Pier 36 -- Seattle Waterfront

  • By Daryl McClary
  • Posted 3/13/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4149

Pier 36, formerly the Seattle Port of Embarkation, is located on Alaskan Way S at the foot of Atlantic Street on the southern part of the Seattle waterfront. It is today (2004) the home base of the U. S. Coast Guard Station Seattle. One hundred years ago the area consisted of tideflats. Dirt from the South Canal Project, intending to link Lake Washington with Elliott Bay, and from regrades directed by Seattle City Engineer Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949) turned more than 2,000 acres of tideflats south of Seattle's central business district into solid real estate. The site was occupied successively by the Centennial Flour Mill and the Moran Brothers shipyard, the Skinner & Eddy shipyard, and the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. The Great Depression found the area filled with the shacks of homeless and unemployed workers. During World War II, the United States Army used and improved the area. During the 1960s, the Port of Seattle bought much of it, developed a huge container loading area, and leased part of it to the United States Coast Guard.

More Land, Less Sea

The tideflats south of Seattle's Washington Street were reclaimed using dirt from the South Canal Project (1895-1904), the Great Northern Tunnel excavation (1903-1904), and the Jackson Hill and Dearborn Hill regrades. The South Canal Project, which was intended to link Elliott Bay with Lake Washington, began filling in the tideflats with earth excavated from the west face of Beacon Hill. The Jackson Hill Regrade project (1907-1909), sluiced about 3,000,000 cubic yards of dirt onto the flats and into Elliott Bay. The Dearborn Cut project, (1909-1912), which removed Dearborn Hill located between First Hill and Beacon Hill, sluiced an additional 2,000,000 cubic yards of earth onto the mudflats. Other sources of landfill came from the dumping of ship's ballast in the 1800s and from the construction of the East Waterway next to the man-made Harbor Island.

There were huge profits to be realized in reclaimed tideflats. As R. Cooper Willis, Seller of Tidelands, stated in a 1909 Polk's Seattle City Directory advertisement, "Tidelands have been, and for the next 5 years will be, the premises where more profits can be obtained for the same amount of money invested than any other property in the City of Seattle." Ralph Dearborn, and his brothers Henry and Wilber, Dearborn Hill's namesake, dealt almost exclusively in reclaimed tideflats. The Dearborn and Co. Real Estate firm made a fortune selling this property to railroads and businesses requiring waterfront access.

The reclaimed waterfront "addition," located on Railroad Avenue S at the foot of Atlantic Street (Pier 36 today), was divided into building tracts and named the Seattle Dock Company's Re-plat. Centennial Flour Mill owned about one third of the property on the north side. But other than for a few small businesses along the west side of Railroad Avenue, the addition remained largely undeveloped until 1917.

Just north of Atlantic Street on Railroad Avenue between Connecticut (renamed South Royal Brougham Way) and Dearborn streets, was the huge Moran Brothers ship-building facility. Around the turn of the century, the Moran shipyard, fueled mainly by the shipbuilding frenzy of the Klondike Gold Rush (1897-1899), became one of the largest shipbuilding operations in the United States. It was the only Seattle shipyard to launch a battleship, the USS Nebraska, on October 7, 1904. In 1906, the business was sold to East Coast capitalists, who renamed it the Moran Company. The yard's name was changed again in 1912 to the Seattle Construction and Dry Dock Company. In 1916 the shipyard was leased to the Skinner & Eddy Corporation, which began producing steel-hulled ships.

War in Europe broke out in August 1914 when the German Army invaded Belgium. The United States, supposedly neutral, continued shipping supplies and war materials to the Allies. Germany's submarine onslaught against American merchant shipping eventually brought the United States into World War I. In September 1916, the federal government created the United States Shipping Board, which in turn established the Emergency Fleet Corporation. On April 6, 1917, Congress announced that a state of war existed between the United States and the German Empire. Within two years, the Emergency Fleet Corporation had doubled the number of vessels sailing under the American flag.

Skinner & Eddy

In April 1917, the Skinner & Eddy Corporation expanded its operation by purchasing approximately 15 acres of waterfront property, known as the Seattle Dock Company Re-plat, for $1,500,000 and the adjacent acreage, belonging to the Centennial Flouring Mill, for $600,000, in one of the largest real estate transactions in Seattle's history. This area was soon to become Skinner & Eddy's shipbuilding plant No. 2 -- and much later, Piers 36, 37, 38, and 39.

Lucrative government contracts also allowed the Skinner & Eddy Corporation to purchase the previously leased Seattle Construction and Dry Dock shipyard outright in June 1918. By the armistice, November 11, 1918, the Skinner & Eddy shipyards had not only broken national production records, 42 days from keel laying to launching, but also produced more ships for the Emergency Fleet Corporation than any other shipyard in the nation. During the war, Skinner & Eddy built 75 ocean-going vessels and was the largest shipyard in Puget Sound and one of the largest in the nation.

World War I proved to be an economic boon to Puget Sound ports, especially for the shipyards. Puget Sound shipbuilders constructed more than 25 percent of the U. S. Shipping Board's fleet. By 1918, Seattle had 20 shipyards employing approximately 35,000 workers with a monthly payroll of about $4,000,000. But after the armistice, America went into a severe depression as the nation shifted to a peacetime economy. Many companies that prospered went out of business, and shipyards were among the first to be closed.

The Skinner & Eddy Corporation ceased shipbuilding operations in 1920 and the United States Shipping Board acquired ownership of the properties. In 1923, Port of Seattle Commissioner George Lamping began negotiations with the Shipping Board to purchase 25 acres of prime waterfront property along Railroad Avenue S, the site of the Skinner & Eddy shipbuilding plant No. 2 (Piers 36-39). Although the property was worth at least $2,000,000, Commissioner Lamping acquired it from the government for the remarkably low price of $600,000. Even at that price, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Municipal League opposed the purchase, but the Port of Seattle won voter approval for the land acquisition in the May 1923 city election. The property was soon sold to the Pacific (Coast) Steamship Company.

Pacific Coast Steamship Company

The Pacific Coast Steamship Company, which started business in the mid-1870s, ran ships coastwise between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Alaska. The company established the first direct, regular service from Seattle to Alaska with the steamship Ancon, which left on her first trip on May 17, 1896. The ship brought back $35,000 in gold on the return voyage. But the Klondike Gold Rush didn't start until July 17, 1897, when the steamship Portland docked in Seattle with a ton of gold from the Klondike River valley.

The Pacific Coast Steamship Company became heavily engaged in the gold rush, transporting prospectors and their supplies to Skagway, Alaska, gateway to the Klondike gold fields. The company placed some of its best ships on the Alaska run and was known for its good service. They were credited with bringing some order to the chaotic Alaskan trade. The Pacific Coast Steamship Company, which was entirely engaged in coastwise trade, moved their headquarters from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle in the late 1890s. They owned and operated their vessels from four piers located between Jackson and Washington streets. The Pacific Coast Steamship Company merged with the Pacific-Alaska Navigation Company on November 1, 1916, and the name changed to the Pacific Steamship Company.

By 1922, eight steamship companies ran coastwise service out of Seattle and six lines specialized in trade with Alaska; the Pacific Steamship Company was one of the very best.

In 1924, the Pacific Steamship Company purchased from the Port of Seattle the 25-acre tract that had been Skinner & Eddy shipbuilding plant No. 2. The company wanted to construct new ocean-shipping terminus at a cost of between $3,000,000 and $4,000,000. Plans for the new terminus provided for three huge piers, large capacity warehouses, and a four-story office building. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce believed a great wholesale district would arise in the vicinity as a result of building these new modern facilities.

The Pacific Steamship Company's new terminus and office building was completed and operational in 1925. The contractors were Albertson, Cornell and Walsh. The company moved their offices, which had been in the Smith Tower since 1914, to the new Pacific Steamship Terminals Office Building, 1519 Railroad Avenue S. This also became the terminus for the famous Admiral Line vessels, which provided first-class passenger and freight service to the Orient, Alaska, and Siberia.

