On December 1, 1958, the Grant County Board of County Commissioners officially organizes the county's second public port district, whose creation was approved by area voters in the November 4 election. The district, stretching across southern Grant County from the Columbia River between Vantage and Beverly to the Adams County line, is initially known as the Port of Beverly, and later the Beverly-Royal Slope Port, before adopting the name Port of Royal Slope. The new district is one of many formed in anticipation of the irrigation projects, inexpensive power, and barge waterways being developed by the federal government's Columbia Basin project. Because the Columbia will never be opened to barge traffic as far as Beverly, the Port will ultimately concentrate on the Royal City area, where it develops the Saddle Mountain Industrial Park, home to several food processing and packing plants. When the bankrupt Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad abandons the area's crucial rail link, the Port will purchase 26 miles of rail line linking the industrial area near Royal City to rail connections in Othello. Financial difficulties will force the Royal Slope Railroad to cease operating after a decade, but the Port will keep working with local politicians, state officials, and area businesses on plans to restore rail service.
Royal Slope and Beverly
The Royal Slope port district covers an area some 30 miles long between the Columbia River and Adams County, and about a dozen miles wide from the north side of Frenchman Hills to the top of Saddle Mountain in the south. State Route 26 runs the length of the district from Vantage east to the county line; a few miles south and roughly parallel, Lower Crab Creek also bisects the district. In 2008, approximately 5,500 people resided within district boundaries. Slightly fewer than 2,000 of them lived in Royal City, which is located more or less in the center of the district and is its only incorporated city or town. Beverly is an unincorporated community on the Columbia River in the southwest corner of the district.
The origin of the name Royal Slope is obscure -- one story has it that some early settlers, admiring the broad, south-facing landscape, deemed it a "royal slope" for farming. At the time the port district was created, the region was still largely undeveloped. Royal City was only founded in 1956, the year that the state highway that became SR 26 was completed through the area. However, residents were anticipating significant growth as a result of the ongoing Columbia Basin project.
Beginning in the 1930s, federally funded dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers provided irrigation water that opened the Basin's rich but arid lands to intensive farming, generated inexpensive electric power, and -- where locks were built at the dams -- turned the rivers into waterways whose barges carried the abundant harvest to ports from where it could be shipped around the world. In 1958, irrigation water was just reaching Royal Slope farms via tunnels through the Frenchman Hills. In addition, civic leaders around Grant County and elsewhere along the upper Columbia River anticipated that locks would be built at the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams to open the upper river to barge transportation, just as locks at dams on the middle Columbia and Snake rivers were creating a barge waterway all the way to the Idaho border.
Communities throughout Eastern Washington hurried to form public port districts, which had broad powers to raise funds through tax levies, bonds, and state and federal grants that could be used to develop the transportation and industrial infrastructure necessary to take advantage of the Columbia Basin water, power, and barge locks. Those efforts reached their peak in 1958, which saw the formation of 12 port districts, the most created in any single year in Washington. Ten of those were in Eastern Washington, including three in Grant County. The Port of Quincy, formed in March 1958, was the first in Grant County. Its creation, and suggestions that it might expand its area, perhaps to become a countywide port district, helped spur smaller Grant County communities to form ports of their own. They did not want to be swallowed up in a district dominated by Quincy voters.
Grant County Port District No. 2
Petitions to create two more port districts reached the Grant County Board of County Commissioners in the fall of 1958. The first to be acted on proposed what became the Port of Royal Slope, defining the port district boundaries to be the same as those the Lower Crab Creek School District had at the time. On September 29, 1958, the county commissioners placed the proposal to create Grant County Port District No. 2 on the November 4, 1958, election ballot. A week later, they set for the same election a vote on a third port district, comprising the southernmost portion of Grant County around Mattawa, just south of Royal Slope. Voters in the respective districts approved creation of both ports on November 4.
On December 1, 1958, the Board of County Commissioners certified the election results and passed a resolution stating that the district encompassing Royal Slope and Beverly "is hereby declared to be duly organized as a Port District under the name of 'Grant County Port District No. 2'" (Resolution). The resolution also certified the election of Lester Morrison, John Maher, and Dee Christensen as commissioners to run the new port.
