Deep-draft Ports of Washington

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/26/2010
  • Essay 9529

Of Washington's 75 public port districts, only 11 -- the ports of Seattle, Grays Harbor, Vancouver, Everett, Tacoma, Bellingham, Kalama, Longview, Olympia, Port Angeles, and Anacortes -- have deep-draft facilities capable of accommodating large ocean-going freight and passenger vessels. All 11 were created in a 15-year period following the 1911 passage of the Port District Act. International trade through these ports, initially dominated by forest products exports, has evolved to encompass a diverse range of goods and materials, with imports far outstripping exports in dollar value.  Containerization, which came into widespread use in the early 1960s, revolutionized port operations and brought fundamental change to labor/management relations. Today (2010) Washington's marine terminals move approximately 7 percent of all U.S. exports and 6 percent of all imports and provide tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Through a century of change and progress, Washington's deep-draft ports have remained the primary portals through which Washington connects to the world economy.

The Earliest Traders

With its abundance of navigable inland waters, both salt and fresh, the Pacific Northwest is a land made for maritime trade. For centuries, Native peoples, notably the Chinook, ranged the coast by canoe and traveled inland by land and river, bartering plants, meat, fish, blankets, baskets, beadwork, clothing, even slaves. International trade came almost as early as the first visits to the region by European and American ships of discovery. By 1789, the Columbia Rediviva arrived in China to trade sea otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest, a faint harbinger of the massive cross-ocean traffic that was to come.

The pace of oceanic trade increased in 1825 when the Hudson's Bay Company built Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and began exporting to California and Hawaii furs, salted fish, and lumber from its own mill. In 1836 the company-owned Beaver, a steam-powered sidewheeler, became the first steamship to operate in Puget Sound, yet another small hint of what the future held.

Throughout the middle and late years of the nineteenth century settlers were drawn to the Northwest by the region's seemingly inexhaustible resources, the most useful of which came from the forests that blanketed the land. By 1900 more than 340 lumber and shingle mills in Western Washington alone fed both domestic and foreign markets. Another important early export was high-grade coal, used to fire the boilers that drove the ships that carried exports around the world. Coal also powered the early railroads, whose monopoly on moving cargo became a major impetus behind the movement to establish public control over Washington's ports.

Breaking the Monopolies

The railroad companies enjoyed vast power and wealth, earning less from operating income than from the generous grants of federal land awarded for each mile of track put down. State and local governments eager for the benefits a railroad could bring made further land concessions, and the companies soon controlled huge chunks of prime waterfront and virtually the entire stream of commerce from source to port. Very little moved but at a time and a price dictated by the railroads, and they weren't alone in their avarice -- many private fortunes were made from the sale of presumptively public resources, including water drawn and electricity spun from the region's rivers.

A backlash was inevitable, and in Washington one manifestation of that backlash was the Port District Act of 1911. Revolutionary for its time, the law empowered county voters to create and form a new variety of municipal corporations, public port districts, which had the power to levy taxes, incur indebtedness, and take land through the exercise of eminent domain. These districts were required by the statute to devote their efforts and resources to developing and operating harbors and related facilities for public rather than private benefit. Within 15 years of the passage of this legislation, 24 port districts had been established in Washington state, including the 11 deep-draft ports that are in operation today -- six on Puget Sound, one on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, three on the Columbia River, and one on the Pacific Ocean. They are:

  • Port of Seattle (established 1911, King County)  
  • Port of Grays Harbor (established 1911, Chehalis County, now Grays Harbor County)
  • Port of Vancouver  (established 1912, Clarke County, now Clark County)
  • Port of Everett (established 1918, Snohomish County)
  • Port of Tacoma (established 1918, Pierce County)
  • Port of Bellingham  (established 1920, Whatcom County)
  • Port of Kalama (established 1920, Cowlitz County)
  • Port of Longview (established 1921, Cowlitz County)
  • Port of Olympia (established 1922, Thurston County)
  • Port of Port Angeles (established 1922, Clallam County)
  • Port of Anacortes (established 1926, Skagit County)

