner and a major buyer of grain shipped from Seattle.
With China joining Japan, India, and other Asian nations as a destination, the amount of grain shipped from Pier 86 rose, climbing by 44 percent in 1984 alone. But sharp declines followed later in the decade and, after picking back up, grain exports dropped again due to an economic slowdown in Asia during the 1990s. In 1999, when Cargill chose to stop operating the Seattle grain terminal following an antitrust ruling, there was speculation that the Port would close the terminal and turn the property to some other use.
Instead, the Port selected Louis Dreyfus Corporation to run the facility beginning in March 2000, and worked with the new operator on significant improvements to the grain elevator. Grain shipments soon tripled, with an alltime record of 6.4 million metric tons shipped in 2008. Shipments then dropped sharply due to the Great Recession before rebounding. As of 2019, the Terminal 86 Grain Facility annually exported about 5 million metric tons of grain -- mostly corn, soybeans, and sorghum from the Midwest -- to China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia.