First modern container ship to sail from Puget Sound departs the Port of Seattle for Hawaii on January 24, 1964.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 9/04/2014
  • Essay 10923

On January 24, 1964, Matson Navigation Company's Hawaiian Builder, the first modern container ship out of Puget Sound, sets sail from the Port of Seattle's Pier 46 bound for Honolulu, Hawaii. The sailing marks the start of a rebirth of cargo shipping out of Seattle, with massive investments in new terminal facilities, ships, containers, and other infrastructure through the 1960s. Pier 46, from which the Hawaiian Builder departs, has been retrofitted by the Port of Seattle with 50-ton gantry cranes to handle container ships operated by Matson Navigation and and by Alaska Steamship Company. The retrofit also includes a new freight shed because these first modern container ships also still carry some conventional cargo that needs to be protected from the elements. The Port of Seattle will later develop piers 42 to 46 into Terminal 46, a much larger container terminal that by 2014 will be home to Hanjin Shipping, China Ocean Shipping Company, Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Yang Ming Line, and Mediterranean Shipping Company.

Early Containers 

Although the Matson Navigation Company and Alaska Steamship Company container ships based at Pier 46 were heralded in the press as the first container ships out of Seattle, some containerized cargo had been moving through the port for more than a decade by 1964. As early as 1949, shippers began to load vans -- metal boxes of varying lengths -- with cargo that had previously been handled on the docks in individual units. The vans were delivered to the docks and loaded onto barges for shipment to Alaska.

Over the course of the 1950s, several companies used various configurations of stand-alone vans or vans attached to trailer chassis, barges, and steamships to move cargo to Alaska. Alaska Freight Lines introduced vans to the Alaska trade in 1949, using barges in what was later termed an "amphibious operation" ("Truck Line ..."). In 1952, another company, Ocean Tow, Inc., introduced two ships, the Alaska Cedar and the Alaska Spruce, into service to carry vans that could be loaded onto trucks or train cars in Alaska. In 1953 Alaska Freight Lines partnered with Ocean Van Lines to carry vans still mounted on trailer chassis to Valdez, Alaska. Then Alaska Steamship Company partnered with Alaska Railroad and Garrison Fast Freight to carry vans aboard the Chena to Seward beginning in 1955.

These van operations marked a change from the past, when cargo was handled by longshoremen with tools such as grapple hooks and hand trucks. Instead of individual pieces of "breakbulk" cargo -- bales, boxes, burlap sacks, or barrels -- being carried or rolled aboard a ship from the dock, cargo could be loaded at its point of origin into a van and lifted from truck or train to ship far more quickly and easily. The containers also protected the cargo from the elements and from theft.

Containers offered some specific advantages for the Alaska trade. In 1964 David E. "Ned" Skinner (1920-1988) of Alaska Steamship Company told the Port of Seattle Reporter that shifting to containers resolved a number of problems the company faced in Alaska, including a shortage of longshore workers, limited port facilities, and severe weather. Also, any increase in efficiency improved the profit margins in a trade that ranged from 650 miles (Seattle to Ketchikan) to 2,500 miles (Seattle to Kotzebue) and could include stops at any of 60 ports along the coastline.

Preparing the Way 

Though the van service marked a shift in shipping practices, its impact remained limited in the 1950s. The vans were handled at existing piers, using existing equipment or cranes mounted on the vessels. Before containerized cargo could be adopted on a larger scale, several issues needed to be resolved. Containers did not need to be warehoused in freight sheds to protect them from the weather, but they did require a significant amount of onshore storage space from the time they arrived at the pier until they could be loaded onto trains or trucks for further transport. Shippers needed port facilities offering cranes that could load and unload the containers, electrical infrastructure for plugging in temperature-controlled containers, and facilities for customs and business operations. In addition, they needed an agreement with the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), the powerful dockworkers' union, to delineate how the new technology would be introduced. 

In the late 1950s, the ILWU negotiated a Mechanization and Modernization Agreement with shipping companies that was signed in 1960. It included a guarantee that all A-list longshoremen (those with priority for hiring) would keep their jobs, an annual $5 million payment by shipping companies into a fund for five and one-half years to be distributed by the union, and retirement pay for older workers. The longshore workers agreed to adapt the number of workers and their work methods to new technologies as they were adopted.  

In 1962, the Port of Seattle announced a $30 million terminal-building program that would convert a number of piers along the Duwamish Waterway into container terminals. The new terminals differed from the existing piers in the amount of open area needed -- acres -- to store containers, and in having smaller office buildings for dock personnel and customs agents instead of freight sheds, electrical connections for temperature-controlled containers, large cranes, and aprons where ships could berth alongside the facilities. The Port of Seattle was ahead of many West Coast ports in its investment in container facilities. Moving forward before having tenants and financing the improvements itself, the Port ensured that when container-shipping companies considered their West Coast options, Seattle would be ready.

