Port of Seattle commissioners meet for the first time on September 12, 1911.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/16/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9726

On September 12, 1911, one week after King County voters created the Port of Seattle and elected them, Seattle's port commissioners meet for the first time. Retired Army Corps of Engineers General Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), radical labor organizer Robert Bridges (1861-1921), and Fremont banker Charles E. Remsberg begin the massive task of planning and developing Seattle's first publicly owned and operated port facilities. These will include Fishermen's Terminal on Salmon Bay and the huge piers that now compose Terminal 91 at Smith Cove, both still integral components of Seattle's waterfront, as well as the original Bell Street Pier and the Port's first docks on the Duwamish Waterway. Over the next century, the Port of Seattle will build on these initial efforts as it transforms Elliott Bay into one of the world's leading container ports, builds and operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and develops the fishing fleet terminal, marinas, cruise ship berths, and other facilities that collectively make it a major contributor to regional economic growth.

Progressive Reform

The September 5, 1911, vote creating the Port of Seattle followed a long, difficult struggle to re-establish public control over Seattle's waterfront, which was then largely in the hands of private railroad corporations. Seeing the harbor as key to the trade-dependent city's future growth and success, Progressive reformers, eventually backed by much of the city's business establishment, worked for years to win passage of the Port District Act. The law authorized voters to create public port districts -- independent government agencies with the power to develop and operate harbor facilities.

Chittenden, Bridges, and Remsberg, who were all active in the movement for public ports, easily won election as the commissioners who would guide the Port of Seattle's initial development. The Port District Act required that a "comprehensive scheme of harbor improvement" be prepared and approved by voters before the port could spend money on the improvements. With the next election set for March 1912, the new Commission had to work rapidly.

Starting with their first meeting on September 12, 1911, Chittenden, Bridges, and Remsberg (who were working without pay -- only years later was the Port District Act amended to provide compensation for commissioners) met several times a week to begin with, and then at least weekly as they prepared their plans. Assisted by R. H. Thomson (1856-1949), Seattle's longtime city engineer who served briefly as the Port's first chief engineer, the commissioners prepared plans for a large deep sea pier and terminal at Smith Cove north of downtown, another large pier and slip on the East Waterway of the Duwamish River south of downtown, a small marina and pier on the central waterfront to serve the various privately owned vessels known as the Mosquito Fleet, and general moorage (soon revised to become Fishermen's Terminal) on Salmon Bay.

Beginning to Build

An early controversy over a competing waterfront concept ended up working in the commissioners' favor. Many downtown businessmen and the city's two major newspapers argued vociferously that the Port should devote all its resources to aiding a grandiose plan by private investors from New York to build a single huge terminal on Harbor Island (at the time little more than a muddy mound of dredge spoils, with no connection to the mainland). The uproar focused attention on the general need for waterfront improvements, so besides adding the Harbor Island terminal to the Port's ballot proposals, the commissioners increased the amounts sought for their own plans. Voters approved all the projects, but the private investors never managed to proceed with the Harbor Island terminal, allowing the commission to cancel it and put more money toward their original plans. (As Chittenden predicted, with further development and bridges linking it to the mainland, Harbor Island later became the site of major Port terminals.)

The first construction in Port of Seattle history began on February 15, 1913, as workers drove the piles for two piers on Salmon Bay where, at the request of local fishermen, the Port built a home port for the large Puget Sound fishing fleet. Fishermen's Terminal was dedicated on January 10, 1914, and for nearly a century has been home to the North Pacific fishing fleet and a significant contributor to the region's economy.

The first cargo shipment crossed a Port of Seattle pier on October 28, 1913, when 25 tons of salsoda (sodium carbonate) was loaded from the central waterfront's not-yet-complete Bell Street pier onto a Victoria-bound vessel. By late 1913, the Port's first wharves and warehouses on the East Waterway were also in business. The Bell Street pier, which included a two-story wharf structure and a separate building housing a cold-storage plant, warehouse space, and the Port's headquarters, with a rooftop park, was completed in 1915.

