Public Port Districts in Washington: Origins

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/20/2010
  • Essay 9614
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Washington has 75 public port districts, more than any other state. Each is an independent government body, run by commissioners elected by local voters. They operate major marine terminals and small local docks and marinas; international airports and general aviation fields; parks and recreation areas; and industrial and business parks. The state's first port districts were established in 1911, the year that the Legislature authorized their formation and created the basic structure that continues to guide port districts in the twenty-first century. Public ports are now an accepted part of the state's government and economic life, but they were radical and controversial when first formed. This essay describes the movement for public ports in Washington, which was part of the broader Progressive movement that achieved an array of reforms in the early 1900s, and the factors leading to the formation and acceptance of Washington's unique system of publicly owned and locally controlled harbor facilities and other key infrastructure.

Early Public Ports

With water providing a primary means of transporting people and goods, harbor areas have long been seen as public highways to which everyone should have equal access. Since ancient times, governments at a minimum regulated navigation in their harbors, and over the years many also controlled docks, piers, warehouses, and other port facilities. In some European cities, government bodies have run public ports since the Middle Ages.

However, in the United States, as in England, the massive commercial and industrial development of ports in the nineteenth century, resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the rise of railroads and steamships, was dominated by private corporations, especially the railroads. In the second half of the 1800s, a few U.S. cities, including San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, took tentative steps to establish public control over some of their waterfront. But as late as 1910, a year before Washington created its first public port districts, a report found that only two ports -- San Francisco and New Orleans -- enjoyed a "high degree of public ownership, control, efficiency and equipment," which civic leaders in both cities credited with increasing their trade and revenue (Burke, 19).

Calls for Reform

Long before that, the problems resulting from private corporations dominating harbors and waterfront development were attracting attention and calls for change. From Seattle to New York, critics decried chaotic and often unsafe and unsanitary conditions arising from uncontrolled development by competing railroads each with its own tracks and docks. Not only did tangles of tracks and trains impede physical access to the waterfront, but also the railroad companies manipulated wharf availability and rates to promote their own interests and not local economic development. And with competing owners looking out for themselves, coordinated development of needed new facilities, and often just improvement of existing ones, was difficult to achieve.

Across the country -- and not just in port cities -- attitudes toward railroads and other large corporations were beginning to change. Although cities, especially in the West, owed much of their growth and development to the railroads, many that found themselves dependent on a rail line, and thus at the mercy of its rates and schedules, increasingly chafed at that dependence. Reformers, who would come to be labeled Progressives, saw public control of transportation facilities -- including ports -- as well as monopolies such as water and electric utilities, as the only antidote to the domination of economic and political life by private companies. Advocates for municipal ownership of harbors, transit, and utilities sought to increase economic efficiency, win greater public and local control over key infrastructure, and provide competition with private monopolies. As to harbors specifically, Progressives argued that public control would permit coordinated development, financed by government-backed credit, and would ensure standardized rates and equal access to port facilities.

The Progressive movement and the push for municipal ownership were particularly strong in Washington, where Seattle and other cities became some of the first in the nation to establish public water and electric utilities. The struggle for public control of the waterfront was especially contentious since so many of Washington's leading cities were ports and the economy was (as it remains) heavily dependent on trade. That struggle was largely one to win back what had been given away to the railroad companies during the long competition for the transcontinental rail connections that fueled the region's growth.

Railroads in Control

From the time that they began trickling into the future Washington in the early 1850s, the settlers of every would-be metropolis in the region hoped and expected that their new home would become the terminus of a transcontinental railroad and therefore the commercial and population center of the region. To gain this prize, civic leaders gave away large swathes of critical waterfront property. Tacoma won the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1873 by giving it an entire townsite, including much of the harbor on Commencement Bay, while Seattle granted successive rights of way to the Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and other lines, ultimately ceding the railroads virtually the entire central waterfront, so that they controlled the shipping docks and piers as well as the rail lines. Even harbors that transcontinental lines did not reach fell into private hands. On Grays Harbor, the citizens of Aberdeen and Hoquiam had almost no direct access to their waterfronts, which were dominated by private sawmills and timber docks.

Much of this private waterfront development -- mills, warehouses, stores, railroad lines, shipping terminals, and more -- was built out over tidelands (the muddy area exposed at low tide but under water at high tide). The federal government held legal title to all tidelands until Washington became a state in 1889, making disposition of the tidelands one of the most controversial issues facing the new state. The mill owners, railroads, shipping companies, merchants, and others who had built up their businesses on the tidelands insisted that they should receive title to the land they occupied.

