Public Port Districts and Access to the Waterfront

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 10/31/2010
  • Essay 9627
See Additional Media

Washington’s public ports tend to be associated more with cranes and loading docks than with parks and promenades, but providing public access to the waterfront has been a part of the ports’ mission from the very beginning. The 1911 legislation that allowed local voters to create port districts was an effort to wrest control of the state’s harbors from railroads and other private interests and return it to the public. Port districts carried out this function in early years in part by building marinas, boat ramps, and docks for "mosquito fleet" steamers and, later, ferries. Subsequent legislation gave ports an even stronger mandate to open waterfronts to the public, to the point that now virtually every development project undertaken by ports with any kind of shoreline includes some element that links people to water.

Public vs. Private

Much of the momentum for the campaign to create public port districts came from Seattle. Like many Western cities, Seattle had given away huge chunks of land in hopes of winning the favors of the builders of transcontinental railroads. Virtually the entire central waterfront, including the shipping docks and piers, had ended up in the hands of Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and other lines. In the early 1900s, reform-minded citizens in Seattle, joined by farmers in Eastern Washington, longshoremen, and other groups, began trying to reassert public control of this economically critical area.

Railroads were the primary target of the reformers, but waterfronts in some port cities were dominated by other private interests. Grays Harbor, for example, was controlled by the owners of sawmills and timber docks. The only wharf and most of the waterfront in Bremerton was owned by the heirs of William Bremer (1863-1910), who had platted the town in 1891. When the citizens of Bremerton approved $35,000 in bonds to build a municipal wharf in 1912, the Bremer family sued to maintain its monopoly. Critics complained that private owners charged excessive wharfage fees and failed to make needed improvements to their docks. Public port districts, with the power to raise money through taxes, could buy back the waterfronts and presumably develop and manage them in the public interest.

The first bill to establish port districts in Washington state was introduced in 1907 by Democratic State Senator (later Seattle Mayor) George F. Cotterill (1865-1958). It was approved by the Legislature but vetoed by the governor. A second bill died in committee two years later. A third measure, tougher than either of the first two, finally passed and was signed into law in March 1911. The Port of Seattle, Washington's first public port district, was established six months later. It was followed quickly by the Ports of Grays Harbor (December 1911), Vancouver (1912), and Bremerton (1913).

Seattle’s First Waterfront Park

Just a few years after it was founded, the Port of Seattle opened its first park: a "public waterfront observatory and playground" located on the roof of the Port’s warehouse and headquarters building on the Bell Street Pier. The one-acre site included a cement balustrade and a "very attractive" shelter (Port of Seattle, 1915). The Seattle Park Board provided benches, swings, sandboxes, and trees and flowers planted in tubs. It was opened in 1915, at a time when there were no other parks or recreation areas along the central waterfront.

A port publication touted the rooftop park as a place where children could play while their mothers shopped at the Public Market or in downtown department stores. It noted that the city council and other groups had long sought a "recreation pier" of "sufficient height" to allow tourists to enjoy "inspiring glimpses of water traffic and the panorama of city and sea, forest and mountain" (Port of Seattle, 1915).

The park proved to be more popular with sailors and their dates than with tourists or shoppers, and it was soon closed down as a "moral nuisance." However, in later years the Port of Seattle developed many other parks and public-access sites in the waterfront area. The current Bell Street Terminal, for example, includes several layers of public plazas. The one on top, equipped with benches and telescopes, is located more or less on the site of Seattle’s first waterfront park.

"Mosquito" Ports

Most of Washington’s early port districts served the "mosquito fleet" -- the thousands of steamships (said to be as numerous as mosquitoes) that were the primary source of transportation around Puget Sound from the 1880s to the 1930s. The Port of Seattle designed the original Bell Street Pier specifically to accommodate mosquito fleet steamers, as well as the small boats that brought produce, poultry, and fish from neighboring islands to buyers at the Seattle Public Market. Noting the Port of Tacoma’s emphasis on deep-sea vessels and the international export trade, the Port of Seattle claimed that "Seattle’s distribution of goods by the ‘mosquito fleet’ to the myriad towns and settlements among the outspread fingers of Puget Sound is of much greater value" (Port of Seattle, 1915).