Despite this progress, the Port Commission faced withering criticism from the press and many business owners, angered by what they considered the commissioners' radical policies. Under Chittenden and Bridges the Port set wharf rates to promote trade, not to make a profit, angering private dock owners who saw the Port undercutting their rates. The Port built public cold storage facilities for fruit and produce and for fish that aided farmers and fishermen unable to afford rates charged by private facilities. Led by Bridges, a former union organizer, the Commission also adopted the closed-shop rule sought by longshore unions -- all workers at Port facilities would be union members, and private employers who used Port facilities had to comply.

Ups and Downs

In response, the press and business establishment pushed multiple efforts to restrict the commissioners' power and the Port's activities. However, voters rejected the proposals and by 1916, the Port's commercial success largely ended the attacks. Pacific trade boomed as World War I curtailed Atlantic shipping, and the Port's low rates and efficient modern piers allowed Seattle to capture the bulk of that trade boom. Before the war ended, Seattle set a record for foreign trade that it did not surpass until 1965, and was (briefly) the second busiest port in the entire country, behind only New York.

After World War I, the Port's rapid growth and its radical policies both came to an end. International trade dropped sharply, and although domestic shipping expanded, total cargo volume grew at a much slower pace than during the war years. The commissioners who led the Port in the 1920s were much more part of the conservative establishment than the original three (who all left office before the war ended), and they adopted policies more amenable to the business interests and newspapers that had vehemently opposed early Port projects. The Port raised wharf rates to match those of private dock owners and, rather than operating its own terminals, encouraged private companies to lease Port land to build and run terminals and joined private waterfront owners in rejecting the closed shop.

Seattle's trade growth in the 1920s was slow, but at least it was growth. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade plummeted. International exports dwindled so far that the Port's cold storage facilities stood empty. As dock work declined, mines and mills closed, and logging slowed, unemployed workers from around the region flocked to Seattle and many found homes on a patch of vacant Port property south of downtown, where they erected a shanty town derisively dubbed Hooverville.

Although workers had it tough in the Depression, the new administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was more supportive of union organizing than predecessors like Herbert Hoover (1874-1964). Emboldened longshore workers staged a series of labor actions that culminated in the great waterfront strike of 1934, which shut down shipping on the entire West Coast. In the end, federal arbitration settled the strike in favor of the longshore union, creating the union hiring hall that still exists.

Into the Air

The Roosevelt Administration's many economic recovery, job, and stimulus programs helped pull the country out of the depths of depression, but it was the advent of World War II that propelled the national economy from bust to boom, a fact nowhere more evident than on the Seattle waterfront. Although the war instantly ended trade with Japan, other Pacific trade jumped, as in the previous war, due to the decline in Atlantic shipping. Also replaying the first world war, Seattle's ship-building industry again flourished. This time, aircraft-building was equally important and Seattle-based Boeing drew thousands of skilled workers to the region.

Hooverville was soon cleared and the Port built the large new Pier 42 (now part of Terminal 46) on the site; a new grain elevator went up nearby at Hanford Street. As the war intensified, the military took over most of the harbor, including the Port's Smith Cove piers. Thousands of troops crossed the docks at Piers 36-39, the Army Port of Embarkation.

The military occupied not just the docks but virtually all of the region's existing airfield capacity. In response, the federal Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) sought a local government to build a new regional airport, and the Port, using expanded authority to operate airports that the legislature had recently granted to port districts, undertook the task. The Bow Lake site that became Seattle Tacoma Airport (quickly shortened to Sea-Tac; the designation "International" would come later) was chosen after Tacoma and Pierce County contributed to the project. Construction (by the CAA) began in 1943 and was completed the next year, but the new airport was devoted largely to military use until the war ended.

The end of wartime austerity brought rapid growth in civilian air travel, and Sea-Tac entered an era of nearly constant expansion that would last for decades. Scheduled airline passenger service began in 1947, but the airport was not fully operational until 1949, when its modern new terminal was dedicated. After that it grew rapidly in passengers, flights, and size. As jetliners were developed, the Port extended the main runway three times between 1950 and 1960 to accommodate them; regular passenger jet service began in 1959. Air cargo volumes also grew rapidly.