Seattle had built an enormous trade with Siberia in the first years of World War I. Wartime profits from shipping were unbelievable. The profits on a single trip of a vessel to Vladivostok were estimated at $250,000, the entire cost of a ship. In 1916, goods worth more than $44,000,000 were sent to Siberia mainly to support Russia's war effort against Germany and Austria-Hungary. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, exports fell to $7,000,000 but picked up markedly in 1919 and 1920 when goods were being shipped to Siberia to assist counter-revolutionary forces. When the Communists took control of the Russian government, shipments of goods dropped off markedly and by 1932, there was practically no trade whatsoever.

The Great Depression

By 1929, there were 142 steamship companies located in Seattle. But on October 29, 1929, the stock market collapsed, and America fell into the Great Depression. Shipping activity on the Seattle waterfront and in Puget Sound almost came to a standstill. It wasn't long before many of the steamship lines that serviced the Pacific Northwest either went bankrupt or simply ceased operations. The Admiral Line continued sailing until 1937 and the Pacific Steamship Company continued operations throughout the depression until 1940, when the property was sold to the government.

During the depression years (1929-1939), the abandoned Skinner & Eddy shipyard sites and surrounding area became a labyrinth of shacks made from scrap lumber, cardboard, canvas, tarpaper, and tin, known as "Hooverville," housing a community of 600 to 1,000 homeless, jobless squatters. In the late 1930s, as the nation's economy started to rebound and commercial activity picked up on the waterfront, many of the residents found jobs and left Hooverville for better living conditions.

In 1935, Seattle began constructing a seawall along the waterfront, funded by the federal Works Progress Administration. After the project was completed in 1936, Railroad Avenue was renamed Alaskan Way.

World War II

On September 1, 1939 the German Army invaded Poland, beginning World War II. Although declaring itself neutral, America, like it or not, was gearing up again for war. Even before the fall on France on June 10, 1940, the Army Quartermaster Corps was looking to expand their operations by building a larger supply depot on the Seattle waterfront. The site they chose was the former Pacific Steamship Terminals property at the foot of Atlantic Street, which they purchased in 1940 for $193,000. The Army also acquired an adjacent acre of property near Connecticut Street in 1941 for $75,000. The primary mission of this new Army Quartermaster terminal was to expedite supplies and construction equipment to Army bases in Alaska.

In March 1941, the Seattle City Council ordered the Hooverville shack town razed to make way for improvements for the nation's defense program. The Seattle Police, Fire, and Health departments posted evacuation notices on doors while the Housing Authority attempted to relocate most of the shack dwellers in public housing projects. On April 10, 1941, the Port Commission sent a bulldozer into Hooverville and it shoved the rickety structures into large piles. The fire department torched the debris, creating huge bonfires and thick smoke visible all over the city.

The Army Quartermaster Corps began improvements by having the slips adjacent to the depot dredged. In July 1941, the Army contracted with the Western Construction Company to build a huge four-story, reinforced concrete warehouse at a cost of $1,500,000, on the southeast corner of the property. In August 1941, the Army contracted to have a large new pier built at the old Pacific Terminal Pier B (Pier 37). In November 1941, the Army declared the new Seattle Army Depot was the Quartermaster Corps' largest warehouse under a single roof, with 1,000,000 square feet of space.

In this same month, the depot was separated from the Quartermaster Corps and made a sub-port of the Army Transportation Service (ATS), San Francisco Port of Embarkation. But Seattle was so active that by January 1942, the Army Transportation Service made it a permanent Port of Embarkation, independent from San Francisco. In addition, the Army Transportation Service found it necessary to add two more piers (Piers 38 and 39) to the depot.

By 1943, the Seattle Port of Embarkation, among the largest Army supply depots in the nation, was employing approximately 3,000 clerical and warehouse workers, almost all civilians. The pay rate was relatively low so the turnover rate was high. Women made up about 40 percent of the workforce.

Renaming the Piers

In early 1944, the Port of Seattle decided to redesignate all piers and docks on the waterfront, starting with the Spokane Street pier (Pier 24), and ending with the U. S. Navy facility (Piers 90-91), in an effort to eliminate confusion in cargo delivery. The plan was approved by the military and by all the terminal, railroad, and steamship companies on the waterfront with the exception of the Alaska Steamship Company that wanted to keep its famous "Alaska Terminal Pier 1 and 2" designation. In May 1944, the Seattle Port of Embarkation, Piers A, B, C, and D, officially became Piers 36, 37, 38 and 39.