The ports of Kingston (established in 1919), Brownsville (1920), Allyn (1921), and Tracyton (1929) were all part of the mosquito fleet’s network on the Kitsap Peninsula. Settlements on the peninsula were connected by a few rudimentary roads at the time, but there was no way to get to the mainland other than by boat. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge provided a brief alternative when it opened in July 1940, but it collapsed in a windstorm just four months later and was not rebuilt until 1950. Railroads, highways, and bridges eventually put the steamers out of business, but until then, the fleet was the matrix that held the communities of Puget Sound together.

In its first undertaking, the Port of Kingston bought a privately owned wharf on Appletree Cove and improved and expanded it. The Port soon became the transportation hub for the northern end of the peninsula. Farmers and lumber workers relied on it to ship goods to market and to receive virtually everything they needed, from machinery to livestock to mail. The marine traffic flowed both ways. People from small communities on the peninsula used Kingston as an embarkation point for bigger cities; people from the cities came to Kingston for day trips or longer excursions to nearby recreation areas.

The Port of Brownsville, located about five miles north of Bremerton, took over a municipal dock in a snug harbor in the central part of the peninsula. From the beginning it served recreational boaters as well as mosquito fleet steamers. The area had become a prime destination for "excursionists," including those who built summer homes nearby.

The Port of Allyn, the first of six port districts to be established in Mason County, developed into a commercial center for the south Sound. In 1922, the Port issued $10,000 in bonds to build a 580-foot-long dock, with a 61-by-73-foot wharf. A covered warehouse was built on the north end of the wharf. A covered structure on the south end was eventually converted to an oyster processing plant. Farmers, loggers, fishermen, and oyster harvesters throughout the region brought their business to the Port. Steamers began to make more frequent runs from Allyn to Bremerton, Tacoma, Olympia, Steilacoom, and Shelton.

Voters in Tracyton, an unincorporated town on Dyes Inlet in Kitsap County, hoped to improve steamer service to their community by organizing a port district in 1929. But the Manette Bridge opened just one year later, providing a direct link between the Tracyton area and downtown Bremerton. Steamer service to Tracyton all but disappeared, leaving the port with few functions other than maintaining its single dock, a boat launch, and access to a beach.

So Long, Mosquitoes

The beginning of the end for the mosquito fleet came on May 20, 1923, when the automobile ferry City of Edmonds made its inaugural run from Edmonds to Kingston. The proliferation of cars, highways, and bridges proved to be fatal competition for the steamers. The last scheduled run, from Seattle to Everett, ended in 1939. By then, auto ferries ruled the sound, and the Puget Sound Navigation Company (also known as the Black Ball Line) ruled the ferries.

In the late 1940s, complaints from commuters about rising fares and unreliable service led to demands that the state launch its own ferry system. Rather than compete with the Puget Sound Navigation Company, which had secured a virtual monopoly, the state Department of Transportation bought out the company. Washington State Ferries -- now the largest ferry system in the United States and the third largest in the world -- began service on June 1, 1951, using reflagged Black Ball vessels.

Only a few of the small ports that had been founded to serve the old steamships were included in the new ferry routes. Kingston was one of the survivors. The Port leased its dock and surrounding land to the state for use as a ferry terminal. That done, it turned its attention to recreation, as did most of the other mosquito fleet ports.

Gateways to Recreation

The post-World War II economic boom brought increasing numbers of recreational boaters, sports fishermen, and vacationing families to the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas and the San Juan Islands. Local ports responded by building or improving marinas for pleasure craft, developing parks and picnic areas, and opening beachfronts to the public. Brownsville, for example, added piers to its single dock, built breakwaters to protect the piers, and established a small park overlooking the marina and Burke Bay. The Brownsville marina today (2010) has five finger piers, 310 permanent moorage slips, a fuel dock, pumpout stations, showers, and restrooms -- "all the amenities of a large marina but with the charm, peacefulness and rustic setting of a small rural community," as the Port puts it (Port of Brownsville website).

The Port of Allyn bought property in nearby Belfair on Pleasant Cove Beach and built a floating dock there. The dock, completed in 1952, was used for fishing and swimming and seasonally to load and unload oysters. The Port steadily improved the recreational facilities at both Allyn and Belfair over the years, adding boat launches, moorage, a waterfront park (now a popular spot for weddings), and, more recently, a kayak park with 300 feet of beach access.

