Sea-Land begins shipping operations at Port of Tacoma on May 13, 1985.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/16/2008
  • Essay 8463
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On May 13, 1985, 60 longshoremen begin unloading 481 containers from the Sea-Land ship Endurance as the giant shipping line begins operating from Port of Tacoma. In just six hours longshoremen empty the ship and teamsters stack the containers two-high on railroad cars for the journey onward to Chicago and New York. Soon after Sea-Land's debut, a second major shipping line begins business at the Port of Tacoma with the arrival of the Charlotte Maersk. Sea-Land and the Danish line Maersk, which in 1999 will acquire Sea-Land to form Maersk Sealand, help lead the way as the Port of Tacoma becomes a major container port.

Sea-Land Moves

Sea-Land's move to Tacoma began in 1982 when the line announced that it would not renew its existing lease for Terminal 5 in Seattle. Instead, Sea-Land entered a 30-year contract with the Port of Tacoma. Jack Helton, the Vice President of Sea-Land's Alaska Division, explained that the business decision to move from Seattle to Tacoma was based on:

"Room to grow, labor productivity, and economics ... . We will save a million dollars a year in operating costs. Tacoma's new rail yard will greatly reduce costs of moving containers" (Magden, 190).

Over the next three years, engineers and workers planned and built the $44 million Sea-Land Terminal and ship/dock/rail linkages that replaced old rail yards located far from the docks. The most dramatic part of the construction was the arrival of two new Hitachi container cranes. Built in Japan, the fully assembled cranes were shipped to Tacoma on the Sunrise, the first time such a large cargo had crossed the Pacific Ocean. The Sunrise delivered the cranes in December 1984, and by the following spring the Sea-Land Terminal on the Port's Sitcum Waterway was ready.

The Endurance Arrives

The Endurance, carrying 481 containers from Yokohama, Japan, was the first Sea-Land ship to unload at the new terminal. Work began at 7:00 a.m. on May 13, 1985, as four gangs of longshoremen began discharging the containers. Eight workers aboard the ship unlashed the 40-foot-long containers, which the Hitachi cranes lifted from the ship onto tractor truck chassis. After four longshore workers secured a container, the trucks moved it the short distance to the intermodal yard (so-called because it handles several modes of transportation), where teamsters loaded the containers onto double-decked rail cars. Within six hours all 481 containers had been transferred from the Endurance to the train cars, which would haul them to Chicago and New York.

There were both similarities and dramatic differences between the Endurance's first visit and that of the very first ship to visit the Port of Tacoma -- the Pacific Steamship Company's Edmore, which arrived at the Port's brand-new Pier 1 in March 1921. Both ships were trading between Tacoma and Yokohama, indicative of the major role that trade with Japan in particular and Asia in general has played throughout Tacoma's maritime history. But the Edmore arrived empty, to pick up a load of lumber for the Japanese market, whereas the Endurance came full of consumer goods for the American market, reflecting the transition from a time when Tacoma's economy centered around exporting raw materials to its current more-diversified status, where the value of goods imported through the Port of Tacoma substantially exceeds the value of exports. Union longshoremen handled both loads, but although workers set what was then a world record loading the Edmore in 24 hours, subsequent advances in mechanization and containerization allowed the Endurance's much larger cargo to be transferred in a quarter of that time.

Maersk Sealand

Another large container shipping company, Maersk, followed Sea-Land to the Port of Tacoma when the Charlotte Maersk, carrying 659 containers, made its first call within days of the Endurance's inaugural visit. With the addition of the two new large container carriers, the Port of Tacoma reached new records for container volume in 1985. In 1991, for the first time, the Port handled more than one million containers in a year.

In 1999, the A. P. Moller-Maersk Group bought Sea-Land's international shipping business and terminals. The resulting company, Maersk Sealand, is the world's largest container shipping operation. Maersk Sealand continues in 2008 to play a major role in Port of Tacoma shipping, accounting for a significant percentage of the more than two million containers shipped through the port every year.

Sources: Ronald E. Magden, The Working Longshoreman (Tacoma:International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, Local 23, 1991), 189-91; Murray and Rosa Morgan, South on the Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1984), 126; Sherry Maiura, Gateway to the World: The Story of Pierce County's Port (Tacoma: Port of Tacoma, 2006), 10; "The Tacoma Advantage: Port of Tacoma 2006 Annual Report," "Port of Tacoma and Maersk Sealand Celebrate 20 Years of Partnership," and "1981-1990: Emerging as a Major League Container Port," Port of Tacoma website accessed January 10, 2008 (

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