Port of Longview

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 7/04/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8559
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The Port of Longview is located in Cowlitz County on the Columbia River, 66 miles from the Pacific Ocean in southwest Washington state.  It is the first full-service port with strategic intermodal connections on the shipping channel.  The Port district encompasses the northwest part of Cowlitz County, stretching from just north of Kalama to Lewis County. Originally established as the Port of Kelso in 1921, the name was officially changed in 1929, by a vote of the people, to the Port of Longview.  Today (2008) its waterfront facilities include eight full-service marine terminals and two large industrial parks with direct access to rail lines and to Interstate 5.  From its founding, the Port of Longview has contributed greatly to the economy of the region and state by providing jobs and by promoting trade and investments.

The Cowlitz and the Columbia

In the mid-to-late-1800s, shallow-draft steamboats plied the Cowlitz River from the Columbia River as far north as Toledo, delivering passengers, freight, and mail.  The boats were the quickest and most reliable link to other communities on the river until the Northern Pacific Railway laid tracks between Tacoma and Kalama in 1873.  Kelso (est. 1857) benefited greatly from the river traffic, becoming a shipping center for Cowlitz County, but no elaborate facilities were required to service the sternwheelers.

In 1911, the Washington state Legislature passed the Port District Act, allowing communities to establish port districts and elect commissioners to oversee their development and operation.  Prior the this legislation, private monopolies often controlled access to the waterfront, but now it belonged to the public.  Operating autonomously, but still governed by state and federal laws, the port commission’s function was to promote trade, bring economic development, and operate port facilities. 

To finance the district, port commissions were authorized to collect $2 for every $1,000 of assessed value on taxable property.  The money provided the initial capital needed to construct and operate facilities and establish monetary reserves.  In addition, ports were authorized to issue municipal bonds for capital construction projects; levy special property taxes for dredging, canal construction, and land filling; and collect fees for using port facilities.

Port of Kelso at Longview

In 1920 Robert A. Long (1850-1934), president of the Long-Bell Lumber Company chose the site across from Kelso at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers, to build “the largest lumber mill in the world” and a new industrial city named Longview.  In order to develop and grow, the area needed a port district, so, in 1921, community and business leaders rallied local voters to approve one.  The Port District Act required ports to be named after the largest city in the district which at the time was Kelso, as Longview had yet to be established.

As there were no facilities on the Columbia, the first Port of Kelso was located on the Cowlitz River which had a riverboat landing and railroad access.  In July 1923, the newly established city of Longview formed a Chamber of Commerce which favored relocating the Port of Kelso to the deeper and wider Columbia River to take advantage of the growing maritime trade.  The Port Commissioners retained William J. Roberts, an engineer from Tacoma, to survey sites and make recommendations.  He chose a strategic location, offered by Longview, at the foot of Oregon Way, adjacent to the Long-Bell sawmill site.

The controversy about relocating the Port of Kelso to Longview continued from 1923 into early 1925.  Finally the Port Commission decided to put the issue to a county-wide vote.  On August 1, 1925, the citizens voted by a big majority to build the new facilities at the foot of Oregon Way in Longview.  The geographic boundaries of the port district were then expanded to include the northwest portion of Cowlitz County, an area of 836 square miles, but little of the Longview area.  The election also authorized the Port of Kelso to issue $11 million in development bonds.

Since the new port was to be located in Longview, the Port Commission held another election on September 12, 1925, to further expand the district’s boundaries to encompass all of the developing city.  The measure, supported by both the Long-Bell Lumber Company and the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, passed by a wide margin.

For at least 50 years, Portland, Astoria ,and other ports along the Columbia had spent millions of dollars maintaining the river’s deep channel and a safe passage through the treacherous shoal at the river’s mouth.  Longview benefited greatly from all the navigational improvements without having to invest any money on the river, allowing the Port of Kelso to expend its resources on the construction of new facilities.

