Port of Seattle commissioners meet for the first time on September 12, 1911.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/12/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9726
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On September 12, 1911, one week after King County voters created the Port of Seattle and elected them, Seattle's port commissioners hold their first meeting. Retired Army Corps of Engineers General Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917), Populist former state lands commissioner Robert Bridges (1861-1921), and Fremont banker Charles E. Remsberg begin the massive task of planning and developing Seattle's first publicly owned and operated port facilities. These will include Fishermen's Terminal on Salmon Bay, the huge piers that now compose Terminal 91 at Smith Cove, the original Bell Street Pier, and the Port's first docks on the Duwamish Waterway.

Bridges, Chittenden, and Remsberg

Bridges, Chittenden, and Remsberg had all been active in the movement for public port facilities that resulted in formation of the Port of Seattle. That decades-long effort grew out of frustration over the monopoly control that private companies, especially railroads, exercised over crucial harbor facilities in Seattle and around the state.

Robert Bridges was born in Scotland, where he began working in coal mines at the age of 8. He was a coal miner and union organizer in Black Diamond in east King County and then a storekeeper in Seattle. In 1896, when the reform-minded Populist Party briefly took control of the state legislature, governorship, and other state offices, Bridges was the party's candidate for state lands commissioner. In that position, he advocated for public control of tidelands and for development of the East and West waterways at the mouth of the Duwamish River south of downtown Seattle. After his term as lands commissioner Bridges became a farmer in Orillia, near Renton in south King County, continuing to work for development of the waterways as president of the Duwamish Improvement Club.

Hiram Chittenden came to Seattle only five years before his election to the port commission, but gained renown by laying the groundwork for a long-sought dream of local civic leaders -- a ship canal connecting the saltwater harbor of Elliott Bay with Lake Washington east of the city. Chittenden took charge of the Seattle district of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1906, and soon helped resolve a longstanding dispute over where to build the canal, endorsing a northern route through Lake Union, while helping win federal funding for what would become the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Charles Remsberg, an attorney, banker, and real-estate speculator based in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, was a strong supporter of the canal, which would connect Salmon Bay to Lake Union via the Fremont Cut. Although efforts to authorize public port districts failed in 1909, as they had earlier, the 1909 legislature authorized King County voters to establish local improvement districts that could issue bonds and levy taxes to build the Ship Canal and develop the Duwamish waterways. Remsberg and Bridges headed the successful 1910 campaign in favor of a $1.75 million bond issue for the two projects.

When railroads sued to block the local improvement districts that would fund these public improvements, it was the last straw for many business leaders and politicians usually leery of public ownership. The legislature finally passed the Port District Act, which authorized local voters to create port districts to develop and operate waterways, wharves, and other harbor improvements; rail and water terminals; and ferry systems. Public-port supporters quickly collected signatures needed to place creation of the Port of Seattle on the September 5 ballot. Recognizing that a public port would be of little use if railroads and private dock owners dominated its commission, they also screened potential candidates for the three commissioner positions, endorsing three: Chittenden, Bridges, and Remsberg. On September 5, the proposition to create the Port of Seattle passed easily, Chittenden more than doubled his opponent's votes, and Bridges and Remsberg won by lesser but still substantial margins.

First Meetings

The new commissioners quickly got down to business. They held their first meeting just a week later, on September 12, 1911, in an office in the Central Building in downtown Seattle (810 Third Avenue) borrowed from the Municipal Plans Commission. They chose Chittenden as Port Commission chairman and Bridges as secretary. The Port District Act required that a "comprehensive scheme of harbor improvement" be prepared and approved by voters (Rising Tides ..., 27), who also had to approve bond measures to fund the work. With the next election set for March 1912, the commissioners had to work rapidly. They met several times a week to begin with, and then at least weekly.

The commissioners, who were working without pay (only years later would the Port District Act be amended to provide compensation for commissioners), hired C. C. Closson as the Port's first paid employee, assistant secretary, at $150 a month. The selection of a chief engineer triggered some dissension. Chittenden and Remsberg favored City Engineer Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949), who built the city's first water and power systems and reshaped Seattle through massive regrading projects, winning acclaim but also detractors, among them The Seattle Times. Bridges preferred George F. Cotterill (1865-1958), Thomson's one-time assistant and, as a state legislator, a drafter and sponsor of the Port District Act, who was available at an annual salary of $5,000 rather than the $7,500 budgeted for Thomson.

Despite Bridges's financial concerns and editorial objections from the Times, Thomson got the job, while Cotterill entered and won the race for mayor of Seattle. With Thomson's assistance, the commissioners prepared the comprehensive plan required by the act. It included a large deep-sea terminal at Smith Cove; another large pier and slip on the East Waterway; a small public wharf, and warehouse on the central waterfront at the foot of Bell Street; general moorage on Salmon Bay (which would soon become Fishermen's Terminal); and new ferry service on Lake Washington.

Competing Views of the Port's Role

Even as the commissioners developed their plans, much of the downtown establishment promoted a very different view of the Port's role. Railroads and private dock owners saw public docks as unwanted competition, while the city's leading newspapers and other downtown businesses, which had supported a public port only to overcome the railroad monopoly, did not want a public body actually operating commercial harbor facilities. In January 1912, this opposition crystallized around a newly announced plan by a group of private investors to build a "Bush Terminal on Harbor Island" (Rising Tides ..., 28). Many civic leaders called for the Port, rather than building its own facilities, to aid the Pacific Terminal Company in replicating New York City's Bush Terminal, the nation's largest and most modern, on the recently created Harbor Island at the mouth of the Duwamish.

In their view, the role of a public port was to use its authority to acquire lands and issue bonds to fund development of projects but then turn the management over to private enterprise. The press and downtown businesses argued that a massive "Bush Terminal" would prepare Seattle for the trade anticipated from the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Unsaid but also important to many was that if the Port confined itself to Harbor Island, it would not own and operate other docks in competition with private enterprise.

All three commissioners considered the plan flawed. Not only did it place the risk on the Port while giving the profit to private investors, but it was also unnecessarily large, enough to accommodate not just all Seattle's existing trade but all of that from the entire Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, given the groundswell of support for the Harbor Island plan, Chittenden and Remsberg reluctantly agreed to add $5 million for Harbor Island to the $3 million in bonds the commission was proposing for its plans. But Chittenden wrote the proposition so that the money would go to the Pacific Terminal Company only if it posted a performance bond to guarantee its obligations. Bridges adamantly opposed the Harbor Island plan, leading to calls for his resignation.

On March 5, 1912, King County voters approved all eight harbor measures on the ballot. The Port's comprehensive plan won overwhelmingly, as did its bond issues for work at Smith Cove, the East Waterway, Salmon Bay, and the central waterfront, and creation of a Lake Washington ferry. The Harbor Island bonds passed by narrower margins. Debate over the Harbor Island proposal continued long after the vote, but the company never managed to raise the required $310,000 in performance bonds, and in April 1913 the commissioners terminated the contract. That June voters agreed to the Port's request to cancel the Harbor Island bonds and substitute a $3 million bond for East Waterway work instead.

First Facilities

As the Harbor Island controversy played out, the Port proceeded with its own projects. The commission began proceedings to acquire land at Smith Cove, where the Port would build the largest pier on the West Coast, for loading coal, lumber, and other bulk shipments. The Port awarded its first construction contracts in November 1912 for work at Salmon Bay and the East Waterway. On Salmon Bay, the commissioners planned a home for the large Puget Sound fishing fleet, then scattered in anchorages around Puget Sound. Construction began there in 1913, and Fishermen's Terminal, which opened in 1914, has been home to the North Pacific fishing fleet ever since.

