Container Shipping in Seattle: Origins and Early Years

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 11/05/2014
  • Essay 10924

From canoes to container ships, a variety of vessels have carried people and goods between Elliott Bay and the wider world for thousands of years. The introduction of new technologies, such as canoes, sailing ships, steam engines, and shipping containers, has influenced how people have worked on the waterfront, how the landscape has been reshaped, and what goods would be carried. Container shipping, one of the more recent of these technological innovations, was introduced in the 1950s, with the first modern container ships coming to Seattle in the mid-1960s. By the 1970s containerization, because it demanded acres of space for container storage, required far fewer longshore workers, and greatly reduced the time ships spent in the harbor, had led to drastic changes in pier operations and longshore working conditions and in how the city interacted with its waterfront. 

Longshoremen on the Central Waterfront 

Seattle's waterfront in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries teemed with piers, ships small and large, and businesses of all kinds catering to the needs of the vessels, their crews, and the longshoremen who loaded and unloaded them. On the central waterfront nine sets of railroad tracks on Railroad Avenue (where Alaskan Way is today) carried trains up and down the waterfront as they moved cargo destined for markets in the Midwest, the East Coast, Alaska, California, and foreign ports.  

Harbor activity declined during the Depression and then during World War II much of the waterfront was taken over by the United States military as it mobilized a fleet to carry troops and materiel to outposts in Alaska and the Pacific. The military moved much of the massive volume of cargo in boxes, barrels, and bags, their weight and size limited by how much could be handled by longshoremen with hand trucks and grapple hooks. While the longshoremen's abilities were prodigious -- they were expected to handle loads of up to 200 pounds at a time -- such breakbulk cargo (in contrast to bulk cargo like grain) was time-consuming and inefficient to handle. It was also highly vulnerable to damage and theft, resulting in high insurance costs and economic losses. 

Often-violent labor disputes in the early decades of the twentieth century hinged on the high risk for injury to laborers and shippers' desire to reduce inefficiencies in order to boost their bottom lines. The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) regularly pushed for limits to mechanization because the larger loads that new equipment could move still had to be wrangled into place in the hold by the longshoremen. Shippers also regularly demanded longer hours, smaller gangs assigned to ship hatches, and more rapid work paces, known as speed-ups. 

Post-war Stagnation 

When World War II ended in 1945, people expected that non-military shipping operations would return to the central waterfront and Seattle's maritime commerce would rebound to pre-Depression levels. Cargo handling had changed, however, in ways that reduced the usefulness of Seattle's port. Railroads carried more of the coastwise traffic along the West Coast that had previously moved by ship. Likewise, as roads improved and the number of trucks increased, more cargo traveled regionally by truck. E. B. Fussell, writing in The Seattle Times, lamented the decline in vessels in the coastwise trade from 30 to seven between 1939 and 1948. The number of vessels moving between the East and West coasts through the Panama Canal fell by nearly two-thirds. The primary shipping markets that remained robust were those that could not be served by road -- Alaska and Hawaii. Seattle's dominance of the Alaska trade held steady, but it had little competitive edge over California ports in the Hawaii trade.  

Seattle had long relied on its location on a "great-circle" route to Asia to maintain its competiveness with larger West Coast ports. A great-circle route is one that takes advantage of the smaller arc of the earth near the northern and southern poles to shorten transportation routes. For example, to travel between San Francisco Bay and Tokyo, a ship would have to traverse a portion of the Earth with a greater arc, and therefore a longer distance, than a ship traveling from Seattle, which could follow a northern arc over a shorter distance. For a round-trip voyage, this meant a savings of about two days of sailing time.  

On its 1949 annual report cover the Port of Seattle advertised the many ways its great-circle location could be used to shippers' advantage. The cover image is a map looking down on the northern hemisphere with the North Pole at its center, which shows shipping and airline routes to Europe, North Africa, and Asia from the Port of Seattle, along with a single overland route, to Chicago. 

