Port of Tacoma -- Thumbnail History, Part 2

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 6/25/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8662
See Additional Media

The Port of Tacoma is a publicly owned and managed port district established by Pierce County voters in 1918. Today it is a leading container port, serving as a "Pacific Gateway" for trade between Asia and the central and eastern United States as well as the Northwest. Most of the maritime commerce between Alaska and the lower 48 states also passes through Tacoma. Part 2 of this three-part Thumbnail History of the port covers its development from the aftermath of World War II through its emergence as a growing container port in the 1970s.

Post-War Adjustment

After World War II ended in 1945, the Port of Tacoma, like the rest of the country, faced a rocky transition back to a civilian economy. With the massive war mobilization over, waterfront manufacturing declined sharply. Todd Pacific Shipyard, which had launched 74 warships from the Tacoma tideflats, reduced its workforce drastically from the 30,000 employed during the war-time production peak. Maritime trade fell by 90 percent in 1946, to well below the pre-war levels of 1940. For longshore workers, the loss of jobs was exacerbated by the increased mechanization of dock work that had occurred during the war.

The post-war depression affected all sectors, not just the waterfront, and labor-management conflict flared throughout the country, with more strikes in 1946 than in any previous year. A backlash against organized labor led Congress to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which cut back on labor rights, in 1947. West Coast longshore workers represented by the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) struck for higher wages in 1946 and again in 1948. Port of Tacoma workers, who had remained in the International Longshoremen's Association when workers at most other West Coast ports split to join the ILWU in 1937, did not strike but ended up receiving the same wage settlement.

The Port of Tacoma Commission responded to the nationwide downturn by renewing its interrupted efforts to attract manufacturers to the Port Industrial District it had established just before the United States entered the war. By the end of the decade Purex, Concrete Technology, Stauffer Chemical, and Western Boat Building had all set up shop in the Industrial District, but the port still had not returned to pre-war business levels. In the early 1950s, the commissioners embarked on further improvements to attract more development. They dredged the Industrial Waterway, located on the Tacoma tideflats between the Puyallup River and Hylebos Creek and Waterway, to accomodate larger ships. The Industrial Waterway Bridge opened in 1953 to carry E 11th Street across the Waterway and provide a direct connection from downtown to the eastern tideflats and the Northeast Tacoma neighborhood.  Its drawbridge opened to a width of 150 feet, sufficient for the largest freighters of the era. (Both the Industrial Waterway and the bridge spanning it would later be named in honor of Port Commissioner A. E. "Archie" Blair, who served on the commission from 1954 until his death in 1969.)

Planning Development

The year 1953 marked a turning point for the Port of Tacoma. George W. Osgood, who had been general manager since 1921, the year the Port began shipping operations, was succeeded by J. R. Woodruff. And in that November's election, Maurice Raymond, campaigning on a platform to increase waterfront jobs, won election to the port commission. With the support of Democratic Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Republican Representative Thor C. Tollefson (1901-1982), Raymond worked to garner federal funds for port development. When those efforts did not result in actual appropriations, the Tacoma Port Commissioners determined that they needed to prepare a detailed comprehensive development plan in order to secure federal funding.

In 1955, the commission hired Tibbetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton (TAMS), a major international engineering firm, to do a study and prepare a development plan. The TAMS study was founded on recognition that the Port of Tacoma possessed a key competitive advantage: There were few locations in Puget Sound where industry had direct access to deep water, but Tacoma had significant acreage available for industrial development on the deep waters of Commencement Bay. The plan that TAMS prepared, which guided port development for many years, proposed that the Port extend and widen the Industrial (later Blair) Waterway and Hylebos Waterway and construct ship-turning basins adjacent to the Industrial District at the ends of the lengthened waterways.

Adopting the TAMS plan, port commissioners won voter approval of a $5.4 million bond issue to fund the first stage of the development, extending the Hylebos Waterway located on the eastern edge of the tideflats area. In 1959, the Port gained additional maritime industrial property when the United States Navy, which had declared the former Todd Pacific Shipyard site surplus, agreed to sell it to the Port for $2.1 million. The site became the Port Industrial Yard, which the Port leased to private companies, which by the mid-1960s were employing more than 1,000 workers.