But reformers argued that the state should retain title to the tidelands to provide for public harbor areas, with the benefits of economic efficiency, local control, coordinated development, and equal access that public harbors would bring. Interestingly, the strongest support for keeping tidelands public came from east of the mountains. Eastern Washingtonians saw the tidelands as valuable state property that should not be given away to private interests; moreover, most were directly or indirectly dependent on agricultural exports, which were then at the mercy of the private rail and dock owners.

Also calling for public harbors was prominent engineer and municipal planner Virgil G. Bogue (1846-1916), who would go on to draft grandiose waterfront plans for the city of Seattle and the ports of Grays Harbor and Tacoma. Bogue spent his early career working for railroads (he engineered the Northern Pacific tunnel through Stampede Pass), but he did not hesitate to criticize how railroad corporations were using the state's harbors. He asserted that only coordinated public ownership, as practiced by European ports, would bring successful commercial development to those harbors.

Rise of the Progressive Movement

Notwithstanding these arguments, the railroads, mill owners, and others occupying the tidelands managed keep their holdings, using political clout and incessant litigation to stymie efforts by the harbor lines commission, called for in the new state constitution, to designate large public harbor areas in Seattle, Grays Harbor, Tacoma, and Bellingham. But the private owners' victory did not end calls for public harbors. In 1896, reformers banded together in the short-lived Populist Party to capture the state legislature and the governor's mansion. The party fell apart before accomplishing much, but the reform banner was picked up by the Progressives, who operated largely within the Republican and Democratic parties. They tended to be educated urban professionals who supported an array of reforms: Along with municipal ownership, Progressives advocated for labor rights, woman suffrage, and prohibition. Conversely, both unions and suffrage organizations were strong supporters of municipal ownership, with the longshoremen who worked the docks especially ardent in their support of public port facilities.

Some of the state's leading Progressives were civil engineers. Bogue's views were echoed by Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949), Seattle's strong-willed and politically astute City Engineer, and by George F. Cotterill (1865-1958), Thomson's one-time assistant who went on to draft the legislation creating public ports and to serve four terms on the Seattle Port Commission. Like Bogue before them, Thomson and Cotterill studied European ports and pointed out the advantages that those ports achieved through public ownership and operation.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the movement for public ports, like other progressive reforms, was gaining ground in Washington. The state's population and economy were booming thanks to the transcontinental rail connections -- and to the Klondike Gold Rush that began in 1897 with Seattle as the major jumping-off point. But the influx of new residents and the rapid expansion of private docks and terminals exacerbated the turmoil and chaos along the state's urban waterfronts.

With the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal approaching, leaders in Seattle, Grays Harbor, Tacoma, and other cities expected a huge jump in maritime trade but saw little sign that waterfront landowners were preparing the harbors to meet the demands of this anticipated boom. Many began to heed the calls of the engineers and city planners who asserted that only public ownership and development of harbor areas would bring the coordinated modernization and expansion of facilities necessary for Washington ports to claim their share of increased trade.

First Legislative Efforts

Cotterill combined political activity with his engineering work. In 1905 he helped found the Municipal Ownership League, and the next year he won election to the state Senate. Nominally one of a small minority of Democrats in the Senate, Cotterill formed alliances with like-minded Progressive Republicans and won the chairmanship of the Committee on Harbors and Harbor Lines. In that position, Cotterill in 1907 drafted the first legislation for public ports in Washington, which was introduced by Republican Senator Ralph D. Metcalf of Tacoma. The bill provided for commissions, to be appointed by city or county authorities, that could condemn tidelands and construct and operate public port facilities, which would be funded by assessments imposed on property in the district benefiting from the port.

Metcalf's bill somewhat surprisingly passed both houses of the Legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Albert E. Mead (1861-1909). Mead's veto message asserted that allowing local authorities to construct harbor improvements usurped federal and state prerogatives, and also professed concern that local landowners assessed to pay for the port facilities would unfairly bear the burden of financing improvements that benefited the public at large. Historians suggest that Mead acted at the request of the railroad corporations, which adamantly opposed public harbor facilities competing with their monopoly control.

In the 1909 legislative session, an attempt to override the 1907 veto of the Metcalf bill fell short. In addition, Cotterill sponsored a new bill that would have created public port commissions with greater authority, but that bill died in committee. Intense lobbying by railroad interests and mill owners defeated both bills, but as it turned out the private owners' success in blocking the fairly limited Metcalf bill ended up clearing the way for the stronger public port legislation that passed in 1911.

