First Woman Crane Operator at the Port of Seattle

  • By Kevin Catherine Castle
  • Posted 7/02/2018
  • Essay 20596
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In 1980, a year after graduating from the University of Washington, Kevin Catherine Castle was in the first group of women to join International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Seattle Local 19, loading and unloading ships on Seattle's Elliott Bay waterfront. Over the next two decades she advanced, through seniority, to become the first woman to operate a container crane at the Port of Seattle. This is her account of her career on the docks and in the cabs of the 15-story-tall cranes, maneuvering 60-ton containers on and off huge cargo ships.


My career as a dockworker began when I graduated from the UW with one of the least marketable degrees offered, a BA in history. I had worked on the waterfront as a casual ship's clerk during the summers while I was in college, a paperwork job that involved counting and sorting cargo. Because of this experience I was in good position when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union/Pacific Maritime Association (ILWU/PMA) began hiring longshore workers in May 1980, the year after my graduation. The longshore industry in Seattle had never hired women before. Now, affirmative action laws dictated that some of their new hires be women. I and 12 other women were the first to be registered in the Port of Seattle. The workforce at that time hovered around a thousand. We were, in other words, a drop in the ocean.

On one of my first jobs my partners and I were tasked with bundling lumber and otherwise preparing it to be loaded onto a cargo vessel. We belly wrapped the boards together with plastic straps and secured them with bands. The foreman asked me to go get the "henway." I searched through the tools and implements laid out on the dock apron. I didn't want to look stupid, but I was stumped. "What's a henway?" I finally asked. "Oh about two pounds," he answered. (What's a hen weigh?). My initiation.

Mastering the Skills

Longshoring is considered unskilled work but it is made up of myriad skills. It utilizes all manner of tools, gear, light and heavy machinery. Yet there is no training. Jobs are as complex and as varied as driving a forklift and moving cartons of electrical goods from a 40-foot container onto a warehouse floor, transporting containers from the dock to the crane with a semi, and hand-stowing boxes in the hold of a ship, driving a winch to load pallets of apples onto ships bound for Asia and lashing towers of containers to the deck of a ship. None of us knew what we were doing. And that was true for some of the 150 men we were hired with as well. This made for some comedic moments.

But many of the men resented that they had to work with women and were not about to share their knowledge with us. Many didn't want women to succeed as stevedores, forklift and semi drivers. They jeered us, hurled foul language at us, threatened us. As a woman, I sometimes felt like an immigrant in a hostile country. Our situation at times was precarious. But we stayed. This was a union job, one you could raise a family on. The ILWU had won handsome wages and benefits for its workforce. Few careers could duplicate what we enjoyed.

As the years passed I mastered the skills that dockworkers employ, mostly through observation, trial and error, and with some guidance from enlightened men. I also learned skills in other divisions, like the ship's clerks who now utilized computers to process and guide cargo from the pier gates to the ship. I learned that the men's bark was, on the whole, worse than their bite, and they learned that I was tougher than my 5-foot-3 frame suggested.

History Being Made

Nineteen years passed and then one day I got the news that I was eligible for crane training. I could scarcely believe that I had enough seniority! To work from 15 stories high? Join the ranks of the "jet pilots" who made containers fly onto ships? I was thrilled and scared at the same time. It was a daunting prospect but I was ready for a challenge.

The two-week training I received proved to be woefully inadequate. Crane operators that I talked to told me it took years to master the dynamics of driving. I was forced to learn through trial and error, on-the-job training. This would handicap me at first. As expected, the mistakes I made would be talked about and magnified by some in the workforce. But, surprisingly, others cheered me on, captivated by the history that was being made. Whatever the reception I received, I was up above now, looking down.

I remember vividly my first day on the job as a full-fledged crane driver. At that time there were no elevators. I had to walk all 150 feet up to my work station. Each step was a latticework of steel with a view of the dock and water below. As I pulled myself up the ladders and stairs, the sounds of semis and strads grew more and more distant. The grumble of gears changing, the smell of diesel fumes, and the blue clouds of exhaust faded. The figures of the men as they assembled for work beneath me appeared smaller and smaller. When I finally reached the top of the machine and pulled the air into my lungs I could see the mountains and the entire sweep of Elliott Bay.