The Container Revolution

In sharp contrast to the rise of air transport, waterborne commerce was slow to rebound after the war. Maritime trade slumped nationwide, due in part to the growth of trucking and rail services, but the drop was particularly pronounced in Seattle, where the seaport fell behind Tacoma and other ports it had previously far out-ranked. Many attributed Seattle's predicament to uninspired Port leadership during the post-war years. During the 1950s, various groups and consultants issued a series of reports attempting to explain the Port's decline relative to other West Coast ports and calling for changes.

In the late 1940s, the Port embarked on a decade-long expansion program. On Elliott Bay, it acquired and eventually modernized Piers 43 to 49 on the waterfront south of downtown (large portions of which would became Terminal 46, a major container terminal) and modernized the East Waterway dock. Elsewhere it enlarged and upgraded Fishermen's Terminal and built Shilshole Marina. Despite these and other efforts, Seattle's share of maritime shipping continued to fall, and calls for reform increased -- and were acted on. In November 1960, voters expanded the Port Commission from three members to five and approved a $10 million Port bond measure. Legislative hearings in 1961 brought statutory reforms granting the Port greater authority. These changes positioned Seattle to become one of the first ports to take advantage of the move to containerized shipping that soon revolutionized the industry.

During the 1950s, beginning on the East and Gulf coasts, Sea-Land Industries developed the then-revolutionary practice of hauling boxed cargo in standardized, stackable metal containers that could be rapidly transferred between ships, trains, and trucks. Containers greatly decreased the time it took to load or unload ships -- and thus the demand for workers. The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) had long resisted use of labor-saving machinery and work rules requiring greater efficiency. But eventually the union negotiated the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement, covering all major Pacific Coast ports, which allowed both in return for commitments of guaranteed hours and no layoffs, easing the way for containerization.

The new technology required huge investments in containers, cranes, and re-design of terminals and ships. Ports like Portland, which were doing well, were reluctant to take the risk. Seattle, which was not doing well, had little to lose and whole-heartedly containerized. The Port's construction of new facilities to accommodate containers, especially along the Duwamish Waterway, and its use of innovative trade techniques resulted in steady increases in trade volume beginning in 1963 and continuing through the 1970s. As trade increased, the number of jobs generated and other benefits to the region did also. The Port's growth helped somewhat to ease the "Boeing bust" regional downturn in the early 1970s.

Expansion and Competition

Sea-Tac Airport also continued to contribute to the local economy. Airport expansion proceeded with the construction of a second runway and new terminal facilities in the late 1960s. The airport construction became a focus of demands, including runway demonstrations, by minority workers and contractors for a greater share of jobs, which led to the introduction of affirmative action programs.

On the waterfront, the Pier 86 Grain Terminal below Queen Anne Hill, which opened in 1970, was the last bulk terminal built on the increasingly expensive Elliott Bay shoreline. As environmental quality became a greater concern, both the grain terminal and airport expansion and noise stirred controversy. The Port responded on many fronts, including beginning the nation's first airport land-acquisition program for noise reduction.

Trade with Asia, especially Japan and China, became increasingly important. Growing numbers of Japanese container ships called at the Port through the 1970s, and several terminals were devoted to importing Japanese vehicles. Cold storage at Terminal 91 (Piers 90 and 91, re-acquired from the federal government in 1976) facilitated seafood exports to Japan and other Asian markets. In 1979, when trade with China resumed, as long advocated by Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), the first ship to visit the United States under the flag of the People's Republic docked at the Port of Seattle; China would go on to become the Port's largest import trade partner.

The 1980s brought a second container revolution, as railroads realized that they could stack containers two-high, thus carrying twice as many on the same number of rail cars (although this simple idea required reconstructing many bridges, crossings, and other facilities to make room for the higher loads). Intermodal connections -- dockside rail lines -- became increasingly important.

The Port of Tacoma came later than Seattle to containerization, but in the 1980s it aggressively marketed its new container and dockside intermodal facilities to lure several container lines from Seattle to Tacoma. Seattle responded, expanding Terminal 5 to keep APL, one of the Pacific's biggest shipping lines, in the early 1990s. The growing competition, and the perception that shipping companies were playing the ports against each other, led to increasing calls to merge the two Puget Sound ports or create a state port authority, solutions neither port agreed with.