Mechanization and Modernization

In 1957, after 20 years of sometimes bitter rivalry with the ILWU, Tacoma longshore workers voted to affiliate with the major longshore union, headed by Harry Bridges (1901-1990). Tacoma ILWU Local 23 had its inaugural meeting on January 7, 1958. As ILWU members, Tacoma workers were parties to the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement that Bridges and the ILWU negotiated with the Pacific Maritime Association representing West Coast shipping and stevedoring company management. Ratified by members in 1961, the agreement gave employers freedom to introduce both "mechanization" (labor-saving machinery) and "modernization" (work rules requiring greater efficiency) in return for a commitment that no fully registered longshore workers would be laid off and a guaranteed 35 hours of work (or pay) each week.

The agreement opened the way for employers to take advantage of two new, more efficient cargo-loading methods being developed during the 1950s, both of which eliminated the need for gangs of workers to carry sacks or pallets of material from warehouse to hoist. Bulk ships carrying large cargos of loose material like grain or ore were loaded and unloaded by large hoses that sucked or blew the material from ship hold to storage areas or vice versa. Container ships allowed almost any other cargo, except the largest or most unwieldy, to be loaded into a large box (20 or 40 feet long) at the factory or warehouse, hauled by truck or train to the dock, and lifted aboard ship by crane.

Bulk and container ships were not yet common on the Tacoma waterfront when the agreement was ratified in 1961, but signs of change at the port were clear. By then, the studies and planning of the 1950s bore visible fruit as dredging cranes and landfill reshaped the tideflats while warehouses and manufacturing shops were constructed for newly arriving businesses. Kaiser Aluminum reopened the aluminum smelter it had originally constructed on the tideflats in 1941.

New Leadership

With tideflat development increasing and changes in cargo handling coming, Port Commissioners Raymond and Blair, with their colleague M. S. Erdahl, undertook a nationwide search for a general manager to lead the Port into the modern era. In 1964, they hired Ernest L. "Roy" Perry, who had recently retired from the Army Corps of Engineers office in Seattle. Perry, who served until 1976, completed the expansion of the Blair and Hylebos Waterways called for in the TAMS plan and brought the Port of Tacoma into the container age.

Under Perry's leadership, the Port built new warehouses and piers for container cargo at Terminal 4 near the mouth of Blair Waterway and at Terminal 7 on Sitcum Waterway, a shorter channel located between Blair Waterway and the Puyallup River mouth. Two prominent alumina domes -- sometimes termed the "original Tacoma domes" (the actual Tacoma Dome arena opened in 1983) -- were also built at Terminal 7, to store ore for use at the Kaiser smelter a few miles away. Pierce County Terminal was constructed at the head of Blair Waterway, where large amounts of storage space allowed the terminal to handle special cargo like locomotives, military equipment, and logs. Pierce County Terminal also served as the first major center for the growing number of automobiles imported from Asia through the port.  Auto Warehousing Company, which handles foreign autos shipped through the port and in 2008 is the largest full-service auto processor in North America, began operating in Tacoma in 1970, eight years after its founding in Seattle.

In addition to developing and modernizing the port's waterfront facilities, in 1968 Perry increased the Port's investment in industrial property by acquiring 500 acres in Frederickson, an unincorporated area of Pierce County 13 miles south of the port's Commencement Bay terminals. Over the years Frederickson has developed as a major industrial center, home to manufacturers including Tacoma Guitars, Medallion Foods, and a Boeing wing and spar plant as well as factories supplying materials to the Boeing plant.

The Port of Tacoma actively entered the container business in 1970, when the port's first container crane, a 242-foot high Peiner crane dubbed "Big Red" for its paint job, was built at Terminal 7 for $1.2 million. Large for its era, Big Red was also recognized for its ability to handle bulk and general cargo in addition to containers. (The historic crane, which was later painted blue, was demolished in 2005 to allow for terminal expansion.)

Labor and Management

Roy Perry also helped transform labor-management relations at the Port of Tacoma. Before Perry's tenure, rank-and-file longshore workers had virtually no contact with Port staff, and the relationship between the union and Port management was adversarial. Perry reached out to the workers by consulting them on issues and they responded by electing officers, such as Phillip Lelli, who served multiple terms as Local 23 president. Lelli worked cooperatively with management to increase productivity.

Despite increased labor-management cooperation at the Port of Tacoma, ILWU members up and down the coast were increasingly unhappy with the effects of mechanization and containerization. When the ILWU's five-year contract with the Pacific Maritime Association expired on July 1, 1971, the longshore union struck, closing all West Coast ports, including Tacoma, for the first time since 1948. President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) used his authority under the Taft-Hartley Act to force the strikers back to work in October, but they walked out again for more than a month in early 1972 before the strike was settled. Longshore workers gained a pay increase (partially reduced by the federal Pay Board), but were not able to achieve other goals, such as an exclusive right to load cargo in and out of containers (the Teamsters Union, a longtime rival of the ILWU, also claimed container loading rights).