Putting Together a Port

The success of the public port concept in Washington was nearly immediate. By 1917, when only the Port of Seattle had a fully functional, publicly owned deep-draft facility, regular trade with Asia, South American, and other foreign lands was already substantial. Washington's pivotal role and early success in serving those vast markets was praised by one shipping executive:

"The newest, least known, but fourth greatest among United States Customs Divisions, is the Washington District, comprising the ports of Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and Seattle, and forming a gateway to a vast, almost virgin, field for American products, a territory containing more than two-thirds of the population of the entire world. Through this district there moved in 1916 a wide diversity of American manufactures, ranging from cannon to sheet music, and totaling $200,591,258 in value; while the teas, spices and silks of the Far East and the nitrate of South America, to a value of $161,779,832, flowed over the docks of Pacific Northwest ports in return, making a grand total of $362,378,090, a business of nearly a million dollars per day with the hitherto comparatively small customers of the United States; i.e., Siberia, China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, Canada, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Java and miscellaneous islands of the Pacific" ("The North Pacific Coast, Newest Great American Center of Foreign Trade," p. 460).

Seattle's maritime terminals were so successful that other states were soon eager to establish their own, and they often turned to Puget Sound for guidance. At the 1919 meeting of  the Public Ownership League of America, Seattle Port Commission president T. S. Lippy delivered a paper describing Seattle's success and giving the requirements, other than deep water, of a maritime cargo operation:

"A port terminal, to the average person, means wharves and docks. As a matter of fact, a wharf or pier is more or less a detail in a general terminal scheme. The complete port terminal system is a combination of wharves, transit sheds, warehouses, railway tracks, marginal streets, and all the facilities that have to do with the transfer of commodities between land and water carriers. Each of the facilities mentioned is a detail unit which, to be fully efficient, must be co-ordinated with other units, so as to make of the whole a well-balanced terminal system. The articulation of the waterfront with railroads, warehouses, and industrial sites, is of particular importance" (Proceedings, p. 149)

Since Lippy spoke in 1919, the technology of moving cargo has changed, and the limited range of goods and material passing through those early ports has been joined by everything from automobiles to zucchini. Nonetheless, more than 90 years later Lippy's words still provide a concise description of the basic requirements of a deep-draft port facility.

King Timber and the Growth of Ports

In the early decades of the twentieth century the forest resource in Washington still seemed infinite, and the magnitude of the harvest each year was staggering. Billions of board feet of lumber and countless tons of raw logs were shipped through the state's deep-draft ports, and they all cut their teeth on the timber trade.

The Port of Seattle, established in September 1911 as the first public port district in the state, was well-funded from the start and shipped out huge volume of logs and lumber soon after its founding. And due to its relative wealth, the Port also was able to diversify at an early date. By 1916 it had six separate deep-draft terminals, including one for grain and one for refrigerated goods, and a storage facility that held nearly one million gallons of vegetable oil. Before long Seattle had become the leading port on the West Coast in terms of the dollar value of its imports and exports, and it reigned unchallenged in Washington for decades.

Most other ports struggled a bit at the beginning, and a few struggled a lot. The Port of Grays Harbor was also voted into existence in 1911, but its first public deep-draft pier and terminal didn't open until September 1922. When finished, it was a wonder of log-loading. In 1924, more than one billion board feet of lumber exports passed through the port, and several more billions of board feet would leave the harbor before the decade was out. 
In 1912 at Vancouver, Clarke (now Clark) County voters approved Washington's third port district, the first of three on the Columbia River. However, it was nearly a decade later, in February 1922, that the steamship Paraiso became the first oceangoing vessel to load cargo there, taking on 600,000 board-feet of lumber. It would take the impetus of two world wars, but Vancouver was destined to become a major international port.

The Port of Tacoma came into being in 1918, well after Seattle's dominance in marine trade was established. On March 25, 1921, it accepted its first deep-draft ship, and in just 24 hours longshoremen craned 600,000 board feet of lumber onto the Edmore, a world record for speed loading. In 1923 a second pier was been completed, with a huge bulk storage shed and dockside railroad tracks. By 1929 total cargo through the Port of Tacoma reached nearly 6.5 million tons, and 25 steamship lines from Europe, Asia, South American and both U.S. coasts regularly stopped there. The Port diversified by building a grain elevator in 1930 and a cold-storage plant in 1931, but logs and lumber would continue to be the mainstay export for years to come.

