Port of Seattle -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/12/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20972
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The Port of Seattle is a public municipal corporation that owns and manages Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the region's largest airport; a leading container port (since 2015 operated jointly with the Port of Tacoma's maritime-cargo operations in the Northwest Seaport Alliance); Fishermen's Terminal, home to the North Pacific fishing fleet; four marinas; cruise-ship berths; and other facilities. Created by King County voters in 1911 to develop and operate public harbor facilities on the Seattle waterfront then dominated by private railroads, the Port prepared Seattle for the huge increase in Pacific trade that accompanied World War I; helped the area weather the Great Depression; undertook the task of building and managing Sea-Tac Airport; made Seattle one of the first West Coast ports to invest in containerized shipping, which revolutionized and vastly expanded international trade; and has worked to address some of the region's more intractable environmental problems.

The State's First Public Port

The Port of Seattle is the first and largest of the 75 public port districts created in Washington since the state legislature enacted the Port District Act in 1911. That law allowed local voters to create independent government bodies run by elected commissioners with authority to operate harbor facilities to promote trade and economic growth. (The law was subsequently expanded to authorize other activities, including managing airports and general industrial or commercial development.)

The Port District Act was the culmination of a long struggle by Progressive reformers in Seattle to 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, they worked for years to win passage of the law authorizing public port districts. After the act was passed in 1911, public-port proponents worked to prepare a ballot measure for that September's ballot, asking King County voters to approve a countywide public port district, the Port of Seattle. They also endorsed a slate of candidates for the three positions on the commission that would run the port -- retired Army Corps of Engineers General Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), instrumental in building the Seattle Ship Canal and locks that now bear his name; farmer, labor organizer, and former state lands commissioner Robert Bridges (1861-1921); and Fremont banker Charles E. Remsberg -- who had all been active in the movement for public ports.

On September 5, 1911, voters approved the proposition creating the Port of Seattle by a wide margin. Chittenden, Bridges, and Remsberg easily won election as commissioners and began planning the new public port's initial development. They prepared plans for large piers at Smith Cove north of downtown and on the East Waterway of the Duwamish River south of downtown; a small marina and pier on the central waterfront near Bell Street 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.

These plans required voter approval, and not everyone agreed with them, but controversy ended up working in the commissioners' favor. Many downtown businesses and the city's two major newspapers called for the Port to devote all its resources to aiding a grandiose plan by private investors to build a single huge terminal on Harbor Island (at the time little more than a muddy mound of dredge spoils). 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. In March 1912, 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 its 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 piles for two piers on Salmon Bay where, at the request of local fishermen, the Port built a home port for the Puget Sound fishing fleet. Fishermen's Terminal was dedicated on January 10, 1914, and for more than 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) were 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.

War and Depression

Pacific trade boomed as World War I curtailed Atlantic shipping, and the Port's low rates and efficient modern piers allowed Seattle to capture much of that trade boom. In 1918, the Port 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 ended. International trade declined sharply, and although domestic shipping expanded, total cargo volume grew much more slowly than during the war. Then, 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. Many found homes on a patch of vacant Port property south of downtown, where they erected a shanty town derisively dubbed Hooverville.

The new administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was more supportive of union organizing than its predecessors, and 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 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. Seattle's shipbuilding 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 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 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" came later) was chosen after Tacoma and Pierce County contributed to the project. Construction 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 near-constant expansion. Regular scheduled 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.

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 previously far outranked. Many attributed Seattle's predicament to uninspired Port leadership during the post-war years. 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 south of downtown (large portions of which would become 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 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. The union won commitments of guaranteed hours and no layoffs, easing the way for containerization.

The new technology required huge investments in containers, cranes, and redesign of terminals and ships. Ports such as Portland, which were doing well, were reluctant to take the risk. Seattle, which was not doing well, had little to lose and wholeheartedly 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. 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, the first ship to visit the U.S. under the flag of the People's Republic docked at the Port of Seattle. China went 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. 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 statewide port authority, but at the time officials at both ports opposed those calls.

Waterfront Revival

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 harbor facilities. 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 cargo volumes also 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. Cruise business grew quickly, leading the Port to develop temporary cruise berths at Terminal 30.

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 same year, opponents of the third runway dropped their legal opposition and runway construction resumed.

Economic Development, Environmental Stewardship

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 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 area, some shippers made the move permanent. In 2004 and 2005, the Port of Seattle saw the greatest growth in container traffic of any U.S. port, setting new records both years. Volume remained high until the economic recession that began in 2008 brought sharp drops in container traffic worldwide. Seattle's container traffic rebounded in 2010 and 2011 but then dipped again. The Port's grain exports, which tripled in the first decade of the new century, initially kept rising even as container traffic dropped, but grain shipments also dropped in the mid-2010s before rising again at the end of the decade.

At Sea-Tac Airport, the third runway opened in November 2008, amid concerns about construction cost overruns that led to several investigations, the departure of some employees, and implementation of reforms. The next year, Seattle's long-anticipated light-rail line opened. Sound Transit's Central Link began operating in July with service from Seattle to Tukwila, just short of the airport, and then arrived at the airport in December 2009 with the opening of the City of SeaTac/Airport station. The Port worked with Sound Transit to provide a pedestrian bridge and walkway from the station to the terminal.

Also in 2009, the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, a new permanent two-berth cruise facility, opened at Terminal 91, replacing the temporary cruise berths at Terminal 30. Like the temporary berths, the new Smith Cove terminal had land-based power connections, eliminating air pollution from ship engines. Terminal 30 returned to use as a container terminal and expanded, incorporating what had been Terminal 28.