Kingston, meanwhile, designed a marina to accommodate both pleasure and commercial fishing boats. The marina, completed in 1967, was operated by a private contractor until 1985, when the Port took over the management. The facility now provides permanent moorage for 262 boats, including 54 covered slips; a guest moorage dock with 49 slips; and a kayak and small boat storage area with 28 covered spaces. The Port also maintains a fishing pier, 400 feet of sandy beach on the east side of the ferry loading lanes, and a one-acre park that hosts a variety of community events, from a spring through fall farmers’ market to a free summer concert series.

Many other ports, large and small, also developed marinas over the years. The Port of Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina in Ballard has offered moorage to recreational boaters since the 1950s. A fishing pier and more than a mile of public esplanade serve the boatless at Shilshole. San Juan Island voters created the Port of Friday Harbor in 1950 for the sole purpose of building a marina to attract tourists. The Port of Bremerton built a $1.9 million marina on waterfront property it owned at Port Orchard in 1974. The marina quickly became a popular destination. It was expanded in 1986 and again in 1996, after a severe snowstorm caused an estimated $8 million in damages.

The marina at Port Orchard was so successful that the Port of Bremerton developed a smaller facility on the downtown waterfront in 1986 (after several years of litigation and negotiation with the Bremer family, which still owned much of the waterfront). Unfortunately, the Bremerton marina was immediately beset with problems related to its proximity to the ferry terminal. A 500-foot breakwater was not sufficient to protect boats in the marina from being rocked by the wakes generated by the ferries. The marina was expanded and improved in 2008. Even so, it remains only half occupied and is not expected to reach full capacity until 2014.

As of 2010, 37 of Washington state’s 75 public ports operate at least one marina (many have more than one; Seattle, for instance, has five). Together, they provide about 40 percent of the public moorage available to boaters traveling on the state’s many waterways.

Recreational Mandate

The Legislature steadily increased the powers available to port districts over the years, giving them the right to establish Industrial Development Districts in 1939; allowing them to build and operate airports in 1941; and authorizing the creation of port districts in areas with no access to bodies of water in 1959. A further extension came in 1965, when the Legislature specifically empowered ports to "construct, improve, maintain, and operate public park and recreation facilities" in order to "more fully utilize boat landings, harbors, wharves and piers, air, land, and water passenger and transfer terminals, waterways, and other port facilities" (1965 Wash. Laws, Ch. 81).

Ports had long provided public access to the shoreline through docks, boat ramps, and marinas, but the new law made it clear that purely recreational facilities were also part of their mission. The message was reinforced by the passage of the Shoreline Management Act (SMA) of 1971, which made the provision of new or expanded public access a condition of virtually every shoreline permit issued to port districts; and by the state’s general aquatic lands management goals, which include "encouraging direct public use and access" (1984 Wash. Laws, Ch. 221, sec. 2; 2005 Wash. Laws, Ch. 155, sec. 140).

Voters in the Skamokawa area, in the west end of Wahkiakum County, established the Port of Wahkiakum County No. 2 in 1966 for the sole purpose of developing a riverfront park on the Columbia. Skamokawa Vista Park remains the port district’s only operation. The 76-acre park includes five yurts; a boat launch; and a full range of campsites, from recreational vehicle sites with full hookups to tent sites, many of them facing the river. The Port of Wahkiakum County No. 1, organized in 1958, also focuses on recreation, operating the 300-slip Elochoman Slough Marina and an adjacent RV park and campground.

Some port districts turned to recreation and tourism as a way to boost local economies in the face of declining revenue from traditional industries, notably logging and fishing. The Port of Ilwaco, on Baker Bay at the mouth of the Columbia, was once focused almost entirely on the needs of the commercial fishing fleet. By the 1930s, salmon runs had dropped precipitously. Canneries closed; the number of commercial boats berthed at the Port decreased. The Port regrouped and added a small boat basin and other facilities to attract recreational boaters and sports fishermen. By the 1980s, even the sports fishery had declined. Realizing that Ilwaco’s future prosperity would not be based solely on fishing, the Port’s commissioners began transforming the waterfront to encourage tourism. What had once been a primarily industrial area now includes hotels, restaurants, galleries, retail shops, a seasonal farmers’ market, and a pavilion for public and private events.