Also in 1918, voters established the Port of Everett in Snohomish County. The powerful timber industry was dominant there long before the Port came into being, and it wasn't until later in the decade that the port district was able to wrest away some of the private docking facilities on Port Gardner Bay for public use. From then on, the Port of Everett became a major exporter of timber and wood products produced by the city's many mills and factories.

Still farther north, the voters of Whatcom County approved a port district for Bellingham in 1920, and on the city's waterfront sawmills, shingle mills, and the Pacific American Fisheries cannery stood ready to feed the export market a steady supply of logs, lumber, and canned fish.

That same year, nearly 200 miles to the south, the Port of Kalama became the second port on the Columbia River, after Vancouver. The Northern Pacific Railway had reached Kalama in 1871 and the first regularly scheduled trains between Kalama and the railroad's northern terminus at Tacoma were running by 1874. (Seattle had been confident that the railroad would choose it over Tacoma, and this was not to be the last time that upstart Tacoma would deliver an unpleasant and unexpected surprise.) Kalama had been exporting timber by rail ever since the railroad arrived, and when the Port opened its motto became "Where the rails meet the water." It was not long before deep-draft vessels were hauling huge amounts of lumber, grain, and frozen fish from the port every year.

One year later and about 10 miles downstream, the Port of Longview (originally called the Port of Kelso) was established on the Cowlitz River, then moved to Longview on the Columbia in 1925. Lumber and shingle mills sprang up around the port, and the Longview Fibre Company was built to make paper from the mills' waste. When the port's dock was completed in 1927, timber, lumber, shingles, and paper products were shipped down the Columbia River to the sea and waiting markets.

The Port of Olympia, the southernmost deep-draft port on Puget Sound, was approved by the voters in 1922. The port's first commercial cargo facilities were completed in 1925, and between 1928 and 1930 almost 300 million board feet of lumber were shipped out. The Port of Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca was also established in 1922, and its deep-draft Terminal 1 facility was opened in 1927 for the specific purpose of exporting logs taken from the dense forests of the Olympic Peninsula.

The last of Washington's deep-draft ports came into being in 1926 when the voters of Skagit County approved the Port of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island. A year earlier, the Anacortes Pulp Mill had been opened, and when the port opened its Pier 1, it had a ready supply of logs, lumber, wood products, and canned fish to export.

Washington's ports handled other things besides wood and wood products during the early years, and of course they took in imports as well. Records from 1919 show exports of steel, chemicals, soybean flour, canned and dried fruits and vegetables, turpentine, paint, linoleum, fertilizer, evaporated milk, trucks and automobiles, mattresses, and furniture, among other things. A few of the most common imported items in 1919 (primarily from Asia) were beans, peas, rice, matches, coconuts, porcelain ware, coffee, tea, spices, silk goods, potash, hemp, manganese, wearing apparel, cotton cloth, and surgical instruments. But without the constant flow of timber in these early years, Washington's deep-draft ports would have developed much more slowly, if at all.

War, Depression, and Labor Strife

When World War I began, both Asia and North America lost ready access to European goods and markets and turned to each other to fill the gap, fueling a West Coast shipping boom. Cautious voters defeated a port-funding measure in Seattle, but wartime shipyards helped keep the ports in Seattle, Grays Harbor, and Vancouver going, and at Vancouver it was on abandoned shipyard land that the first deep-draft moorage was built after the war.

Available statistics from the immediate postwar period paint a generally rosy picture. At the Port of Seattle, both imports and exports were up substantially year over year. The Port of Grays Harbor also prospered, reporting in 1922 that lumber exports were up 60 percent over the 1921 total.

But the Great Depression that closed the decade devastated trade. From 1929 to 1932 trade volume between the industrialized nations decreased by well more than 30 percent, and the rest of the 1930s were not much better. Lumber and grain prices collapsed. Onerous trade barriers were thrown up as countries sought to insulate their staggering domestic markets from the impact of foreign goods and materials. A few deep-draft ports, notably Vancouver's, did well and expanded during the those hard years, but most others did not.

