Port of Tacoma's first container crane is completed in late 1970.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 9/02/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8757
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In late 1970, the container shipping age begins at the Port of Tacoma as the Port's first container crane is completed and undergoes operational testing. The 242-foot-high Peiner crane, dubbed "Big Red" for its paint job, costs $1.2 million to construct. Large for its era, Big Red is recognized for its ability to handle bulk and general cargo in addition to containers, the large boxes in which most maritime cargo is now shipped. The Peiner crane, later painted blue, will serve the Port's Terminal 7 until it is demolished in 2005 to allow for terminal expansion.

Container Revolution

Beginning in the late 1950s, new methods of handling cargo transformed the shipping industry, greatly reducing the need for large 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 with large hoses that sucked or blew the material from ship hold to storage areas or vice versa. Almost all other cargo, except for some large or unwieldy materials like logs or construction beams, could be carried in 20-foot boxes called containers.

Containers were loaded at the factory or warehouse, lifted aboard trucks, and driven to the docks. There straddle carriers lifted them off the trucks and large cranes, much bigger than those previously used on the docks, hoisted them aboard ship. A container ship could be loaded in less than one third the time it took to load a conventional ship carrying the same quantity of cargo.

The Port of Tacoma was still a small regional port when the container revolution began. Not until port commissioners hired Ernest L. "Roy" Perry (1918-2001) as general manager in 1964 did the Port begin adopting the new shipping techniques. During the 1960s, Perry expanded and modernized the port's waterways, terminals, and other facilities. By 1970, the Port was ready to launch its first container crane.

Big Red

A giant for its time, the 242-foot-high Peiner crane was constructed at Terminal 7 on Sitcum Waterway at a cost of $1.2 million. It began operational testing late in 1970. Initially painted red, winning it the nickname "Big Red," the crane had a reach of 14 containers. Big Red was unusual among container cranes because, unlike most, it was able to lift not only containers but also bulk or general cargo, as the need arose.

Big Red, which was eventually painted blue, moved containers at Terminal 7 for 35 years, during which the Port of Tacoma acquired many more container cranes and rose to become one of the world's leading container ports. In 2005, the Port's first container crane was demolished to make room for an expansion of Terminal 7 named Olympic Container Terminal, which became home to Yang Ming Lines, the latest major container shipping line to operate out of the Port of Tacoma.


"2001-2005: Pacific Rim Trade Growth" and "History Gives Way to Progress at Port of Tacoma," Port of Tacoma website accessed August 29, 2008 (www.portoftacoma.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), 145-49.

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