In place of the official but awkward "Grant County Port District No. 2," the commissioners at first used the name "Port of Beverly" and then "Beverly-Royal Port." These appellations reflected early hopes for the district. Generally, port districts take the name of the largest city within the district, but rather than going by "Port of Royal City," the early commissioners highlighted the smaller, unincorporated community of Beverly, which was strategically located on the Columbia near Wanapum Dam, and thus positioned to become a marine barge terminal if locks were built at upper Columbia dams.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Beverly-Royal commissioners worked with their counterparts at the Port of Mattawa to lobby for locks at least at Priest Rapids that would have let their ports join those on the Snake and middle Columbia as marine barge terminals. Despite their efforts and those of many others, no such locks were built and by 1981 the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers gave up plans to build a new dam near Pasco that would have opened the upper river to barge traffic. As a result, Port District No. 2 commissioners turned their attention from the river to focus on their ongoing pursuit of industrial development (generally agriculture related) in the central part of the district around Royal City. In 1985, the port commissioners formally adopted the name Port of Royal Slope, by which the district has been known since.
The Port had begun efforts to promote development around Royal City long before that. A significant development occurred in 1967 when the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad (known as the Milwaukee Road) built a 6.4 mile spur from its main line, which passed through the port district some miles south of Royal City, to the Hiawatha Industrial Park, which a group of private owners had developed on SR 26 just outside Royal City. That same year, anticipating further industrial development in the area, the Port paid Grant County $430.31 for 280 acres of land just east of the Hiawatha Industrial Park, where the Port eventually developed an industrial park of its own.
Through the 1970s, the spur line allowed Royal Slope industries and agricultural producers to ship and receive goods by train, which was often substantially less expensive than trucking. The line was an important asset in the Port's efforts to attract new industry, but the Milwaukee Road's bankruptcy put that asset in jeopardy. By 1980, with the bankrupt railroad abandoning not just the spur, but all its track in Washington, the Port stepped in to preserve the important transportation link. It purchased both the spur line and 20 miles of the Milwaukee Road main line, running east from the junction with the spur to Othello in Adams County, where there were connections to other lines. Those 26 miles became, for a time, the Royal Slope Railroad, which Burlington Northern trains first used in August 1982.
The Port put $300,000 of its tax revenues toward the railroad purchase, and eventually obtained millions more in state and federal loans and grants to rehabilitate and upgrade the track. However, the process of obtaining a federal loan was complicated and time consuming. By the time the Port received the money, local shippers that had originally signed contracts to use the railroad had made other arrangements, and Burlington Northern's charges to operate the line had risen. Although the Port proceeded with the track work and found another railroad operator, the revenue from the line failed to cover the loan payments and it was forced to discontinue rail service. In 1994, the Port transferred ownership of the 26-mile line to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), but it did not give up hopes of reviving Royal Slope rail service.
Saddle Mountain Industrial Park
In the meantime the Port proceeded to develop the 280 acres acquired in 1967. While working to get the railroad running, in the early 1980s port commissioners had pursued two other development possibilities, which did not work out: building a "community cannery" near Royal City and attempting to get a large sugar beet factory to locate in the area. Now they turned their attention to the 280-acre property, where in 1993 a 543-feet-deep well was drilled to provide water. The Port then obtained industrial zoning, platted Saddle Mountain Industrial Park, and built roads. A pump house, tank, and pump were completed in October 2001, and soon thereafter Royal Ridge Fruit and Cold Storage, a cherry processor, became the first occupant of Saddle Mountain Industrial Park.
Royal Ridge Fruit, which before long expanded its operations, was followed by a Grant County Public Works office and shop and by two more agricultural industries: Norwest Ingredients, which manufactures natural mint oils and other flavor and fragrance ingredients, and Blue Sky Management, which built an onion packing and storage facility. All of them purchased, rather than leasing, their parcels, so to have more sites available for other businesses, the Port in 2010 acquired an additional 240 acres adjacent to Saddle Mountain Industrial Park.
Working on the Railroad
These efforts have and likely will continue to bring development and jobs to Royal Slope, but the Port continues to see restoration of rail service as critically important for the area's farmers and businesses. Since at least 2004, Port commissioners and staff have been working with local elected officials, state and federal legislators representing the area, potential shippers, rail line operators, and WSDOT on efforts to revive rail service. In 2009, the Port hired a WSDOT engineer to conduct a Condition Assessment, which determined that it would cost $1.2 million to bring the line back in shape for low-level service.
Port commissioner Frank Mianecki personally took the first steps toward getting the line in shape. Not long after the Port signed an agreement with WSDOT allowing it to remove rock slides and debris that had covered portions of track during the years of non-use, Mianecki, a retired farmer, operated his own equipment and a leased excavator to clear rock slides from the tracks, winning praise from the WSDOT engineer. But no matter how determined, Mianecki, his fellow commissioners, and the Port staff all recognize that the Port cannot restore and operate the line on its own. So in 2011 they continue to seek funding to rehabilitate the tracks and once again bring rail cargo service to Royal Slope.