The Bell Street Pier was built in the summer of 1913, and the first floor of the two-story wharf building was fully operational early in 1914. The second floor of the Bell Street wharf building and a separate large warehouse and cold-storage building, which also housed the Port offices and featured a rooftop park, were completed in 1915.

By late 1913, the first wharves and warehouses on the East Waterway pier were in business, and the Port had built the wooden steamer Leschi for the Lake Washington ferry route. The Leschi was the first automobile ferry built in Western Washington and the Port's ferry service was the first public, tax-supported water transportation in the Puget Sound region. (Although the Port pioneered public ferry service, it soon transferred its ferries to King County.) In December 1913, following discussions with farmers from Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon, the commissioners began construction of a 500,000-bushel grain elevator on the East Waterway at Hanford Street to capture much of the grain trade that previously followed the Columbia River to Portland.

Radical Growth

Despite this progress, the Port Commission faced withering criticism from the press and many business owners, angered by what they considered the commissioners' radical policies. Under Chittenden and Bridges the Port set wharf rates to promote trade, not to make a profit, angering private dock owners who saw the Port undercutting their rates. The Port built public cold-storage facilities for fruit, produce, and fish that aided farmers and fishermen unable to afford rates charged by private facilities. Led by Bridges, the former union organizer, the commission also adopted the closed-shop rule sought by longshore unions -- all workers at Port facilities would be union members, and private employers who used Port facilities had to comply.

In response, the press and business establishment pushed multiple efforts to restrict the commissioners' power and the Port's activities. However, voters rejected the proposals and the Port's commercial success soon largely ended the attacks. Pacific trade boomed as World War I curtailed Atlantic shipping, and the facilities and policies the commissioners had put in place allowed Seattle to capture the lion's share of that new trade. The Port's large docks on the East Waterway and Smith Cove could accommodate bigger ships and load them faster than rival ports. The Smith Cove dock utilized a large track-mounted gantry crane that could do the work of 15 men and six horses, slashing loading time and cost so dramatically that shippers diverted bulk exports from ports up and down the coast to Seattle. The commission's policy of cutting shipping rates also contributed to the Port's new dominance. By mid-1915, Washington surpassed all of California in foreign trade. In 1918, Seattle set a tonnage record that it did not surpass until 1965 and was the second-busiest port in the country, after New York.

When the war ended, so did the Port's era of radical policies and equally radical growth. Chittenden had resigned in 1915, some months after Bridges supplanted him as president, and Remsberg lost his bid for reelection in 1918. Finding himself frequently outvoted by his new colleagues, Bridges stepped down in 1919. Subsequent commissioners were much more aligned with the conservative establishment than the original three had been, and the newspapers and business interests that had vehemently opposed early Port projects soon generally supported the commission and its initiatives. Under new leadership the Port abandoned, at least for a time, some policies Bridges, Chittenden, and Remsberg had pursued. The Port raised rates to match private dock owners, leased its terminals to be run by private companies, and temporarily abandoned the closed-shop rule.

However, the plans and improvements that the first commissioners successfully implemented remained central to the Port of Seattle as it grew in the century following their departure. In that time the Port developed many more facilities, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the region's largest airport, and a leading container port encompassing not just the East and West waterways but also Harbor Island. It redeveloped and expanded Fishermen's Terminal, the huge piers at Smith Cove, and the Bell Street Pier, which in the twenty-first century remain the integral components of Seattle's waterfront envisioned at the first commissioners' meetings.


Walt Woodward, "Port of Seattle History -- Draft 1," unpublished manuscript, Port of Seattle files, Seattle, Washington; 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); Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); "Big Steamship Men Talking of $1,000,000 Dock," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 13, 1911, p. 8; "Commission Makes Ready for Business," The Seattle Times, September 18, 1911, p. 4; Port of Seattle website accessed February 10, 2020 (www.portseattle.org); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Port of Seattle -- Thumbnail History" (by Kit Oldham) and "Chittenden, Hiram Martin (1858-1917)" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 12, 2020).
Note: This entry replaces a previous entry on the same topic.


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