Labor troubles were also brewing on the docks. Longshore workers in Tacoma and Seattle had organized unions as early as the 1880s (those locals helped lobby for the Port District Act), and in the 1910s Seattle longshoremen temporarily won a closed-shop agreement from the new Port Commission.  By the 1920s, however, most longshoremen (including in Seattle) worked for "company unions" and had little or no bargaining power. A notable exception was the Port of Tacoma, where two locals of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) were the only major closed-shop longshore unions on the entire West Coast. This started to change in 1929, when the ILA organized in Everett and Grays Harbor, and other ports soon followed. By March 1934 longshoremen were unionized from San Diego to Juneau, and they had some long-festering grievances to address.

Federal mediation failed to bridge the gap between business and labor, and on May 9, 1934, 12,500 West Coast longshoremen went on strike, supported by several other maritime unions. Eventually, 35,000 workers had walked off the job. There was sporadic violence, a few deaths, and many injuries. Major ports tried to carry on with replacement or "scab" labor, with mixed results. When the strike ended 83 days later, longshoremen had won wage increases and other concessions, unions had won substantial control over hiring decisions in the dockyards, and shippers had won at least a temporary truce with their workers.

By 1937, the Pacific Coast District of the ILA split from the national organization and joined with the warehousemen's union to form the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU). Under long-time leader Harry Bridges, the ILWU would become one of the most powerful and influential unions in America. But the remnants of the ILA also clung to life, at least in Washington -- Tacoma's longshoremen remained in the old union until 1958, and the last holdout, the Port of Longview ILA local, didn't join the ILWU until 1981.

World War II and the Postwar Years

The making and carrying of the necessities of a second world war were a boon to Washington's economy in general and to its deep-draft ports in particular. Huge shipyards to build military and merchant-marine vessels started operations in Vancouver, Tacoma, Seattle, Olympia, Everett, and Bellingham, often on Port-owned property. Men and materiel destined for the Pacific theater embarked on ships from terminals in Seattle, Tacoma, and other ports. The Columbia River ports of Longview and Kalama became primary supply bases for lend-lease shipping to Russia, and all of Washington's deep-draft ports played a role in the war effort.

After that war was won, the transition from a military back to a civilian economy was not always smooth. Without the bottomless market of military procurement, heavy manufacturing declined sharply. Domestic maritime trade also faltered, due in large part to increased competition from the trucking industry and expanded rail service. The shattered nations of Europe and Asia produced little and could afford to consume even less. Shipping in support of the Marshall Plan embarked mainly from the East Coast, and there was no program of similar magnitude for Asia's reconstruction. But the cyclical nature of the ports' fortunes held true, and it was not long before new opportunities came around.

Cargo and Its Handling: A Short Primer

In the early days of Washington's deep-draft ports nearly all cargo  was either dry bulk, liquid bulk, or breakbulk. Dry bulk cargo is loose, dry, and  unpackaged: cement, minerals, flour, and other things with similar handling qualities. Liquid bulk cargo includes petroleum products, vegetable oil, and other liquids. Breakbulk came to mean dry or liquid bulk cargo that was transported in drums, barrels, sacks, and wooden crates, often secured to pallets. For years, almost all cargo except large items like logs and machinery were breakbulk, laboriously loaded and unloaded singly or a few units at a time with either ship-mounted or dockside cranes.

As the ports became more technically sophisticated, most dry-bulk cargo remained unpackaged and moved from shore to ship and back by conveyor belt or suction, a vast improvement over the days when it was stored in barrels and crates and handled with cargo nets and grappling hooks. Large bulk cargo like logs and finished lumber was bundled and deck-loaded onto ships by massive and mobile dockside cranes. Liquid-bulk cargo that was once carried in casks and drums was pumped directly to and from large tanks on shore and ship. These methods dominated Washington's deep-draft ports until the early 1960s, when a remarkably simple, and in hindsight blindingly obvious, innovation came about. It was called "containerization" and it changed everything almost overnight.