Years later, I wrote this poem, called "Crane Operator: The Climb":

Each stair she climbs is a latticework of steel
with a view to the dock and water below. As she pulls
herself up the ladders and steps, the sounds of semis
and strads charging to life are farther and farther away.
The grumble of gears changing, the smell of diesel fumes
and the blue clouds that spew forth don’t reach her.
More and more distant is the lunchroom where men slap
their work slips on the tables for the bosses and tilt
their Styrofoam cups full of bitter coffee. She can’t hear
their laughs, their hollers, their lewd asides, or the thud
of steel toes against the floors that lead out the door.
She can’t see the hoodies pulled tight over heads bowed
to the wind, the hands shoved into greasy gloves,
the devastating orange of safety vests. Here, now,
at the top of this crane where she pulls the air
into her lungs, she is alone, the growling machines
and the men who drive them, scattered toys beneath her.

Into the Gondola

I entered the glass gondola suspended from the crane's boom. I pulled the steel door closed and folded myself into the driver's seat. Beneath my forearms were polished steel panels studded with buttons, blinking domes, and switches. A large lever rose from either side, topped by handles that I would clutch for the four-hour shift. I bent forward, feet planted on the glass floor, torso resting against my thighs, knees wide, staring down 15 stories to the container on the back of a semi. I pushed one lever to let out the cable and drop the rack that locks onto the boxes. My aim was not entirely honed but I finally managed to latch onto it. As I pulled the container up I used the other lever to push it forward on the boom and over the ship's rail.

These movements were like a simple dance, up, down, back, and forth, each arc to and from the ship taking minutes, up to a hundred times in a shift. The 60-ton containers attached to the rack swayed beneath my glass cab like pendulums. I had to manage this swing, finesse it to work for me as I loaded and unloaded as fast as possible. My speed as I traveled back and forth set the pace for the entire operation, dockside to ship and back again. This meant that the strads and semis on the dock all were moving to my rhythm. Knowing this, I felt a keen sense of responsibility. This massive machine that I operated and the workers assembled below cost the shipping and stevedoring companies dearly. My skill determined when the ship sailed, when everyone below me went home. I captured my experiences in this poem I call "Crane Operator: The Drive":

She enters her cab and smells last night’s driver.
the Old Spice, the sweat. Cigarette ashes swirl
inside the glass gondola as she pushes
the steel door closed, folds herself into
the hard cup of her seat and prepares to boot up
the machine that crouches at the edge of the bay.

Beneath her forearms, polished steel panels
studded with buttons, blinking domes and switches
await her fingers. A large lever rises from either side,
topped by the knobs she’ll clutch until day’s end.

She bends forward, feet planted on the glass floor,
torso resting against her thighs, knees wide,
straining over them as if to polish her toenails.
The seatbelt slices her in half, a thread between her,
the glass envelope of her workplace and
the blacktop fifteen stories below. She lets out the cable,

drops her rack and aims for the forty foot box
that appears in miniature beneath her.
She guesses the edges, corners and pockets
below her cab as she lets down fast to cap
the container with her forty foot rack and
lock onto forty tons of cargo. It used to be like
groping for light. Now she can feel where it is.

Hoisting the load up she leans one lever
toward the ship. The cab surges forward
on its horizontal boom. It crosses the dock apron
clears the ship’s rail and hovers as she aims
before sliding the can into a cell below deck.
She pulls her rack out, drags the lever back
and drops to the dock.
This is the arc she travels  as she races from ship
to shore, loading and discharging containers

thirty times each hour. Her slams
resound above the din of the semis and strads
with each push into the tight cells that
swallow the boxes, steel eating steel. She forgets to
breathe, prays instead, squeezing inside the dark holes,
pumping, fingers cramped, knees burning,
suppressing the desire to view the mountains
because it’s up to her when the ship sails,
when everyone goes home.

It took me the full shift to complete the assignment. I had moved at a relative snail's pace. "Good job," my foreman signaled over the radio nonetheless. I could barely thank him I was so drained. It would take me awhile to get my "sea legs." I would become a good crane operator, if not a jet pilot.

I was the first woman to operate a crane in the Port of Seattle. I did so for five years before retiring from the industry.

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