Despite this geographic advantage, during the 1950s the Port of Seattle stagnated. Long-standing pre-war business arrangements, such as ones that funneled bales of Japanese silks through Seattle to trains that carried them to factories in the Midwest and East, had been disrupted by World War II and did not return after the war. Shipping on the West Coast gravitated to cities in California with much larger metropolitan areas. The Seattle metropolitan area was the population center of Washington, with more than 1.1 million people, but the next closest cities were Spokane, in Eastern Washington, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1,500 miles away. The Los Angeles metropolitan area alone had a population of 4.8 million, and it made more sense to ship to and from places with a substantial population and industrial base. 

Vans to Alaska 

Most port activity in Seattle in the 1950s centered on the Alaska trade. In 1949, the Alaska route became the first out of Seattle to see the modernization of cargo practices that would soon sweep through global shipping. Alaska Freight Lines, which was carrying military cargo to installations in Alaska, instituted van service using barges towed by tugboats. The vans were metal boxes mounted on trailers that could be uncoupled from trucks at the Seattle docks, loaded onto a barge and shipped to Alaska, and then unloaded and recoupled to trucks at Seward or Valdez. The service was a success, largely because it was more efficient and quicker than traditional breakbulk cargo handling.  

In 1952, Ocean Tow began service on steamships -- former LST ships used in World War II to carry tanks, then converted for cargo service -- carrying Ocean Van Lines' vans without trailers in their holds to Alaska. At Alaska ports, the vans were unloaded onto trucks or onto Alaska Railroad flatcars and carried to other parts of the state. The Seattle Times ran a photo of Ocean Tow's Alaska Cedar in port being loaded with a novel system -- a whirly crane mounted onboard the ship that crews could move along rails on the deck to load and unload the hold. The Alaska Cedar and its cohort Alaska Spruce operated twice-weekly service to Alaska. The service only lasted until 1953, however, and then Alaska Freight Lines leased the Ocean Van Lines vans and put them on its barges.  

Another shipper, Alaska Steamship Company, inaugurated van service in 1955. The steamship Chena carried vans on trailers to Seward. Alaska Steamship operated cooperatively with Alaska Railroad and Garrison Fast Freight, a trucking company -- it provided the ships, Garrison Fast Freight carried the cargo to Seattle in its trailers, and Alaska Railroad carried the trailers once they arrived in Alaska.  

The van service pushed some conventional cargo ships out of the market. In 1954 Alaska Steamship sold the Victoria, which had been in its Alaska service since 1904, because it’s the ship's hatches were too small to accommodate the vans and it could not compete with the van service's efficiency. 

Start of Containerization 

While van service was getting established in the Northwest, a variation of the same concept was developing separately on the East Coast. In 1956, Malcolm McLean (1914-2001) launched a containerized cargo line -- Pan-Atlantic Service. Its ships carried metal boxes designed by Spokane's Brown Trailer Company, which were detached from their trailer chassis and stacked aboard Pan-Atlantic's ships. At their destination they were loaded onto new trailer chassis and hauled away by trucks. 

Back on the West Coast, Port of Seattle officials, after accomplishing very little during the 1950s, made a bold decision to develop container-handling facilities before any shipping companies had announced their intention to locate container-ship operations on Elliott Bay. In 1962, the Port unveiled a $30 million terminal-building plan. The plan involved installing specialized cranes that could reach out over ships to load and unload containers, clearing acres of land for container storage, installing electrical lines and outlets for powering refrigerated containers, and building facilities for customs agents, shipping company personnel, and longshore workers. 

Unions and the Box 

While the Port did not have customers lined up for the container terminals it planned to build, the issue of how labor unions would work with shipping companies to introduce and adapt to the new, rapidly evolving container-ship technology was resolved by 1960. As Marc Levinson recounts in The Box, a study of the rise of container shipping, that year Pacific Coast longshoremen assessed the situation and decided, with some dissent and largely due to the leadership of Harry Bridges (1901-1990), head of the ILWU, to accept a Mechanization and Modernization Agreement negotiated with shipping companies.  