The Seattle Port of Embarkation remained very active throughout World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean Conflict (1950-1953). In September 1955, a reorganization of the Army ports changed the official name from the Seattle Port of Embarkation to the Seattle Army Terminal. By 1956, the military began using huge cargo planes to move supplies around the world. The Military Air Transportation Service (MATS) proved to be much faster, cheaper and more efficient than the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). The need for maintaining large waterfront supply terminals was rapidly coming to an end.

In June 1957, the Department of Defense advised Seattle that the Army Terminal would be closing and the West Coast operations consolidated in Oakland, California. This meant the loss of about $35,000,000 to the Puget Sound area economy. In February 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers took over the vacant Army Transportation Service facilities for their operations.

The 1960s and 1970s

In the early 1960s, the Port of Seattle embarked on an extensive waterfront modernization program. They wanted to lease Piers 36-39 but it remained in the Army's possession until 1964 when the terminal was finally declared government surplus. In August 1964, the Port of Seattle purchased 22 acres of property, the buildings and the four Army piers (Piers 36-39) from the General Services Administration for $4,000,000. The date of possession was set for July 1, 1965. The Ports long-range plans called for the conversion of the entire area, from Pier 37 to Pier 46, into a super terminal for container ships.

In December 1973, the Port of Seattle, with the urging of Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), leased Pier 36 and the apron of Pier 37 to the United States Coast Guard for $1 a year. The Port of Seattle spent $1,350,000 preparing the facility for occupancy and the Coast Guard, in turn, spent $1,500,00 refurbishing the former Pacific Steamship Terminals Office Building. The Coast Guard, which for many years had been using the Navy facilities at Piers 90 and 91 for their seagoing vessels, took the opportunity to consolidate and move all its units to the new base.

This proved to be good business because it gave the Port of Seattle the opportunity to reacquire Piers 90 and 91 and the adjacent property appropriated by the Navy during World War II.. The Port paid the federal government $10,300,000 for the 198 acre Navy Base. In addition, The Port of Seattle acquired the former Coast Guard base on Commodore Way, across from the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Pier 36

Pier 36, officially the U. S. Coast Guard Integrated Support Command Seattle, 1519 Alaskan Way S, is home port of two of the world's most powerful diesel powered ice-breakers, the Polar Star (WAGB10) and the Polar Sea (WAGB11) as well as the cutters USCGC Mellon (WHEC 717), and USCGC Midget (WHEC 726). The old Pacific Steamship Terminal Office Building is the administrative offices for the Coast Guard's Captain of the Port, Vessel Traffic Safety Office, Marine Safety Office, Harbor Defense Command and other offices vital to vessel movement on Puget Sound.

The huge Army Quartermaster Corps warehouse became the Federal Warehouse Building, 1555 Alaskan Way S, operated by the General Services Administration (GSA). The facility provides a variety of functions including being a repository of government surplus equipment and seized property. From 1975 to 1995, it was the home base of the U. S. Customs Patrol and Marine Unit. In 1984, Catholic Community Services received permission from GSA, at the request of Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), to locate the Saint Martin de Porres Shelter for homeless men over 50 years old. The shelter, 1561 Alaskan Way S, is located on the main floor, southeast corner of the warehouse. It has a kitchen, library, and 212 beds.