In the 1970s, Tacoma continued to be a major exporter of forest products, as it had been since its founding. Two new export facilities were built in 1972 and 1973: Blair Terminal, with two berths for log exports, was followed by Weyerhaeuser's $4.5 million, 25-acre wood-chip facility on Blair Waterway. In 1975, the Port significantly increased its capacity to handle another leading export, grain, by building the Continental Grain Terminal, with a capacity of three million bushels, on Commencement Bay north of downtown Tacoma.

Worldwide trade increased at record rates in the 1970s, much faster than its growth in the preceding decades. Growth was particularly rapid at the Port of Tacoma, much of it in trade with Pacific Rim countries, whose share of Washington state trade rose steadily. After 1979, when the 30-year American embargo on trade with the People's Republic of China was lifted, China joined Japan, Taiwan, and Korea as major trading partners for the state, with many of the goods passing through the Port of Tacoma. By 1982, the Port had tripled tonnage moved and quadrupled revenues over the levels of a decade earlier. The Port's longshore workers also managed to significantly reduce cargo costs without cutting jobs; in fact Tacoma was the only West Coast port that saw longshore jobs increase from 1972 to 1982.

New Gateway to Alaska

The Port of Tacoma's domestic trade also increased exponentially in the 1970s, and the work of Local 23 longshoremen again played a key role. Richard D. Smith, who replaced Roy Perry as the Port's Executive Director in 1976, continued the policy of working cooperatively with the longshore workers and their union leaders. Worker-management teamwork was highlighted in the successful effort to convince Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a leading shipper to Alaska, to move its operations from Seattle to Tacoma.

TOTE, which operates roll on/roll off (RO/RO) vessels that semi-trailers, trucks carrying containers, construction equipment, and other wheeled vehicles can drive on and off, began operations by shipping between Seattle and Anchorage in 1975. The following year, after meeting with Smith, Tacoma Port Commissioner Robert Earley, and Local 23 Business Agent George Ginnis, TOTE announced that it would move to Tacoma. The productivity of Tacoma longshore workers and Ginnis's assurance that Local 23 would allow TOTE to train the union's drivers at the company's expense and supply only those trained personnel to the TOTE ships were key factors in TOTE's decision. TOTE's first RO/RO ship began calling at Terminal 7 in 1976 and the company added a second vessel in 1977. In 1979, the Port built a new terminal for TOTE across Sitcum Waterway from Terminal 7, and five years later the company moved to another terminal on the east side of Blair Waterway.

In 1980, completing its first decade as a full-fledged container port, the Port of Tacoma enjoyed another year of growth, with revenue increasing 15.5 percent and tonnage 20 percent over 1979 levels. That year's opening of the East Blair Terminal and addition of Mazda to the list of automobile manufacturers importing vehicles through the Port signaled that increases would continue. Indeed, during the 1980s, the Port of Tacoma would become the fastest growing and one of the largest ports in North America.

To go to Part 3, click "Next Feature"


Sylvia Nogaki, "TOTE to Buy Big Steamship Firm," The Seattle Times, November 6, 1985, p. E-12; Roland Lund, "Bridge Chokes Tacoma Port -- Big Container Ships Face Tight Squeeze in Blair Waterway," Ibid., January 14, 1987, p. D-1; Economic Development Council of Puget Sound, Application for Foreign-Trade Zones for the Port of Everett and the Port of Tacoma (Seattle: Puget Sound Foreign-Trade Zones Association, 1982); L. Charles Miller Jr., Pierce County: Our Stake in International Trade: Comments on Conference Presented by Port of Tacoma, Washington Council on International Trade (Seattle, Washington Council on International Trade, 1983); Port of Tacoma Annual Reports; Port of Tacoma website accessed June 11, 2008 (www.portoftacoma.com); Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Inc. website accessed June 11, 2008 www.totemocean.com/); Auto Warehousing Company website accessed June 11, 2008 (www.autowc.com); 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); Magden, The Working Longshoreman (Tacoma:International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, Local 23, 1991); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Longshoremen vote to strike West Coast ports on July 1, 1971" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org (accessed June 11, 2008).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You