This was in sharp contrast to the protracted battle over adopting containerization on the East and Gulf coasts under the less-effective leadership of the International Longshoremen's Association's Teddy Gleason (1900-1992). According to Levinson, "Both leaders understood from the outset that automation could put tens of thousands of jobs at risk and transform shoreside labor -- their members' labor -- into almost an incidental expense. They ended up finding different ways to win extraordinary benefits for their members -- in return for allowing the containers to reshape the long-established pattern of life on and around the docks" (The Box, 101). On the West Coast, the agreement included a guarantee that all A-list men (those with priority for hiring) would keep their jobs, an annual $5 million payment for five and one-half years by shipping companies into a fund to be distributed by the union, and retirement pay for older workers. The union agreed to adapt the number of workers and their work methods to new technologies as they were adopted.  

Some members of the union opposed the plan. Working-condition gains had been hard-won and some felt that the longshore workers owed it to their predecessors who had won the concessions from the shippers not to give in to the shippers' demands. Levinson quotes Eric Hoffer, a San Francisco longshoreman who said, "This generation has no right to give away, or sell for money, conditions that were handed on to us by a previous generation" (The Box, 115).

Building Seattle Container Terminals 

Pier 46, on the waterfront south of downtown, saw the first major improvements to Port of Seattle facilities for container shipping. Work started in 1961 and as it neared completion, in late 1963, Alaska Steamship Company, which was already operating van service to Alaska, and Matson Navigation Company, which was operating container ships to Hawaii out of San Francisco Bay, agreed to use the new pier jointly, sharing the cranes and onshore facilities. The Port demolished existing piers 44 and 46, built a bulkhead and filled the area behind it, and built a new freight shed. The Port moved a gantry crane weighing 260 tons from Pier 28 by winching it aboard a barge and floating it across the bay; a new 50-ton-capacity crane was also installed. The new pier facility had room for stacking containers adjacent to the pier and space for trucks to load and unload. 

A second container terminal opened in the spring of 1964. Sea-Land Service, the second of Malcolm McLean's container-ship lines, bought Alaska Freight Lines and began service to Alaska, California, Puerto Rico, and the East Coast out of Seattle. Sea-Land leased Terminal 5, located in West Seattle on the Duwamish West Waterway. The terminal had the first specialized container cranes with arms that extended offshore over ships and inland to trucks, trailers, or other land-based container-moving equipment. It offered 25 acres of container storage. 

Sea-Land made Seattle the headquarters of its West Coast operations. With its decision to invest in container terminals before container shipping was established on the Pacific, the Port of Seattle gave the city a tremendous advantage over ports like Portland that did not make that investment. Marc Levinson compares Seattle to several other cities around the world that grew from being secondary ports at best to surpassing more-established ports that did not or could not accommodate container shipping. Some major ports, including Manhattan, San Francisco, and London, did not have sufficient open space to develop container yards or enough shoreline space for the large container ships to berth, so cargo operations moved to nearby ports in New Jersey, Oakland, and Felixstowe, England, respectively, that had the room to develop container terminals. 

Moving South 

In Seattle, the city's central waterfront declined significantly with the growth of container shipping. The narrow space between the shoreline and the bluff that lined much of the waterfront adjacent to downtown left little room to store containers. The existing finger piers that jutted out into the bay could not be extended in length very easily because the seafloor drops off quickly, making it difficult to drive pilings tall enough to reach above the level of high tide. By developing property on the southern part of Elliott Bay, the Port of Seattle discouraged shipping companies from looking elsewhere on Puget Sound for container-terminal sites. 

The Port began developing a third container facility, Terminal 18, on a former industrial site at the northeast tip of Harbor Island in 1967. When completed in 1970, it was the largest container-shipping complex up to that point, with 45 acres of container yards, two cranes, two berths, lighting, and power hookups for temperature-controlled containers. The Port touted its ability to provide phone service aboard docked ships -- "Rapid communications are important as container ships are online in port a matter of hours, rather than days" ("Seattle: Container Gateway Port of the North Pacific Range," 3).  

Terminal 18 was built for the trans-Pacific trade including Matson's Hawaiian service, which had outgrown Pier 46. That pier's other tenant, Alaska Steamship Company, like many shipping companies in the 1960s and 1970s, did not survive the combination of increased competition and high capital requirements that characterized the shift to container shipping around the world, and it went out of business in 1971. 

