King County voters create Port of Seattle on September 5, 1911.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 4/02/1999
  • Essay 1002

On September 5, 1911, a long struggle for control of Seattle's central waterfront climaxes when King County voters approve formation of the Port of Seattle and elect the Port's first three Commissioners: General Hiram Chittenden (1858-1917), Robert Bridges (1861-1921), and Charles Remsberg. The election is a high water mark for the local Progressive Movement, which advocates public control of essential facilities and utilities, and a pivotal defeat for the railroads that had dominated Seattle's harbor since 1874 thanks to imprudent municipal concessions.

Railroads Win Concessions

In their desperation to attract East Coast capital and a transcontinental rail connection, Seattle's city officials had effectively ceded control of the central waterfront to a succession of private interests. After the Northern Pacific Railroad announced in 1873 that its tracks would end at Tacoma rather than at Seattle, local investors organized the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad to build their own line across the Cascades. The city government awarded the line a 25-foot-wide strip of land along the waterfront, hoping to create a ship-rail link. But the Seattle & Walla Walla failed and its harbor franchise fell into the hands of the Northern Pacific, which was not inclined to promote Seattle's development over its own terminus city to the south.

A second local line, the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern, was begun in 1885. Seattle awarded it the inner 30 feet of a 120-foot-wide swath of tidelands located immediately west of the Northern Pacific's existing waterfront right of way -- the swath was dedicated as a city street and a planked trestle dubbed Railroad Avenue was built along it to create a second waterfront. Like the earlier local effort, however, the new line and its valuable right of way was soon acquired by the Northern Pacific.

Progressives and Populists Fight Back

By the early 1890s, a second transcontinental railroad was pushing westward toward Puget Sound: the Great Northern Railway. Through his local agent, Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), Great Northern builder James J. Hill (1838-1916) demanded and won a portion of Railroad Avenue in exchange for giving Seattle its first direct transcontinental service in 1893. Hill later acquired the Northern Pacific and became de facto landlord of Seattle's harbor.

The consolidation of so much economic power in so few hands alarmed local Progressives and Populists. After Washington became a state in 1889, reformers battled to block further government "gifts" of public land and resources to railroads and to win back what had been previously ceded. Seattle Progressives (and civil engineers) George F. Cotterill (1865-1958) and R. H. Thomson (1856-1949) played key roles in passage of a state law enabling local voters to form public port districts. The Port District Act took effect on June 8, 1911, and public port supporters moved quickly to collect sufficient signatures to place a measure creating a public port district encompassing all of King County on the county's September election ballot. Voters approved the new Port of Seattle by a margin of more than three to one on September 5, 1911. One week later, on September 12, 1911, Commissioners Chittenden (who was elected chairman), Bridges, and Remsberg met for the first time to begin planning the Port's development.

Over the next 100 years, the public port that voters approved in 1911 transformed Elliott Bay into one of the world's leading container ports, and developed the marinas, cruise ship terminals, and other facilities -- most notably Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Northwest's largest -- that collectively make the Port of Seattle a central economic engine for King County and the surrounding region.


David J. Olson, et al., Port in a Storm: An Historical Review of the Founding of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1970); Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); 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).
Note: This essay was revised and expanded on December 29, 2011.

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