The Container Revolution

Something as simple as petty theft  helped spur this revolution in the shipment of goods of almost every description. After World War II, the export and import trade expanded to accommodate the fruits of new technologies and growing consumer economies. Small, valuable, movable products  -- appliances, clothes, liquor, cosmetics, to name a few -- were now individually packaged and palletized for shipment. This left these goods unusually vulnerable to pilferage at every stage. Things disappeared everywhere -- at the warehouse, in transit, from dockside, even while at sea. Eventually, shippers realized that containers, which had seen some use by the military during World War II, could not only largely solve the theft problem, but also deliver the huge  improvements  in efficiency and economy that would justify the substantial investment for new or modified ships and specialized cargo-handling equipment.

A key to the success of containerization was standardization, which enabled containers to be moved seamlessly between ships, trucks, and trains in any port, anywhere in the world. Standardization also allowed shippers to stack containers from different sources, greatly increasing the cargo-carrying ability and flexibility of ships and rail cars designed or modified specifically to carry the large metal boxes. In 1961 the International Organization for Standardization adopted a set of standard sizes for shipping containers that is still in use today. The most commonly used are the 20-foot and 40-foot-long containers, known respectively as TEUs and FEUs.

The Box and the Union

Longshore unions were quick to see the threat that containerization posed to their members' livelihoods, and nowhere more so than the in the ports of America's West Coast. Fortunately, union leaders, led by ILWU president Harry Bridges were realistic enough accept the inevitability of containerization and related innovations, such as computerized routing and mechanized loading systems. The unions went to the bargaining table with the shippers, and in 1960 the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association signed the first mechanization and modernization (M&M) agreement. Among other things, the unions won job security for their existing workforce, enhanced benefits for early retirement forced by new methods and machinery, and profit sharing through increased wages and benefits. Ports and shippers won labor peace while they streamlined their cargo-handling operations and took advantage of other technological advances that were being developed.

The original pact ran only until 1966, but it has been periodically renegotiated and renewed in the years since. The M&M agreements did not bring an end to labor strife on the docks of the West Coast, but they did much to facilitate the modernization of cargo handling while protecting the rights of workers. Much of the credit was due to the powerful if much reviled Harry Bridges, and in 1992 he was honored posthumously with the creation of the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair and Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington.

Seattle and Tacoma Slug It Out

The opportunities and challenges of progress are well illustrated by the competition between the deep-draft ports of Seattle and Tacoma. It has been a see-saw battle since containerization became the norm, and although Seattle has managed to maintain a slight edge, it has had to learn the hard way not to underestimate its neighbor to the south.

In 1960, at the early dawn of the big-box revolution, voters approved a $10 million bond issue for further development at the Port of Seattle, including funds for the construction of container facilities at Piers 46 and 28. This was followed in 1968 by a huge grain terminal at the foot of Queen Anne Hill and the conversion of the port's old Hanford Street grain terminal into another container facility. With these improvements, the port's cargo handling nearly tripled in 14 years, from 2.2 million tons in 1960 to 6.5 million tons in 1974.

Today, Seattle's marine cargo operations include four terminals for containerized cargo, a 40-acre grain facility, a barge terminal that primarily serves Alaska, and terminals dedicated to bulk and breakbulk cargo. In the 1990s the port struck out in a new direction, welcoming the cruise-ship industry to Elliott Bay. What began with just the odd ship stopping by has grown to more than 220 annual visits to the port's two cruise terminals, a trade that generates tens of millions of dollars in business and tax revenues.

Although it was slower out of the blocks, the Port of Tacoma soon embraced the new realities and before long had outstripped Seattle in some regards. Tacoma's first foray into containerized cargo came in 1970, when a 242-foot-high crane, dubbed "Big Red" for its bright paint, was installed at the port's Terminal 7. From then on, Tacoma went head-to-head with Seattle for other markets and new tenants. In 1976 it took its first big bite from its northern neighbor's lunch when Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE), a leading shipper to Alaska, decided to move its operation from Seattle to Tacoma. This may not have hurt Seattle's civic pride as much as the loss to Tacoma of transcontinental rail link in the 1870s, but it was a blunt reminder to the leading port in the state that it dare not rest on its laurels.

