Port of Tacoma dedicates its Public Observation Tower on November 21, 1988.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/17/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8816

On November 21, 1988, the Port of Tacoma celebrates the opening of a four-story observation tower overlooking Sitcum Waterway near the Port's Administration Building. The tower is formally dedicated to the citizens of Pierce County to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the November 5, 1918, vote that created the publicly owned and managed port district. The Public Observation Tower gives county citizens, and anyone else who is interested, a safe vantage point for close-up observation of the Port's operations. Open without charge 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the tower provides panoramic views of terminals and waterways where tugs guide huge cargo ships to dock, towering cranes stack containers high on the ships' decks, and large vehicles and equipment drive right onboard "roll on/roll off" vessels.

Dedicated to the Public

By 1988, 70 years after voters authorized its creation, the Port of Tacoma had grown from modest beginnings to become the sixth-largest container port in North America. Vessels from many of the world's largest shipping lines called regularly at the terminals that lined the waterways dredged and expanded over the years in the Tacoma tideflats fronting Commencement Bay. Containers full of consumer goods from Asia were transferred directly from ship to rail car for shipment across the United States, and grain, wood products and other exports were loaded for shipment around the globe. Container ships and roll on/roll off vessels carrying most of the maritime trade between Alaska and the lower 48 states called regularly at the port.

As a public port district, the Port facilities were, and are, public property, and the nearly non-stop activity of huge cranes lifting containers high into the air and giant ships gliding slowly down the waterways fascinates many members of the public. But the constant movement of cranes, trains, and equipment of all kinds make the docks unsafe for visitors to roam at will. With the Port's 70th anniversary approaching, the five elected Port Commissioners -- Robert G. Earley, Jack A. Fabulich, John McCarthy, Patrick O'Malley, and Ned Shera -- decided to recognize the citizens who established and supported the Port by creating a safe viewing location at the center of the Port's operations. As Rod Koon, Port Director of Communications, explained some years later:

"The port commission wanted to give the people of Pierce County a safe place to get a close-up look (at) the port ... It was designed for people to learn about the port and its shipping activity" (Vedder).

The Public Observation Tower, an open-air concrete structure with viewing platforms on four levels, was designed by architecture firm Merritt-Pardini and constructed by Hoffcon, Inc. The project cost $180,000. The tower was built near the Port's Administration Building on the edge of Sitcum Waterway. It was dedicated on November 21, 1988, amid pouring rain. A plaque installed on the tower states:

"This Observation Tower is dedicated to the citizens of Pierce County, in recognition of their initial support which led to the official founding of the Port of Tacoma on November 5, 1918, and to their ongoing support which has ensured its continued growth and success."

Views from the Tower

The Observation Tower looks north up Sitcum Waterway, the westernmost and shortest of the Port's three waterways. From any of the tower's viewing platforms, a visitor can see the length of the waterway, which is lined on both sides with terminals, container cranes, and (usually) ships loading or unloading. In 2008, the left (west) side of the waterway is occupied by APM Terminals, with five towering container cranes that load and unload ships from three major container lines: Horizon Lines, a leading domestic shipper between Tacoma and Alaska, and Maersk Line and Safmarine, two divisions of the giant Danish shipping (and more) company A.P. Moller-Maersk Group.

On the right (east) side of Sitcum Waterway, tower visitors can observe a wide range of cargo-handling techniques at Terminal 7. Some breakbulk cargo -- stacked on pallets that are lifted aboard ship by cranes (the way most cargo was loaded before the advent of containers) -- is still loaded there. Automobiles and wheeled or tracked heavy equipment line the dock where they are driven aboard roll on/roll off vessels. Beyond Terminal 7 rise the four cranes of Olympic Container Terminal, home to four container lines that carry much of the trade between Tacoma and Asian ports -- Yang Ming, COSCO, Hanjin, and K Line.

East from the tower, beyond the Port Administration Building and the Terminal 7 warehouse, cranes lining Blair Waterway are visible. To the west, beyond stacks of containers, downtown Tacoma rises on its bluff beyond the tideflats. To the south, the railroad tracks of the South Intermodal Yard, where containers are loaded onto trains, stretch toward additional port facilities.

On each level of the tower information displays recount the Port's history and describe the equipment, buildings (some since demolished), ships, cargo, and activity likely to be seen. A television monitor on the ground level plays videos with additional information about the Port and binoculars on the top level provide close-up views of docks, cranes, containers, and ships.

The Port of Tacoma Observation Tower is open all day every day throughout the year, with the highest numbers of visitors during the summer. Many people return regularly to watch the constant changes as the Port continues to expand and construct new facilities while demolishing outdated ones.


"Port Perch," The News Tribune, November 22, 1988, p. B-1; Mina Vedder, "Tower Offers Close-up View of Port; Price is Right: Parking Lot Vantage Point Lures Many to Sitcum Waterway," Ibid., August 1, 2001, p. B-3; Stephan Stern, "Getaways: You Can See the Hustle and Bustle of a Modern Port from High Above," The Seattle Times, June 18, 1992, p. E-3; "History (1981-1990: Other Milestones of this Time Period)," Port of Tacoma website accessed October 14, 2008 (http://www.portoftacoma.com/Page.aspx?cid=40); Author's (Kit Oldham's) personal observation of Public Observation Tower, October 12, 2008.

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