Container Pioneers 

The first companies to move to Port of Seattle container facilities, Matson Navigation Company and Alaska Steamship Company, had already introduced container shipping on other routes. Matson operated containers ships between Oakland and Hawaii and wanted to include Seattle in a triangular trade route. Alaska Steamship used containers on its Alaska freight service. Both companies moved to the newly redeveloped Pier 46 in 1964. The Port had demolished the old piers 44 and 46, built a bulkhead and filled the area behind it, added pavement on top of the fill, and built a new freight shed. The freight shed was still needed because container ships then in use also continued to carry some breakbulk cargo that needed protection from the elements while stored on a pier. The Port moved one gantry crane weighing 260 tons from Pier 28 by winching it aboard a barge and floating it across the bay. When the tide rose and the barge deck floated up even with the terminal surface, the crane was winched into place. An additional, new 50-ton-capacity crane was installed soon after. The new pier facility had room (about 19 acres) for stacking containers adjacent to the pier and space for trucks to load and unload. 

On January 24, 1964, Matson's Hawaiian Builder sailed from Pier 46, the first container ship to leave the pier. Matson also put its Hawaiian Merchant, Hawaiian Packer, Hawaiian Rancher, Hawaiian Refiner, and Hawaiian Citizen on the Seattle-Honolulu route. The Hawaiian Citizen was the only all-container ship; the rest carried some conventional breakbulk cargo in addition to the containers on their decks. Matson's container operations outgrew Pier 46 within just a few years and the company moved to the Port of Seattle's newly developed Terminal 18 on the East Waterway in 1970, which it shared with a consortium of Japanese shipping lines. 

Just two months after Matson's first container ship departed, Alaska Steamship Company's Tonsina set sail from Pier 46 in March 1964. The Tonsina was the first Alaska Steamship vessel converted for container shipping. All of its masts and on-deck cargo-handling gear were removed and replaced with a metal framework of cells to hold containers, stacked three high, in place. The Nadina was similarly converted a short time later.  Though Alaska Steamship made the conversion to containerization, it was not able to compete with another container shipper, Sea-Land Service, which entered the Seattle-Alaska trade in 1964 by buying Alaska Freight Lines, and Alaska Steamship went out of business in 1971. This was not uncommon in the shift to container shipping around the world. The large capital investments required for the conversion made companies more vulnerable to changing market conditions. 

Sea-Land, one of the pioneers of container shipping, established its West Coast headquarters in 1964 at another of the new container facilities developed by the Port of Seattle, Terminal 5 on the West Waterway. The Port's investment in container facilities was already paying off and would continue to do so into the next century as use of container ships in domestic and international trade grew.  

Changes on the Waterfront 

The transition to container shipping led to significant changes in the Port's facilities and how the city interacted with its waterfront. All cargo handling moved away from the central waterfront, and large swaths of shoreline on southern Elliott Bay were transformed into enormous container-storage yards. Along E Marginal Way S and South Alaskan Way, where the 10 finger piers and a large fuel depot jutting into the bay in 1951 were ultimately replaced by two massive container terminals, 30 and 46, and two smaller piers, 28 and 34.  

Along with the changes to the harbor's infrastructure, the culture of the waterfront changed. The time it took to unload and load a ship dropped from days to hours and far fewer sailors frequented Pioneer Square and waterfront businesses while their ships were in port. Much of the process of loading and unloading ships was mechanized. Many of the businesses supporting the shipping industry shifted to the south, away from the central business district. Maritime industries on the central waterfront were replaced by retail businesses and tourism. Seattle is remained a port city, but that meant something very different in the second decade of the twenty-first century than it did before containerization.

Sources: Boyd Burchard, "Odom Sees 'Bigger, Better' Alaska," The Seattle Times, January 10, 1965, p. 35; "Matson Ship Carries New Containers," Ibid., December 26, 1963, p. 25; "New Service Opened to Alaska," Ibid., April 14, 1955, p. 14; "Truck Line 'Goes to Sea' on Alaska Run," Ibid., November 15, 1953, special section, part B, p. 7; "Barge Moves 6 Ocean Vans to Alaska," Ibid., March 27, 1953, p. 22; Jay Wells, "Alaska Freight Lines Takes Over Ocean Van," Ibid., March 12, 1953, p. 32; Wells, "Alaska Vessel Carries Own Loading Crane," Ibid., February 17, 1952, p. 41; Brian J. Cudahy, Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006); Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); 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); Paul Chilcote, "A Decade of Growth: A Review of the 1960's Port of Seattle," Port of Seattle Reporter, January 1971, pp. 15-18; "Another Big Step Forward for Alaska Steam," Ibid., April 1, 1964, pp. 1-4; "Matson Begins Van Service to Hawaii," Ibid., February 1, 1964, p. 4; "Memorandum of Agreement on Mechanization and Modernization, October 18, 1960," International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19 website accessed August 26, 2014 (; Seattle: Container Gateway Port of the North Pacific Range (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1967); "Seattle Harbor, Washington East Waterway Condition January 1951," Item No. 923, Map Index, Seattle Municipal Archives website, accessed August 30, 2014 (

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