‘Quiche Ports’

Ports nationwide faced hard decisions about how to use once-lucrative waterfront land and piers in the 1980s. Environmental activists pushed for more parks, trails, picnic areas, viewpoints, and beachfront recreation sites. But they encountered push-back, from those who complained that too many urban waterfronts were being gentrified. Port commissioners in some districts stood accused of stripping their harbors of traditional working-class infrastructure and turning them into "quiche ports" in an effort to capitalize on liquid assets.

All these elements played out in a decades-long debate about public access to property controlled by the Port of Everett. The Port, established in 1918, had traditionally been dominated by lumber and shingle mills and commercial fisheries. By the 1980s, the fishing industry was in decline, most of the mills were gone, and prime waterfront property was sitting unused. The Port sold some 110 acres of land to the Navy for the creation of a homeport for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other ships. The sale gave the Port about $37.5 million to spend on redeveloping its other properties. It also set off a clamor for more public access to the city’s shorelines. "A lot of people sort of view it as a cruel teasing when we can see the water, we live near the water, but we can't get there from here," said Paul Roberts, Everett planning director. "That's what we need to fix" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2003).

When the Port proposed to build a $5 million export terminal on 35 acres of beachfront property, the city refused to issue a permit, as required by the Shoreline Management Act, unless the Port agreed to significantly expand waterfront access. City and port officials met at least 18 times during a six-month period to hammer out a Harborfront Public Access Plan, identifying 21 specific projects to open up the water. The Port later agreed to devote 2 percent of the cost of all capital improvement projects in the shoreline zone to public access. "There has been tremendous pressure from the state, from the city and the public to provide more public access,'' Port Commissioner Nina O'Neil said. "Now we are providing so much public access you can't believe it" (The Seattle Times, 1990).

Port officials, finally convinced that the time had come for more access to the waterfront, then had to convince some of their neighbors. Residents around West Marine View Drive worried that a pedestrian overpass to connect their neighborhood to the water would bring more people to the area, increasing traffic, noise, parking problems, and crime. More than once, the issue of greater access for the many has collided with the protection of access for the few, in Everett and elsewhere. Meanwhile, some in the business community balked at opening up more waterfront to the public on the grounds that it might interfere with future industrial or commercial development.

Wharf Project Founders

Tension over the issue boiled up during the 2003 Port Commission election. "Three sides of the city of Everett are surrounded by water, and we can hardly touch it," said Ritch Carbaugh, a neighborhood activist and one of two challengers for the District 1 seat held by incumbent Phil Bannan (b. 1939). Valerie Steel (b. 1951), another challenger, campaigned on a platform of eliminating the property tax assessed by the Port. Bannan, who handily won re-election, talked about the need to balance public access with economic development. "The port is more than simply a public access creator," he said. "It has a responsibility as a creator of jobs and as the steward of the public waterfront, and that means a lot of things" (The Herald, 2003).

One of the projects that Port officials hoped would both open up the waterfront and bring new jobs to the community was the Port Gardner Wharf, a $400 million mixed-use development in partnership with Chicago-based Maritime Trust, a private investor. The project, first proposed in the late 1990s, was once heralded as a key to establishing Everett’s future identity. It was designed to include 660 condominiums, ranging in price from $300,000 to $1 million, along with 165,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. Bannan had promised that the project would provide "a whole lot of public access and amenities and not just a quick buck for everyone" (The Seattle Times, 2007).

Bannan declined to seek re-election to his seat on the Port Commission in 2009. By that time, Maritime Trust had declared bankruptcy and the ambitious Port Gardner Wharf project was in limbo. "Turning the area into rich man’s condos was a mistake," said former Everett City Councilman Mark Olson, an unsuccessful candidate for Bannan’s seat (The Herald, 2009).

The Port of Everett remains committed to public access despite the problems associated with the wharf project. In the past 20 years, the Port has invested nearly $8.3 million on recreational projects, including a public dock, pier, and restrooms on Jetty Island, a manmade island (created from dredging spoils) with the largest sandy beach on Puget Sound. The Port’s marina, with moorage for more than 2,300 pleasure boats, is said to be the biggest in North America.