The 1911 legislature represented a high water mark for the Progressive movement. It passed constitutional amendments (subsequently approved by voters) that gave citizens the right to directly enact and reject laws by initiative and referendum and to recall elected officials, and it adopted reforms that included the eight-hour workday for women and the nation's first workers' compensation system. By the time that legislature convened in January 1911, there was a broad statewide consensus in favor of public port legislation.

In Favor of Public Docks

In Seattle, railroad obstruction of any public harbor improvements had provoked even the traditionally conservative business establishment and the leading newspapers, the Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times, usually firmly opposed to municipal ownership, to support the concept of a public port. Railroad lawsuits threatened two waterway projects that the Seattle business community and press strongly supported -- development of the lower Duwamish River into a waterway for large ocean-going ships and construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Noting that Los Angeles, Portland, and even local rival Tacoma (which was preparing to open the state's first municipal dock) were increasing their share of trade by establishing public docks with low wharf rates, the Times opined that Seattle should likewise "determine this question of city-owned docks in the affirmative" (Woodward).

Leaders and activists in many other cities felt the same way. Hoquiam businessman Frank H. Lamb (ca. 1875-1951) lobbied in favor of public port legislation, which he saw as the best means to undertake the extensive dredging and development required to make Grays Harbor a diversified port capable of handling international trade. Eastern Washington farmers and their legislative representatives, who had long sought to overcome the railroad monopoly on crop shipments, backed port legislation. So did the increasingly influential longshoremen's locals in Seattle and Tacoma. Farmers and merchants in small towns up and down Puget Sound called for public ports that would allow them to build docks that would bring steamships -- still the primary means of transportation in Western Washington -- to their communities.

Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) reflected the consensus in favor of public port legislation in his message to the legislature at the start of the 1911 session. He said:

"The people of this state are in favor of public docks and wharfs and such harbor improvements as will aid commerce and navigation for the benefit of all. This state, in the past, has not kept pace in these matters ... . San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Vancouver, British Columbia, have already expended very large sums to give their citizens the benefits of public docks and wharfs, and the consequent advantages of better commerce and navigation. ... It is important to the citizens of the state at large that our harbors should be the best and most commodious, in order that the state's shipping and commercial interest may not suffer in comparison with that of her neighbors on the Pacific coast. ... I believe that the legislature should encourage all improvements of harbors and the acquisition of public docks and wharfs" (1911 Senate Journal). 

The legislature did. It passed the Port District Act, which Governor Hay signed into law on March 14, 1911. The Act was drafted by Cotterill, Thomson, and Seattle Corporation Counsel Scott Calhoun, a young lawyer active in the Seattle Commercial Club, one of the civic organizations pushing for a public port in Seattle. Cotterill had lost his seat in the 1910 election, so the bill was introduced by King County Republican Representative Charles H. Ennis.

Port District Act

The Port District Act authorized voters of any county in Washington to create a port district encompassing all or part of the county. A port district would be an independent governmental body run by three commissioners elected directly by voters in the district. Port commissions were given authority to levy taxes and (with voter approval) issue bonds, for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, and operating waterways, docks, wharfs, and other harbor improvements; rail and water transfer and terminal facilities; and ferry systems. (The inclusion of ferry systems reflected frustration around Puget Sound with private ferry operators.)

By providing for independent government agencies (rather than existing city or county governments) to run Washington's new public ports, the Port District Act adopted a fundamental principle of Progressive reformers. Distrusting the graft and corruption of local governments, frequently evidenced in Washington as elsewhere around the country, they called for independent commissions to control public transportation facilities and utilities. Although the general concept of publicly run ports, while rare and radical when the Port District Act was adopted, has since become commonplace around the country, the governance structure established by the Act remains unique today. Most public ports in other states are departments of city or state government with commissioners appointed by the mayor or governor, or are independent port authorities with appointed commissions.

Port proponents wasted little time implementing the Port District Act. Voters in King County created the Port of Seattle, Washington's first public port district, in September 1911. Three months later in December 1911 the Port of Grays Harbor was created in what was then Chehalis County. The Port of Vancouver followed in 1912, the Port of Bremerton in 1913, and the Port of Kennewick in 1915.