A Thriving Port

The Port Commission purchased 40 of land acres from Long-Bell for $100,000 and immediately work began constructing the dock.  Meanwhile, Long-Bell paved Oregon Way from the downtown business district to the new dock and installed the necessary utilities.  Preparation of the site cost $11,000, which included dredging and filling.  Construction of the new 950-foot dock cost $77,000.  In addition to a public landing for passenger steamers, the dock boasted a large cannery and a freight warehouse with “Port of Kelso” painted in large letters across the end of the building.  The Port’s new facility was officially dedicated on April 15, 1926. 

During the Port of Kelso’s first nine months in operation, a total of 72,000 tons of freight moved across its dock.  In 1927, 1,500 riverboats and 190 ocean-going vessels landed at the public dock carrying 136,000 tons of freight.  The steamer Georgiana began regular passenger service between Portland and Longview.  The Port Commission added a grain elevator, which it leased to the Longview Elevator Company.  In 1928, the amount of freight increased to 246,000 tons carried on 1,200 riverboats and 312 ocean-going vessels.

Port of Longview at Longview

The new port was a rousing success.  In 1929 the Port Commission extended the pier at a cost $59,000 to allow State Steamship Company vessels to dock and load lumber, paper products and passengers for transport to Asia.  Longview’s population was now much larger than Kelso’s and community leaders thought it was time to change the name of the port to accurately reflect its location.  An election was held on December 7, 1929, at which time voters authorized the Port of Kelso to be renamed the Port of Longview.

The Great Depression (1929-1939) brought an end to the Port’s spectacular growth.  The economy began to slowly rebound in the mid-1930s, but it was the advent of World War II (1941-1945) that revitalized the community with new industry and new jobs. 

In 1940 Reynolds Metals Company entered the scene, building an aluminum manufacturing plant which employed some 500 new workers.  The mills increased production of wood and paper products to meet wartime needs.  Docks at the Port of Longview were busy with exports of war materials destined for Russia and Great Britain.  In 1943, the Port constructed a new dock to accommodate increased war-supply shipments.  Millions of tons of cargo left Longview docks on ships or barges including military equipment, food and supplies, aluminum, magnesium ingots, locomotives, and rail cars.

Post-War Years

In the 1950s, the Port of Longview, under the capable leadership of manager Harvey Hart, achieved status as a U.S. Customs port of entry for the import and export of foreign goods, allowing Longview to compete with other West Coast terminal ports.  He persuaded industries in the Midwest and East to ship through Longview, offering better rates and faster service.  And, for the first time since the end of World War II,  Japanese vessels returned to the port for logs and other goods. 

During the Korean War (1950-1953), the military used the port extensively to ship war materials and supplies.  In 1956, the Port built another dock and added more gantry cranes and warehouses to handle the ever-increasing tonnage and bulk cargo crossing the docks.

In the 1960s, the huge Long-Bell Lumber Company sawmills, which had been purchased in 1956 by International Paper Company, were closed and dismantled.  This allowed the Port, sandwiched between Long-Bell and Weyerhaeuser, to purchase 37 acres of land from International Paper and expand its facilities by constructing Berth 7, a 4,000-foot-long dock able to accommodate six vessels.  The Port also constructed a new unloading facility for Reynolds Metals Company’s raw materials at Berth 5 and expanded the grain-elevator facility, leased by Continental Grain Company, by adding a new two-million-bushel capacity elevator.

Containerization Years

By the 1970s, the Port of Longview was moving nearly six millions tons of cargo through its facilities annually, including logs, grain, paper, pulp, aluminum, and food.  It had become Washington’s third largest port and the second largest on the Columbia River, behind Vancouver. 

During this decade containerization began to make a strong impact on world trade.  Container ships could handle much more cargo than the old-style freighters, but the facilities had to be modernized to load and unload the ships.  Most containers left Longview by rail or truck, but some went into port warehouses, where the merchandise was broken down and distributed.  By 1975, approximately 700 freighters a year were calling at the Port of Longview, which employed, directly or indirectly, some 2,500 workers.  In 1978, the Port purchased an additional 41 acres of Long-Bell land from IP for a container storage yard.  After the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, the Army Corps of Engineers used this space to put tons of debris dredged from the Columbia River

In the 1980s, Longview continued to set port records for tonnage, based entirely on log exports to Japan.  The Port’s outstanding performance record earned recognition from the Department of Commerce and the White House.  Port Commissioners traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the “E” award for excellence from President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). 

