Turning Point 14: Progressivism's High Tide: Creation of the Port of Seattle in 1911

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 8/23/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9304
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The 14th essay in our Turning Points series for The Seattle Times, written by Walt Crowley, details the creation of the Port of Seattle on September 5, 1911. The election of the first three Port Commissioners was a major victory for local progressives and public ownership advocates over railroad and maritime interests, and it established what is arguably the largest public economic agency in Washington state. The article was published on August 31, 2001.

On September 5, 1911, a long struggle for control of Seattle's central waterfront climaxed with King County voters' approval of the Port of Seattle district and election of the first three Port Commissioners, Hiram Chittenden, Robert Bridges, and Charles Remsberg. The election was a high water mark for the local Progressive Movement, which advocated public control of essential municipal facilities and services, and also a pivotal defeat for the railroads that had long dominated Seattle's harbor.

Railroad Avenue

In their desperation to attract East Coast capital and a transcontinental rail connection, Seattle's city officials had effectively ceded control of the central waterfront to a succession of private interests. After the Northern Pacific Railroad announced in 1873 that its tracks would end at Tacoma rather than at Seattle, local investors organized the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad to build their own line across the Cascades. The city government awarded the line a 25-foot-wide strip of land along the harbor, hoping to create a ship-rail link. The little railroad and its lucrative harbor franchise ultimately fell into the hands of Northern Pacific, which was not inclined to promote Seattle's development over its own terminus city to the south.

A second local line, the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern, was built in the late 1880s, and Seattle awarded it a 120-foot-wide swath of tidelands immediately west of the Northern Pacific franchise. A planked trestle dubbed Railroad Avenue was constructed to create a second waterfront, but the most valuable inner segment of the line was also acquired by Northern Pacific.

By the early 1890s, James J. Hill was laying track from the Great Lakes for a second transcontinental railroad to serve Puget Sound: the Great Northern Railway. Through his local agent, Judge Thomas Burke, Hill demanded and won a portion of Railroad Avenue in exchange for giving Seattle its first direct transcontinental service in 1893. Hill later acquired the Great Northern and became de facto landlord of Seattle's harbor.

Power to the People!

The consolidation of so much economic power in so few hands alarmed local Progressives and Populists. In writing Washington’s state constitution in 1889, reformers prohibited further government "gifts" of public land and resources to railroads.

The Great Fire of 1889, which destroyed most of downtown Seattle after private water lines failed, added fuel to the Progressive cause. Seattle’s ruins were still smoldering when local voters authorized development of a public water system tapping the Cedar River. Citizens returned to the polls in 1902 to approve bonds to add a municipal power plant on the Cedar, thereby planting the seed for today’s City Light and triggering a bitter feud between public and private utilities that continued for half a century.

These projects and politics also launched the careers of three dynamic engineer-politicians, Reginald H. Thomson, James D. Ross, and George F. Cotterill, who would lead Seattle’s progressive movement in the coming decades. They were soon joined by a fourth horseman of technocracy, Hiram M. Chittenden, the mastermind of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

No issue had so gripped or frustrated Seattle in the early 20th century than that of how to link Lake Washington with Puget Sound, an idea first floated in 1854. Former Territorial Governor Eugene Semple began digging a southern canal through Beacon Hill in 1895, but he was opposed by Hill and other railroad interests who favored a northern route via Lake Union and Salmon Bay. More to the point, they feared that Semple’s vision of a vast Harbor Island and Duwamish quay, to be created by filling the mudflats with his canal till, would undermine their monopoly over the central waterfront.

General Chittenden entered the fray in 1906 as new district head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He devised a simpler plan for the canal route via Lake Union and won local and Congressional funding for it. He also recognized the potential of Harbor Island and development of the Duwamish tide flats and waterway, which was outlined in a new plan by Virgil Bogue. He was also supported by city engineer R..H. Thomson, who had prevailed on the railroads to locate their new passenger terminals and marshalling yards on the new landfills south of Pioneer Square.

Chittenden, Thomson, and other reformers joined then State Senator (later Seattle Mayor) Cotterill in sponsoring legislation to create port districts to own, develop, and manage harbors in the public interest. They finally overcame stiff railroad-funded opposition in June 1911, and immediately prepared a King County election. Voters approved the new Port District by a margin of more than three to one on September 5, 1911, while electing Chittenden, Bridges, and Remsberg as its first commissioners.

Port in a Storm

Realizing the promise of public ownership would take decades of political and economic struggle. The new Port Commission was immediately embroiled in a dubious New York-based scheme to take over Harbor Island. As the Port’s first director, Chittenden slyly let the investors overextend themselves and then default, ceding ownership of the project, then the world’s largest artificial island, to the public. The Port also developed Fishermen’s Terminal to provide a new moorage for Ballard fishing boats displaced by construction of the Ship Canal, which opened in 1917 -- the same year Chittenden died.

The Port eventually acquired most of the waterfront, and worked with the city to replace rickety Railroad Avenue with today’s Alaskan Way in the 1930s. At the onset of World War II, it also assumed responsibility for creation of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. After criticism for falling cargo traffic, the Port took a daring gamble on containerization in the early 1960s, and thereby laid the foundation for its later Pacific Rim leadership and much of the state’s economy.

Over its 90 year history, the Port has never been a stranger to controversy, as witnessed by continuing debates over Sea-Tac’s third runway and redevelopment of the downtown waterfront, but at least we know who to hold accountable. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the Port of Seattle and it is us.

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