On March 14, 1911, Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) signs legislation authorizing the establishment of public port districts. The Port District Act, which allows citizens to end private monopoly control of urban harbors, is a victory for progressive and populist reformers then at the height of their influence in Washington. Voters in Seattle and Grays Harbor will create the first two port districts later that year and many more will be established around the state in succeeding years.
Before statehood, most harbor improvements in Washington were privately owned. Although the 1889 state constitution preserved all remaining tidelands in public ownership, many critical port facilities were already in private hands, allowing those who controlled them to monopolize key transportation routes and set prices accordingly. In Seattle, Tacoma, and elsewhere railroad companies had long controlled much of the urban waterfront as a result of concessions granted as cities competed to become railroad destinations.
Around the turn of the twentieth century the Progressive movement, which advocated public ownership of transportation facilities and utilities, was a powerful force in Washington politics. Passage of the Port District Act climaxed a lengthy struggle for public control over harbors and waterfront commerce. Governor Albert E. Mead (1861-1909) had vetoed earlier public port legislation that passed in 1907, and attempts in 1909 also fell short.
Progressives were at the height of their strength in the 1911 legislative session, which enacted numerous progressive reforms. And by then even much of the state's conservative business establishment had grown tired of the railroad stranglehold on the harbors on which the state's trade and commerce depended. Governor Hay called on the legislature to "encourage all improvements of harbors and the acquisition of public docks and wharfs" (1911 Senate Journal), and legislators did.
The state House of Representative passed the Port District Act on March 3, 1911, and the Senate followed suit six days later. Governor Hay signed the measure into law on March 14, 1911.
The First Public Ports
Seattle voters were the first to take advantage of the new law. On September 5, 1911, they approved the Port of Seattle and elected Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), Robert Bridges (1861-1921), and Charles E. Remsberg as port commissioners (a position that by statute was unpaid).
Voters in what was then Chehalis County (the legislature changed the name to Grays Harbor County in 1915) followed on December 12, 1911, approving the Port of Grays Harbor by a vote of 1,911 to 562. Frank Lamb (ca. 1875-1951), a machine-works owner and timber company president who played a major role in passage of the Port District Act, led the successful Grays Harbor effort, overcoming opposition by mill owners, timber interests, and inland taxpayers. Lamb was elected to the port commission, along with Angus McNeill (ca. 1865-1937) and William J. Patterson (b. 1872), and served for 40 years.
By the end of the decade, public port districts had also been created in Vancouver, Bremerton, Kennewick, Everett, Tacoma, Eglon, and Kingston. Many more followed in subsequent decades. In 2011 there are 75 public port districts in Washington, more than in any other state.