The Port of Seattle made the entire waterfront area north of Pier 36, from Atlantic Street to Jackson Street (Pier 46), well over 100 acres, into one gigantic container loading station, replete with trucks, tractors, trailers, giant orange cranes, and hundreds of containers stacked high and wide. Designated Terminals 37, 42 and 46, the facility services several major container shipping companies. Today, aside from a few commemorative plaques, the only recognizable landmark in the area remaining from the past is the Pacific Steamship Terminals Office Building built in 1925 at the foot of Atlantic Street, now housing U. S. Coast Guard offices.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. II (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing Co., 1916); Richard Berner, Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991); Berner, Seattle 1921-1940: from Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992); Berner, Seattle Transformed: World War II to Cold War (Seattle: Charles Press, 1999); Padraic Burke, A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1976); Joe Gibbs and Joe Williamson, Maritime Memories of Puget Sound (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1976); Seattle and Environs, Vol. 1 ed. by Cornelius H. Handford (Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); Polk's Seattle City Directory (Seattle: R. L Polk and Co., 1909); Port of Seattle, 1926 Yearbook (Seattle: POS, 1926); J. Willis Sayre, The Early Waterfront of Seattle (Seattle: J. W. Sayre, 1937); James R. Warren, Where Mountains Meet the Sea, an Illustrated History of Puget Sound (Seattle: Windsor Publications, 1996); James R. Warren, King County and its Emerald City: Seattle (USA: American Historical Press, 1997); Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Seattle, Wash., 1905, 1908, 1912 (Philadelphia: G. William Baist); Kroll Atlas of Seattle, 1930, 1960 (Seattle, Kroll Map Co.); "Land condemned for Army Depot," The Seattle Times, February 5, 1941, p. 3; "Seattle Firm to Dredge Slip for Army Depot," Ibid., February 9, 1941; "Councilmen Delay Shacktown Action," Ibid., March 18, 1941, p. 8; "Army to spent $4,750,000 for Big Depot Here," Ibid., March 21, 1941, p. 1; "Group to Study Shack Problem," Ibid., March 25, 1941, p. 8; "Shack Dwellers May Get Farms," Ibid., March 31, 1941, p. 2; "Ragtime Requiem Rings Out as Tractor Levels Shacks," Ibid., April 10, 1941, p. A-10; "New Piers Will Cost 2 Millions," Ibid., June 30, 1941; "Contract Let for Army Depot," Ibid., July 21, 1941; "Quartermaster Depot Here to be Expanded," Ibid., August 4, 1941; "Contract Let for Army Pier," Ibid., October 10, 1941; "Big Army Depot Here," Ibid., November 25, 1941; "Big Army Depot Here Declared NW Key Point," Ibid., November 25, 1941; "Seattle Port of Embarkation Heart of Great War Machine," Ibid., March 8, 1944, p. 4; "Alaska Company Hits Pier Change," Ibid., April 3, 1944; "Seattle Piers Redesignated," Seattle Journal of Business, May 13, 1944; "War Causes Big Rise in Port Volume," The Seattle Times, August 13, 1950, p. 22; "Port of Seattle Buys 6 Piers on Waterfront," Ibid., August 22, 1950; "Organization of Army Ports Changed Here," Ibid., September 29, 1955; "62,000 Troops Land Here During Year," Ibid., May 13, 1956, p. 30; "Economy in Terminal Closing Questioned," Ibid., June 14, 1957; "Californians Blamed for Port Closure," Ibid., June 15, 1957; "Closing of Army Port Called 'Mistake,'" Ibid., July 11, 1957; "Army Port Loads Last Cargo," Ibid., August 21, 1957; "Engineers Take Over Army Terminal," Ibid., February 1, 1958; "Air Transport New Threat to MSTS Here," Ibid., August 30, 1959, p. 24; "Part of Pier 39 to Revert to Port of Seattle," Ibid., December 23, 1959; "Port to Seek Lease of Army Terminal Pier," Ibid., March 28, 1962; "Port of Seattle Acquires Four Ex-Army Piers," Ibid., August 25, 1964, p. 1; "Former Seattle Port of Embarkation Sold to Port," Ibid., September 11, 1964; "All in the (Coast Guard) Family Assured of Big New Home by Port," Ibid., December 12, 1973, p. D-11; "Port OK's $2.8 Million for Pier Projects," Ibid., June 25, 1975, p. B-6; "Pride of Coast Guard to be at home here," Ibid., October 29, 1975, p. B-3; "Port's Paper Plans Becoming Realities,"Ibid., March 25, 1976, p. E14; "Port Takes Title to Pier 90-91 Complex," Ibid., June 30, 1976, p. E-12; "Port OK's Funds for Ships' Van Terminal," Ibid., November 29, 1978, p. H-2; "City's Homeless Getting Lift As Shelter Funds Increase," Ibid., November 8, 1985, p. C-4.

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