In 1983 Seattle was stunned again when its largest container customer, SeaLand, announced that it too was moving south to Commencement Bay. And Tacoma wasn't done yet. In 1985, when the giant Danish shipping line Maersk began serving Puget Sound, it chose to set up shop there.  Three years later K Line, a large carrier from Japan, was lured from Seattle to Tacoma.

Today, the Port of Tacoma has six container terminals, three facilities for breakbulk, auto, and bulk cargo, and four intermodal yards where goods can be transferred directly from railroad cars to ships. It is still the number two port in the state by most measurements, but it has rarely let an opportunity go by to profit at Seattle's expense.

Washington's Other Deep-draft Ports Today

Not all deep-draft ports in Washington have joined the container revolution, but most have prospered nonetheless. The Port of Longview on the Columbia has eight marine terminals equipped to handle and store dry bulk, breakbulk, forest products, containers, steel, and heavy-lift-project cargo. The Port of Kalama largely handles dry bulk and breakbulk cargo, and Kalama's two grain elevators and state-of-the-art loading facilities make it one of the top five West Coast ports for dry-bulk exports. The third Columbia port, at Vancouver, is more diversified, handling container traffic, steel and log exports, automobiles, breakbulk and dry-bulk cargo, and has a special facility for processing wind-powered generating equipment.

On south Puget Sound, the Port of Olympia has a single 60-acre multi-use terminal that handles breakbulk, ro-ro (roll on/roll off), bulk, forest products, and containerized cargo. At Everett there are three terminals, one for general cargo and containers, one for bulk, and one for bulk ore and refrigerated goods. Moving farther north, the Port of Anacortes has no container-handling equipment, but loads dry-bulk petroleum coke from nearby oil refineries. It also leases sites along its deep-draft frontage to several large maritime industries, including seafood processors, a ship-building firm, and the largest rope factory in the world.

Bellingham, the state's northernmost deep-draft port, has also stayed out of the container business, and its terminal specializes in bulk and breakbulk cargo. The port is the entryway to the Lower 48 for most of the Alaska seafood catch and is the southern home port of the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System, which carries more than 30,000 passengers and 10,000 vehicles to and from Alaska every year.

The Port of Port Angeles has four deep-water marine terminals that process forest products, containers, and heavy-lift cargo. On the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula, the Port of Grays Harbor served Aberdeen and Hoquiam with three terminals and two deep-draft berths with direct access to railroad lines. After decades of reliance on the logging industry, today the port's primary imports and exports are  liquid- and dry-bulk cargo, and automobiles.

The Numbers

Recent statistics and other data demonstrate the growing importance of Washington state's imports and exports to local, state, national, and international economies. Nearly all of Washington's trade with countries outside of North American passes through the state's 11 deep-draft seaports, with only a small fraction carried by air.

  • Since 1982, cargo volumes handled by longshore workers at the state's deep-draft ports have tripled, containerized cargo has increased fivefold, and all cargo types with the exception of timber have shown substantial gains. Log exports, which dominated port activity for decades, have leveled off and are not projected to increase in the foreseeable future.
  • In 2008, 97 percent of containers imported to Washington came from Asia and 90 percent of containers exported from the state went to Asia.
  • In 2009 the value of exports from Washington state totaled nearly $52 billion, down from nearly $55 billion in 2008. In terms of dollar value, aerospace-related products topped the list of exports, followed by soybeans, corn, mineral and petroleum oil, wheat, apples, and video games.
  • Exports were shipped to 209 foreign countries in 2009. China was the leading consumer of Washington's exports, followed by Canada, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates.
  • More than $87 billion in goods were imported through Washington in 2008, including $48 billion in goods for which the state was the final destination. Among the leading imports in dollar value were crude oil, natural gas, video games, aerospace equipment, and automobiles.
  • The leading exporters to Washington from outside North America were China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.
  • Approximately one in three jobs in Washington is tied to foreign exports, and the pay for these jobs is about 46 percent higher than the overall state average.
  • Washington's 75 ports employ more than 110,000 workers, most working in the state's 11 deep-draft facilities.


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