On November 4, 1958, a majority of Whitman County voters approve the establishment of a port district. The desire to establish the Port of Whitman County is driven by the development of the Columbia Snake River system, a navigable waterway that will connect inland counties with the Pacific Ocean. The last two dams that will complete this waterway, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the lower Snake River, will be dedicated in Whitman County in 1975. In addition to providing access to the slackwater lakes created by the dams on the lower Snake, in the 1980s the Port will expand its activities to include off-water industrial and economic development.
Prelude to a Port
When European Americans arrived in the Northwest, the region’s rivers were already central to Native American patterns of trade and transportation. As migration and settlement increased during the nineteenth century, these patterns began to change. Agricultural centers emerged in Eastern Washington and soon steamboats were shipping agricultural and other products along the rivers. The first shipment of Whitman County wheat, bound for Portland, was loaded onto a steamer in Almota in 1876.
But certain points along the rivers presented challenges: On the Columbia River, goods had to be offloaded and portaged at Celilo Falls and at Cascade Rapids before they could reach the Pacific Ocean. Railroads improved transportation throughout the state in the 1860s, but they did not replace the demand for more efficient and economical navigation on the Columbia and its largest tributary, the Snake River. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began working in the region and created a waterway between Portland, Oregon, and Lewiston, Idaho, by building locks at the Cascades and Celilo, but railroads remained the more economical mode of transport.
Parallel to the commercial development of navigable waters was the movement to secure public control and access to them. The Constitution of Washington State secured these rights, and in 1911 the state legislature passed the Port District Act, which permitted the establishment and governance of public port districts. The Port of Seattle was established in 1911 and other ports were quickly formed. Among these was the Port of Kennewick, established in 1915 to accommodate an expected increase in Columbia steamboat traffic after the opening of The Dalles-Celilo Canal. The legislature initially authorized port districts to provide maritime shipping and rail-water transfer facilities, but by the 1940s these powers had been expanded to include industrial development districts and airports.
The Columbia Snake River System
Between the 1930s and 1970s, a convergence of public and private interests in navigation, irrigation, and power led to the construction of a series of eight multipurpose dams, which transformed the Columbia and Snake rivers into a major waterway. The first of these was the Bonneville Lock and Dam. In 1938, the first year in which Bonneville’s locks were operative, more freight moved through the middle Columbia than had in the previous 22 years.Three additional dams with locks were constructed on the Columbia -- McNary, The Dalles, and John Day -- and four more on the Snake -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite. The series of slackwater lakes created by these dams made it possible to ship cargo from the inland port of Lewiston to the Pacific.
The new economic opportunities created by the Columbia Snake River system led a number of cities and counties to establish public port districts, which could use public funds to build docks, warehouses, cage handling facilities, grain elevators, and other infrastructural support for shippers and receivers. In the 1940s, the Port of Kennewick was revitalized and the ports of the Pasco and Klickitat were established on the Columbia. The Port of Walla Walla followed in 1952 and in 1958 a number of other ports on the Columbia and Snake rivers were established, including the ports of Benton, Clarkston, and Whitman County.
The Promise of a Port
In October 1958, in Colfax, the seat of Whitman County since its formation in 1871, some 80 farm and civic leaders met to discuss the formation of a port district for the county. After hearing about the success of the Port of Walla Walla and discussing the economic and public benefits that a port authority could bring to the county, there was broad support for establishing a port district; when the issue went before voters the next month, 6,653 of 9,156 votes approved its organization.
D. I. Hopkins, Walter N. Nelson, and Lawrence Hickman were elected as port commissioners. They held their first meeting in January 1959. The Port’s original comprehensive plan anticipated acquiring land at seven sites along the river, but only three of these were developed.
In 1969, when the Lower Monumental dam opened and the Little Goose and Lower Granite dams were nearing completion, the Port began developing grain-handling and liquid-fertilizer facilities at its Almota site. Four miles downriver of Lower Granite, on the site of the submerged town of the same name, Almota became a major shipping terminal for local white wheat, the primary product of the county. A little bit farther upriver, the Port later constructed Boyer Park and Marina, a recreational site.
The second site developed by the Port, 20 miles downriver from Almota, was Central Ferry, another major trans-shipment point for local wheat. The Port’s third and largest river site, Wilma, was developed near the terminus of the Columbia-Snake waterway, north of Clarkston and Lewiston. By 1975, when the dams on the lower Snake were dedicated, the Port’s investments in land and improvements totaled about $12 million. Through its three river sites, the Port facilitates the movement of agricultural inputs and petroleum products upriver as well as local agricultural products and manufactured goods downriver to global markets.
In the 1980s, the Port began to focus on off-water industrial development. It opened the Pullman Industrial Park and in 1988 the first business, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, located there. Other businesses followed, including Decagon Devices and Metriguard. The park, which borders the Washington State University Research and Technology Park, now comprises more than a hundred acres of fully developed sites. In 2007, the Port was awarded a state grant to establish an Innovation Partnership Zone at its Pullman site, to support an industry cluster focusing on energy-efficient information technologies.
The Port established a second, smaller industrial development site at the Whitman County Memorial Airport in 1998. When the county decided to close the Colfax airport in 2002, the Port took over the facility and combined it with its Colfax Industrial Park to form the Port of Whitman Business Air Center. Today, the Port sees itself primarily as an industrial real estate developer, focusing on job creation and expanding the county’s tax base.