The cruise terminal's pollution-eliminating power connections reflected the Port's ongoing focus on environmental stewardship. Building on prior efforts, the Port continued working to restore habitat, reduce air and water pollution, clean up existing contaminants, and conserve energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. 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 to a large portion of the U.S.

Century Agenda

In 2011, the Port of Seattle celebrated its centennial with a series of events marking its accomplishments and the publication of a history of its first 100 years, written and produced by HistoryLink. While looking back, the Port was also looking ahead by preparing the Century Agenda, a comprehensive strategic plan guiding the Port's growth over the next quarter century, released in 2012.

The Century Agenda called for the Port to promote economic growth by increasing trade and development, creating 100,000 new jobs in the region over the next 25 years, for a total of 300,000 port-related jobs, while continuing efforts to reduce environmental impacts. It established four key strategies, each with multiple objectives. The first, making the Puget Sound region a leading logistics hub for international trade, included such objectives as increasing container volume to 6 million annually and air cargo to more than 750,000 metric tons. The second, making the region a major tourism and business gateway, looked to significantly expand travel through Sea-Tac and to double the economic value of cruise-ship travel.

With two strategies focused on economic growth, the other two strategies aimed to ensure that the benefits of growth were equitably distributed, by promoting small-business and workforce development, including for women- and minority-owned businesses, and that growth did not harm the regional environment, by making the Port the greenest and most energy-efficient in North America.

One objective for the logistics hub called for the Port to work cooperatively with other "Washington ports to optimize infrastructure investments and financial returns" in maritime trade ("Port of Seattle ... Long Range Plan"). Given the long history of competition for maritime customers between Seattle and other ports, notably the Port of Tacoma, this might have seemed one of the more challenging goals. Although the two port commissions collaborated in other areas, as recently as 2012 the Port of Seattle lost a major shipper, the Grand Alliance, when it moved operations to Tacoma.

As it turned out, the objective of cooperation in maritime trade was the first of the Century Agenda to be fully achieved. In 2014, as British Columbia surpassed the combined container traffic of Seattle and Tacoma, the two Puget Sound ports announced they would work jointly to attract shipping customers and set rates. The following year, they formalized their cooperation by combining most maritime-cargo operations into a single entity, the Northwest Seaport Alliance. From 2016, Seattle's marine cargo (except for grain, as each port continued to operate its own grain elevator) was handled along with Tacoma's by the alliance. Container traffic rose steadily for the next three years before dipping slightly in 2019 as imports declined following imposition of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods by the Donald Trump administration.

But container traffic in Puget Sound still grew more slowly than at competing ports in British Columbia. And the competition facing the new Seaport Alliance was not limited to British Columbia or other West Coast ports. Widening the Panama Canal in 2016 to accommodate larger vessels allowed more ships to sail directly from Asia to the Gulf and East coasts. In response, in 2019 the Northwest Seaport Alliance announced it would build a new facility at Seattle's Terminal 5 to accommodate the largest container ships, capable of carrying 20,000 containers. The new terminal, to be completed in the early 2020s, was projected to give the alliance a capacity of 7 million containers by 2050.

A Consistent Mission

While the Seaport Alliance handled most maritime trade, the Port of Seattle retained sole responsibility for the rest of its many operations and their continuing growth. At Sea-Tac, the near-constant expansion that had characterized the airport from the start continued. In 2012, a new rental-car facility opened, moving rental-car operations out of the airport parking garage and freeing up badly needed parking spaces. With the new third runway completed, the Port rebuilt the center runway, the oldest and longest, which reopened in 2015. That year Sea-Tac served more than 40 million passengers and was the nation's fastest-growing major airport.

Air-passenger growth continued, topping 50 million in 2019, when Sea-Tac marked the 75th anniversary of its opening with many additional projects underway. These included renovation of the Central Terminal to add more restaurants, stores, and space for passengers; constructing a new International Arrivals Facility, scheduled to open in fall 2020; replacing six individual baggage-screening systems with a centralized system; and modernizing the North Satellite.

The number of passengers embarking from the Port's three cruise-ship berths also rose, topping 1 million for the first time in 2017, and the Port began planning an additional cruise-ship berth at Terminal 46. Elsewhere around the harbor, the Port worked to expand light-industrial space at Fishermen's Terminal to accommodate businesses supporting the North Pacific fishing fleet. In 2018 the Port acquired the Salmon Bay Marina adjacent to Fishermen's Terminal, increasing the Port's marina capacity and allowing for further growth of Fishermen's Terminal.

Well into its second century, the Port of Seattle continued to carry out the same basic mission that the reformers who created the state's first public port envisioned -- 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); Port of Seattle website accessed February 7, 2020 (www.portseattle.org); "Port of Seattle 2018-2022 Long Range Plan: Achieving the Century Agenda," Port of Seattle website accessed February 7, 2020 (https://www.portseattle.org/sites/default/files/2018-05/POS_2017_LRP_Web_Commission_4-26-18.pdf); The Northwest Seaport Alliance website accessed February 6, 2020 (https://www.nwseaportalliance.com/); Emily Heffter, "Crossroads for Port: Is Anybody Paying Attention?" The Seattle Times, October 9, 2013, p. A-1; Coral Garnick, "Seaport-Alliance Proposal Unveiled," Ibid., May 7, 2015, p. A-15; Jon Talton, Ibid., "Revved-up Sea-Tac Prepares for Takeoff," February 28, 2016, p. D-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Port of Seattle, Founding of" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 6, 2020).

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