Still Controversial

Enactment of the Port District Act and formation of the first port districts did not end the struggle for independent public ports in Washington. Considerable controversy swirled around the new ports, particularly Seattle's. The three original Seattle port commissioners -- retired Army Corps of Engineers General Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), radical labor organizer Robert Bridges (1861-1921), and Fremont banker Charles E. Remsberg -- although very different in background and temperament, were united in their commitment to a publicly owned and operated port. They angered the city's business establishment and newspapers, who had only reluctantly supported the port district concept, by setting low wharf rates to attract trade and building affordable cold storage facilities for local fishermen, in the process undercutting competing private businesses, and by adopting the closed-shop rule demanded by longshore unions.

Public port opponents turned to the Legislature to curtail the commissioners' power. In 1913, they sought a bill that would have expanded the Seattle Port Commission from three to five members, with two elected at large (under the original Act, each commissioner was elected from a separate district within the overall port district). It was hoped that new, at-large members would be less radical and more deferential to private business than were the first three commissioners. However, the commissioners and other public port supporters won a compromise -- the bill that passed allowed local voters to decide whether or not to expand the commission and King County voters strongly rejected expansion.

Following the 1914 election, conservatives dominated the legislature and in the 1915 session they set out to undo as many of the Progressive gains of the past years as they could. The legislature passed bills that undermined citizen initiative, referendum, and recall (by requiring all petitions to be signed in a voter registrar's office), outlawed picketing by labor unions, and restricted the ability of public utilities to compete with private companies.

Public ports were also targeted. A bill that would have taken the power to set wharf and dock rates away from port commissions (giving it to the state Public Service Commission) failed by a single vote after intense lobbying by the Municipal League, the Public Ownership League, and other groups. As in 1913, the Legislature passed a bill to expand the Seattle Port Commission, this time adding the mayor of Seattle and three county officials as members; for good measure the bill precluded the Port of Seattle from issuing any more bonds to fund additional development.

Ultimately Accepted

However, neither the port legislation nor the other rollback measures ever became law. A coalition of labor unions and other progressive groups quickly collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the seven bills, preventing them from taking effect. Voters rejected all seven in 1916.

By then opposition to public ports had largely abated, due in large part to the Port of Seattle's astounding commercial success following the outbreak of World War I. As Atlantic shipping slumped due to the war, Pacific trade rose, especially to Russia (allied with Britain and France against Germany) and Japan (whose developing industry supplied large quantities of goods for the Allied war effort). With its large new piers that could accommodate bigger ships and load them faster than rival ports, the Port of Seattle captured the bulk of new trade with both countries. By 1918, Seattle had climbed to second busiest port in the country, behind only New York. Although it never again achieved as high a national ranking, Seattle's early success validated the public port model and encouraged more cities in Washington to form public ports.

Voters in Tacoma and Everett created ports in 1918, the ports of Kingston and Eglon on the Kitsap Peninsula were established in 1919, and during the 1920s, 21 more public port districts were created in Washington. By then, the concept of public ports was well-established. Over succeeding years the number of port districts in Washington grew to a high of 76 (in 2010 there are 75 port districts). No longer seen as radical or undermining private enterprise, the state's public ports generally work cooperatively with businesses and other government agencies to promote trade, industrial development, and jobs in their regions.


Robert E. Ficken, Washington Territory (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2002), 141-43, 154-56, 170, 206-11; Ficken, Washington State: The Inaugural Decade, 1889-1899 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2007), 97-101; Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 1, Seattle 1900-1920 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991); David J. Olson, "Public Port Accountability," in Urban Ports and Harbor Management ed. by Marc J. Hershman (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1988); Robin Scott Bittner, "The Public Port Institution in the United States: Using Past Experiences to Understand Modern Issues" (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1987); Walt Woodward, "Port of Seattle History -- Draft 1," unpublished manuscript, Port of Seattle files, Seattle, Washington; Padraic Burke, A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1976); Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) website accessed June 15, 2010 (; Senate Journal of the Eleventh Legislature of the State of Washington (Olympia: E. L. Boardman, Public Printer, 1909), 14-19, 676-77, 1073; Senate Journal of the Twelfth Legislature of the State of Washington (Olympia: E. L. Boardman, Public Printer, 1911), 43-44; 1911 Wash. Laws, ch. 92; 1913 Wash. Laws, ch. 62; 1915 Wash. Laws, ch. 46; "History of Referendum Measures through 2009," Washington Secretary of State website accessed October 14, 2010 (; Don Brazier, "History of the Washington Legislature: 1965-1982," Legislature website accessed October 8, 2010 (, 76.

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