Grain loading begins at new Port of Tacoma grain elevator on August 11, 1930.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/19/2008
  • Essay 8466

On August 11, 1930, the grain elevator at the Port of Tacoma's new United Grain Terminal begins service. The publicly owned and funded grain elevator, which was proposed by Port Commissioner G. E. Ledbetter, has a capacity of 450,000 bushels and a 600-foot-long, railroad-tracked pier. The new grain terminal allows the Port of Tacoma to compete effectively with Portland, Oregon, for grain shipments from Eastern Washington and Oregon and from the Midwest.

Public Ownership

The vote to create the Port of Tacoma in 1918 was a victory for advocates of publicly owned waterfront facilities. Before the port was established, almost all waterfront development on Tacoma's Commencement Bay was privately owned. When a public port was first proposed for Pierce County in 1911, voters in the city of Tacoma favored it, but voters from rural areas including the then-largely-agricultural Puyallup Valley opposed it and it was narrowly defeated. In the 1918 campaign, port advocates helped win over at least some Puyallup Valley voters by arguing that a publicly owned warehouse and cold-storage plant would aid farmers who saw large portions of their crop spoil in shipping due to inadequate facilities. As the Port grew during the 1920s, the Port Commissioners worked on planning and building the cold-storage plant, although it was 1931 before that facility was completed.

Meanwhile the commissioners also began planning for a publicly owned grain elevator to handle crops from farther afield. Commissioner Ledbetter took the lead, preparing a report that called for a $500,000 bond issue to fund the grain elevator. Voters approved the bond issue in November 1928.

United Grain Terminal

Casseday Engineering and Construction Company designed the grain elevator with a storage capacity of 450,000 bushels and a workhouse capacity of 175,000 bushels. The United Grain Terminal also included a 600-foot pier and railroad tracks. The Tacoma firm Albertson and Cornell Brothers received the $520,956 contract to build the grain terminal. The Tacoma Dredging Company handled the dredging and filling that created ships' berths at the terminal. The grain elevator was finished in the summer of 1930 and the first grain was loaded on August 11, 1930.

The grain elevator and the Port's railroad connections allowed the Port of Tacoma to export grain not only from Eastern Washington and Oregon but also from the Midwest. The new grain terminal gave Tacoma an advantage over Portland, Oregon, in their rivalry for the grain export business. Because Portland depended on dredging the Columbia River to keep its port open, there were times when the water there was not deep enough for grain ships to take on a full load. At Tacoma's deep-water port ships could fill their holds completely, so in addition to voyages that originated there, Tacoma served as a "topper port" for ships that still had room after calling at Portland.

As grain shipping increased, additions were made to the elevator and a new pier and a gallery that transported grain directly into the ships were built. The elevator's capacity eventually increased to 4,500,000 bushels.

The United Grain Terminal closed in 1985 and was demolished two years later to allow for expansion of the Port's North Intermodal Rail Yard. However, the Port of Tacoma remained a major grain exporter, having built a new grain terminal on Commencement Bay north of downtown Tacoma in 1975. Like the first grain elevator the new terminal was owned by the port. It is currently (2008) leased and operated by Cargill and grain is consistently first on the list of the Port's top export commodities.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.


Ronald Magden and A. D. Martinson, The Working Waterfront: The Story of Tacoma's Ships and Men (Tacoma: International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, Local 23 and Port of Tacoma, 1982), 8-12, 43-45, 49-50; Magden, personal communication to Kit Oldham, January 16, 2008; "History" and "The Tacoma Advantage: Port of Tacoma 2006 Annual Report," Port of Tacoma website accessed January 10, 2008 (

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