Rebuilding Ties with Japan 

The trans-Pacific trade included the Philippines, China, India, and other Pacific Rim countries, but at the time Japan outpaced all the rest in trade volume. Seattle had a long history of trade with Japan, and not long after World War II ended Port officials began to rebuild ties broken by the war. In 1951, the Port partnered with the State of Washington and the City of Seattle to hold a trade conference at the University of Washington's Hec Edmundson Pavilion to "assure the people of Japan of the good will of this community to them, and the desire of this state and region to renew cordial relations of trade and friendship after an unfortunate interlude of war and misunderstanding" ("Of World Significance"). In 1957, Seattle joined with Kobe, Japan, in a sister-city relationship, adding a sister-port relationship in 1967.  

The Port of Seattle sought out Japanese shipping companies that could use Terminal 18 as they developed their container-shipping business. In 1970, as the terminal neared completion, six Japanese firms formed a consortium to share the terminal. The companies -- Japan Line, K Line, NYK Line, Mitsui-OSK, Yamashita-Shinnihon, and Showa Line -- had embraced container ships to get their country's growing manufacturing exports to North America efficiently. 

Vietnam: "Containerization's Coming of Age" 

Sea-Land used its Terminal 5 for the Alaskan trade and as part of a triangular trade route between the U.S. West Coast, Vietnam, and Japan. Marc Levinson describes the introduction, by Malcolm McLean and Sea-Land Service, of container shipping to the supply chain for U.S. troops during the Vietnam War as "containerization's coming of age" (The Box, 171). Container service for the U.S. military both revolutionized how supplies were transported to the war zone in southeast Asia and enabled development of the commercial trans-Pacific container trade by, in effect, subsidizing it. Sea-Land ships carried supplies in containers from Oakland and Seattle to Vietnam, then traveled north to Japan and picked up containers of manufactured goods ready for the American market. In this way, the ships spent little time empty, thereby increasing Sea-Land's profit, and stimulated the development of the Japanese export trade. 

In the 1970s, Seattle offered several advantages that helped consolidate its role as a container port: it had large-enough container terminals to allow for economies of scale; it was closer to Japan than any other major American port: it offered the shortest rail connection to the Midwest: an interstate freeway connected Seattle easily to Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia; and the Port had adopted computer systems to track cargo and increase efficiency. Additionally, the Port advertised Seattle's large force of well-trained longshore workers.

The Port of Seattle credited containerization with helping diversify and strengthen Seattle's economy. In a promotional piece, the Port asserted that during the economic downturn of the 1970s, when large industries like Boeing were hit hard, port activity continued to grow and develop, buffering the recession's effect on the local economy. In particular, the Port noted that while some public investments had a one-time impact, port investments led to the "long-term motivation of private enterprise" (Chilcote, 15). 

Container Shipping Remakes the Waterfront 

Beyond the economic impacts of container shipping, it radically changed the character of Seattle's waterfront. Development of the container-terminal facilities in the southern end of Elliott Bay accelerated the move of shipping operations away from the central waterfront's finger piers to larger berthing and freight-handling spaces south of Washington Street, as well as at Smith Cove north of downtown. Drastically reduced turnaround time -- it took days to unload and load a ship full of breakbulk cargo, but only hours to do the same for a container ship -- meant that ships' crews rarely had extended shore leave. The bars, restaurants, hotels, and other enterprises catering to them saw a tremendous decline in business. The fishing industry persisted, as did some other small maritime businesses, but the central waterfront and Pioneer Square saw their role in the city's economy decline. By the 1970s efforts to preserve those areas' historic architecture were underway, but new tenants, such as art galleries and retail shops, filled the storefronts. 