Restoration and Redevelopment

Despite the competition, the Port of Seattle continued to grow and to foster regional economic development. When Nintendo chose King County for its U.S. operations, it cited the area's transportation and Port facilities (Nintendo not only brought jobs to the area, it would play a key role in keeping the Seattle Mariners in town). Far more than in earlier years, Port development endeavors included attention to environmental impacts, as when habitat restoration projects were made part of new terminal construction on the Duwamish Waterway.

Air, as well as water, cargo volumes grew. Sea-Tac's new air cargo center doubled its cargo-handling capacity. Passenger airplane traffic also kept climbing and by 1995 the airport had exceeded its maximum efficient capacity. In 1996 the Port committed to building a third runway, but lawsuits by local opponents who feared noise and other impacts delayed the work.

In 1993, Port headquarters moved from the Bell Street Pier location it had occupied since 1915 to a stylishly renovated building on Pier 69. That marked the beginning of the Port's initiative to revive Seattle's historic but increasingly derelict and decrepit central waterfront. By 1996 Bell Street Pier was redeveloped with waterfront plazas (including a rooftop park where the first Port Commission had a park 80 years before), a marina, and conference facilities. Central waterfront redevelopment continued in 1998 with the opening of World Trade Center Seattle across Alaskan Way from Bell Street Pier. In 2000, the first phase of the Bell Street Pier Cruise Terminal was completed, bringing the luxury cruise ship industry, and the jobs and revenue it generated, to Seattle in a big way. Seattle's cruise business grew quickly, leading the port to develop temporary cruise berths at Terminal 30, and then, in 2009, open the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, a new permanent two-berth cruise facility, at Pier 91 (Terminal 30 was returned to container use).

The aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks required the Port, like all agencies responsible for crucial transportation infrastructure, to undertake major new security initiatives at the seaport and airport. Plans for Sea-Tac's first major terminal expansion in 30 years, already well underway, were revised to accommodate new integrated baggage and passenger screening systems. The new terminal opened in 2004. That year, opponents of the third runway dropped their legal opposition and construction resumed. The runway opened in 2008, amid concerns about construction cost overruns that led to several investigations, the departure of some employees, and implementation of reforms.

The Green Gateway

In the first years of the twenty-first century, Seattle's maritime shipping grew rapidly, aided in part, ironically, by a 2002 labor dispute that closed all West Coast ports for 11 days. When work resumed, the resulting backup at southern California ports led shippers to turn to Northwest ports, helping boost Seattle (and Tacoma) container volume to record levels. Impressed by the Port of Seattle's proximity to rail lines and interstate highways, and the number of distribution centers operated by major retailer/importers in the Puget Sound area, some shippers made the move permanent.

Tay Yoshitani, who became Port CEO in 2007, stressed the Port of Seattle's focus on the environment, identifying it as an opportunity and building on the Port's earlier environmental work. As climate change became a front-burner issue, the Port promoted itself as The Green Gateway, pointing out that Puget Sound provided the lowest-carbon-emission route for shipments from much of Asia of a large portion of the U.S. and working to reduce emissions and promote recycling at the seaport and airport.

The recession triggered by the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2008 slowed trade worldwide, causing Port business to drop, most notably its container traffic. But in 2010, the seaport rebounded to set new records for container cargo volume (2.1 million TEUs -- 20-foot equivalent units) and for cruise ship calls and passengers, helping the region recover from the downturn. As the centennial of its creation approaches, the Port of Seattle continues to carry out the same basic mission that the three original commissioners began working toward at their first meeting -- using the public resources entrusted to the Port to promote trade and commerce, generate economic growth, and create jobs.


Kit Oldham, Peter Blecha, and the HistoryLink Staff, Rising Tides and Tailwinds: The Story of the Port of Seattle, 1911-2011 (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 2011); Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); "Big Steamship Men Talking of $1,000,000 Dock," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 13, 1911, p. 8; Port of Seattle website accessed February 14, 2010 (www.portseattle.org).

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