The Port of Longview created Washington state’s first Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), a public company authorized to finance industrial facilities through the issuance of tax-exempt, non-recourse, revenue bonds.  By the end of the decade, much of the Port’s trade was with Japan, China, and Australia and included a wide variety of dry-bulk cargo such as coal-tar pitch, chemical fertilizers, zircon sand, talc, and animal feed.  Berth 2 was renovated and reconfigured at a cost of $5.2 million as an environmentally sound dry-bulk export facility to handle these materials.

From Timber to Manufacturing

The 1990s saw a shift in Cowlitz County from economic dependence on the timber industry to manufacturing.  Log exports declined but dry-bulk cargo exports exceeded one million tons.  The Port fit the 30-ton Krupp crane at Berth 7 with a clamshell bucket, allowing the crane to handle dry-bulk commodities as well as cargo containers. 

In 1996, the Port purchased 120 acres of Long-Bell property from International Paper to develop as an industrial park.  The property, housing the giant Long-Bell lumber sheds, had been leased by the Port for storage. When the sheds were torn down, the giant old-growth beams were salvaged and sold.  Some were used to build Microsoft-founder Bill Gates's mansion in Medina on Lake Washington. 

In December 1996, major flooding in Longview caused $319 million in damage.  Near the end of the decade, the Port purchased an additional 233 acres from International Paper, which included waterfront, and began construction of Berth 8, a multipurpose dock able to handle general cargo as well as project cargo, forest products, and steel.  Dedicated on October 5, 2000, it was the Port’s first new docking facility in 30 years.

Port of Longview Today

The new millennium brought several changes to Longview’s industrial scene.  In 2000, the Reynolds Metals Company merged with the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), which then sold the smelter to Longview Aluminum.  The following year, due to the high cost of electricity, Longview Aluminum declared bankruptcy and closed the plant with a loss of 500 jobs.  But the Weyerhaeuser Company and Longview Fibre continued to grow and prosper.  And four major companies -- Brown-Strauss Steel, North American Pipe and Steel, R&R Trading, and Simpson Timber -- located facilities in the port’s industrial parks.  In 2006, the Port of Longview handled a total volume of 101 deep-water vessels, 23 ocean-going barges,11,167 rail cars and 1.53 million tons of cargo which included wood pulp, logs and dry-bulk products, mostly chemicals, minerals, and agricultural products.

There are 75 port districts in Washington state, located in 33 of the 39 counties, but only 16 ports are engaged in international maritime trade.  According to the state Office of Financial Management, approximately 90 percent of Washington’s international maritime trade by value, moves through the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, with the Ports of Longview, Vancouver, and Kalama on the Columbia River accounting for most of the remaining 6 percent.  Although the Port of Longview’s operation is relatively small in comparison to that of Seattle and Tacoma, it nonetheless contributes greatly to the economic health of the community, region, and state by providing jobs and promoting trade and investments.

Port Managers

  • Harry L. Tabke (1925-1927)
  • Frank H. Gowdy (1927-1943)
  • Harvey Hart (1943-1973)
  • Robert McNannay (1973-1986)
  • Brian Fladager (1986-1987)
  • Kenneth O’Hollaren (1988- present)

Sources: John M. McClelland Jr., R. A. Long’s Planned City: The Story of Longview (Longview, WA: Longview Publishing Co., 1976), 120-126; History of Cowlitz County, Washington, ed. by Ruth Ott and Dorothy York (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1983); Carmilla G. Summers, About Kelso: An Historical Gem (Longview WA: Speedy Litho Press, 1982), 23-27; “Port of Longview,” Port of Longview website accessed February 25, 2008 (www.portoflongview.com); “Washington Ports/About Our Ports,” Washington Ports Association website accessed February 25, 2008 (www.washingtonports.org); “State of Washington, Office of Financial Management: Economy/2005 Databook,” Office of Financial Management website accessed February 26, 2008 (www.ofm.wa.gov/databook.asp); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Cowlitz County -- Thumbnail History” (by David Wilma), and “Alcoa plant at Vancouver produces the first aluminum in the West on September 23, 1940” (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 18, 2008).

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