In the second decade of the twentieth century, an overwhelming proportion of total cargo moved through the Port of Seattle in containers. In 1969, more than 18 million tons of breakbulk cargo passed over Seattle docks, and just 760,000 tons of container cargo. In 2013, the Port tallied nearly 14 million metric tons of containerized cargo and only 64,000 metric tons of breakbulk cargo. By then Terminal 5 had expanded to encompass 172 acres and three berths. In 2014 it was being retrofitted with new equipment, berth deepening, and other infrastructure improvements. Terminal 18, grown to 196 acres and four berths, was shared by 17 shipping companies. Several of the tenants dated to the terminal's opening in 1970, including NYK Line and Matson. Terminal 30, on the Duwamish East Waterway began operation in 1988 and in 2014 was home to China Shipping, Pacific International Lines, and United Arab Shipping Company. Terminal 46 had grown to 82 acres (piers 42, 43, 45, and 47 were razed and the terminal expanded) and was used by Hanjin Shipping, China Ocean Shipping Company, Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Yang Ming Line, and Mediterranean Shipping Company. 

Cargo handling remained a vital contributor to Seattle's economy, but shipping's role in Seattleites' daily lives had changed dramatically. When hundreds of longshoremen worked the docks and people were more likely to come to Seattle by boat than by car, they had far more direct knowledge of what was happening on the docks. In the daily newspaper, lists of ship arrivals and departures filled columns. W. J. Granberg wrote in the early 1950s, "Seattle is a two-fisted city with a belaying pin in each hand, a cargo hook on its hip, and a deep-sea chantey on its lips as it gazes westward toward the Pacific Ocean over a harbor where ships nudge the streets with their bows, and the citizens on the seven hills smile in their sleep as a hushed cacophony of fog horns tells them all is well along the waterfront" (Granberg, 3). Six decades later, container cranes are a well-recognized landscape feature and the container ships loom large along the piers, but many Seattleites would be hard pressed to identify what they are carrying, where they are coming from or going to, and when they are going to sail. They can hardly hear the fog horns over the cacophony of city life.


Boyd Burchard, "Odom Sees 'Bigger, Better' Alaska," The Seattle Times, January 10, 1965, p. 35; E. B. Fussell, "Rate Differential on Coastwise Rail, Water Freight Hurts Ships," Ibid., May 5, 1948, p. 17; Theresa Morrow, "Terminal 30 Begins Operations with Arrival of Mitsui Line Ship," Ibid., July 28, 1988, p. D-1; Jay Wells, "Alaska Freight Lines Takes Over Ocean Van," Ibid., March 12, 1953, p. 32; Jay Wells, "Steamship Victoria Sold by Alaska Line," Ibid., March 5, 1954, p. 28; "Alaska Vessel Carries Own Loading Crane," Ibid., February 17, 1952, p. 41; "Barge Moves 6 Ocean Vans to Alaska," Ibid., March 27, 1953, p. 22; "New Service Opened to Alaska," Ibid., April 14, 1955, p. 14; "Of World Significance; Home Interest, Too," Ibid., June 15, 1951, p. 6; "Truck Line 'Goes to Sea' on Alaska Run," Ibid., November 15, 1953, special section, part B, p. 7; Paul Chilcote, "A Decade of Growth: A Review of the 1960's Port of Seattle," Port of Seattle Reporter, January 1971, pp. 15-18; Brian J. Cudahy, Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006); W. J. Granberg, "The Two-Fisted Port on Puget Sound," in Port of Seattle (Seattle: The Port of Seattle, 1951); 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); "Another Big Step Forward for Alaska Steam," Port of Seattle Reporter, 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 (; Port of Seattle (Seattle: Seattle Port Commission, 1950); Seattle: Container Gateway Port of the North Pacific Range (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1967); Seattle: Container Gateway Port for Japan and the Far East (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1966); Seattle Maritime Commerce and Its Impact on the Economy of King County (Seattle: Port of Seattle Commission, 1971); Seattle: Transpacific Container Gateway of the Northwest (Seattle: Port of Seattle, [1969]); "Seattle Harbor: 10 Year History of Cargo Volumes Handled: 2004-2013," Port of Seattle website visited July 21, 2014 (; "Terminal 5 Design Funding: Facility Modernization," June 3, 2014, port commission meeting presentation, Port of Seattle website accessed August 11, 2014 (

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