Seattle Gets Onboard

Like the Port of Everett, the Port of Seattle had to be nudged into expanding public access by city regulations, adopted in compliance with the Shoreline Management Act. The Port began developing eight separate access points along the Duwamish waterway in the mid-1980s as a condition for receiving the city’s cooperation on vacating parts of several streets and approving more than a dozen shoreline permits. The Port now prides itself on its commitment to public access. It maintains more than 60 acres of parks and recreation areas, including one -- Jack Block Park in West Seattle -- that was developed on a former Superfund site.

In contrast, the commissioners of the Port of South Whidbey have been curtailing their involvement with parks. The commissioners voted in October 2010 to sell 14 upland acres of Possession Beach Waterfront Park -- nearly half of the park. The move was made at the urging of Port Commissioner Curt Gordon, who said "port districts should not be in the park business" (Whidbey Examiner, October 27, 2010). The site, on the top of a 400-foot-high ridge at the west end of the park, will be used for the construction of a cell-phone tower. Gordon said a cell tower would be in keeping with state law, which empowers ports to engage in the wholesale telecommunications business; and is better suited to the Port’s economic goals. "I researched and found that this [park] is not the best use of the property for the Port," he said. "We don’t need to be in the parks business" (Whidbey Examiner, October 20, 2010).

Other ports have come to see that parks, open space, trails, and other public amenities can bring both economic benefits and better public relations. The Ports of Vancouver (Columbia River Renaissance Trail), Camas-Washougal (RiverWalk on the Columbia), and Pasco (Osprey Pointe) have all established mixed-use developments with public amenities along the Columbia River. The Ports of Klickitat and Skamania County hope to attract windsurfers and other water sports enthusiasts (and their dollars) by improving beachfronts at Bingen and Stevenson, respectively. "I've seen how public access to a riverfront has been so successful in New Orleans," Port of Vancouver Commissioner Brian Wolfe said during negotiations to enhance access to a three-acre parcel along the Columbia in 2007. "We should've done this 40 years ago, and it's crucial to do it now" (Columbian, 2007).


Port of Seattle, "Port Commission’s Bell Street Terminal Dedicated to Public Use," 1915, pamphlet in Port of Seattle archives; Eric Johnson, "The Evolution of Land Use and Harbor Planning in Washington State," Washington Public Ports Association Members Letter, July 2007, WPPA Archives, Seattle; Port of Brownsville, "Welcome to Port of Brownsville," website accessed October 2010 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Port of Bremerton Celebrates the Grand Re-Opening of the Bremerton Marina on May 31, 2008" (by Catherine Roth) (accessed October 2010);  "Marinas," Washington Public Ports Association website accessed October 2010 (; "Park and Recreation Facilities," 1965 Wash. Laws, Ch. 81; "Aquatic Lands -- Management Guidelines," 1984 Wash. Laws, Ch. 221, sec. 2, and 2005 Wash. Laws, Ch. 155, sec. 140; "In With the Old? Ports Face Waterfront Decisions," The Seattle Times, editorial, March 5, 1989, p. D-6; "Everett Plan to Increase Public Access to Shorelines," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 19, 2003, p. B-3; Ignacio Lobos, "Agreement Could end Debate Over Everett Waterfront Access," The Seattle Times, November 29, 1988, p. C-2; Lobos, "User-Friendly: Everett Port Opens Up the Waterfront," Ibid., October 11, 1990, p. A-1; Lobos, "Port Trying to ‘Sell’ Walkway to Neighbors," Ibid., October 4, 1989, p. F-5; Mike Benbow, The Herald (Everett), September 1, 2003, p. D-1; Kirsten Orsini-Meinhard, "Wharf Project’s 6-Month Delay Proving Costly," The Seattle Times, August 15, 2007, p. H-3; Mike Benbow, "New Blood on the Way for Port of Everett Commission," The Herald, October 28, 2009, p. D-1; Sue Ellen White, "Port Eyes Sale of Proposed Cell-Tower Site," Whidbey Examiner, October 20, 2010; Alex White, "SW Port to Sell Park Land," Ibid., October 27, 2010 (; "On the Water," Columbian (Vancouver), editorial, June 21, 2007, p. C-8.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both 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 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