Washington Public Port Districts -- Part 1

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 7/30/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9494

In 1911, the Washington Legislature, reacting against private railroad companies' domination of docks and harbors that were critical to the trade-dependent state's economy, authorized local voters to create publicly owned and managed port districts.  Since then, Washington public ports have spurred economic growth by enabling local communities to acquire and manage resources that promote trade and commerce.  As the benefits of publicly owned harbor improvements became apparent, the powers of port districts were expanded to encompass other areas, including managing airports and stand-alone industrial and commercial development.  Today there are 75 port districts operating in 33 of the state's 39 counties, ranging from 11 deepwater shipping ports that fit the classic definition of "port" to small local port districts that operate a single marina, small airfield, or business park.  Part 1 of this two-part essay describes how and why Washington's unique system of public port districts was created and covers the history of the state's ports through World War II.

A Public Enterprise

Washington's public port districts are independent government bodies run by directly elected commissioners. Their combination of government powers (taxation, issuing bonds, and more) with an entrepreneurial, commercially driven business orientation -- "public enterprise" in the words of political scientist David Olson ("Public Port Accountability") -- has made ports particularly effective in providing the large-scale transportation and industrial infrastructure that much of the state's economy depends on, and in recent years has also allowed them to deal with some of the more intractable environmental problems facing the region.  

The state's largest ports operate marine terminals, generally in conjunction with other facilities (the Port of Seattle also runs the Northwest's largest airport, Sea-Tac International).  There are 11 deepwater ports serving large ocean-going ships -- Grays Harbor on the Pacific Coast; Kalama, Longview, and Vancouver on the lower Columbia River; and Anacortes, Bellingham, Everett, Olympia, Port Angeles, Seattle, and Tacoma on Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Eight ports have barge terminals on the mid-Columbia and Snake rivers -- Benton, Clarkston, Garfield, Kahlotus, Klickitat, Pasco, Walla Walla, and Whitman. Smaller ports located on the bays and inlets of Puget Sound, the lower Columbia, and along Eastern Washington rivers and lakes operate small marinas, boat launches, parks, and other waterfront access and recreation facilities. Fully one third of Washington ports have no navigable water, devoting themselves to operating airports, railroads, and/or industrial and business properties. 

Creation of Public Port Districts

The idea that the public, through an independent government agency, should own harbor property and develop and operate terminals, piers, warehouses, and similar facilities was radical and controversial when proposed more than a century ago, although perhaps no more so than if it were to be proposed in the first instance today. The push for public ports was part of the broader Progressive movement that (along with reforms such as labor rights, woman suffrage, and prohibition) advocated municipal ownership of transportation facilities, water and electric utilities, and other essential infrastructure. 

In Washington, the battle for public control of the waterfront was largely a battle against the railroads.  The arrival of transcontinental railroads in the 1870s was essential to Washington Territory's development, but to get the transcontinental lines civic leaders gave away large swathes of harbor land to the railroads, handing them a stranglehold over the region's trade and commerce. Railroad companies used their control over wharf availability and rates to fill their own trains with cargo, rather than to promote trade and make it easier for the area's merchants and farmers to import and export goods.  And with each competing track and dock owner looking out for its own interest, coordinated harbor development was difficult to achieve.  Civil engineers and city planners, who were prominent in the state's Progressive movement, argued 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 growing world trade. 

In 1907 State Senator George Cotterill (1865-1958), a Seattle civil engineer and leading Progressive, drafted the first bill to authorize publicly run port districts in Washington.  The idea drew support from around the state.  Hoquiam businessman Frank H. Lamb (ca. 1875-1951) advocated a public port as the best means to undertake the extensive dredging and development required to make Grays Harbor a diversified port. Eastern Washington farmers whose ability to export their crops was limited by the railroad stranglehold on tracks and docks backed the bill. So did longshore workers who expected public ports to create more jobs on the docks and to serve as a counterweight to anti-union private employers. Farmers and merchants in small Puget Sound towns hoped to form public ports that would build docks to attract steamship service to their communities.  Cotterill's bill passed both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Albert E. Mead (1861-1909). 

The Port District Act

Public port legislation failed again in 1909. However, two years later the Port District Act passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) on March 14, 1911. The Act authorized voters to create port districts to acquire, construct, and operate waterways, docks, wharves, and other harbor improvements; rail and water transfer and terminal facilities; and ferry systems. A district could encompass an entire county or a portion of one. Each port district would be a governmental body, independent of any county, city, or other government, that would be run by three elected commissioners serving without compensation.  Port districts were given power to levy taxes and (with voter approval) to issue bonds, along with the authority to acquire property by eminent domain, to set wharf and dock rates, and to lease port-owned property to private operators.  The Port District Act would be amended repeatedly over the years -- usually in the direction of expanding ports' authority and duties -- but the basic structure created in 1911 continues to guide port districts 100 years later.

That structure was novel at the time and remains unique today.  The few publicly run ports elsewhere in the United States that predated the Port District Act were managed as part of existing governments, usually by appointed officials.  In contrast, Washington's new port districts were independent governments run by commissioners directly elected by the districts' voters.  Thus while the Port of Seattle cannot claim to be the first public port in the country, it does hold the (slightly wordier) distinction of being "the first autonomous municipal corporation in the nation to engage in port terminal operation and commerce development" (WPPA website). 

Although many more public ports have been developed around the country since 1911, those in other states are still generally run as departments of city or state government with commissioners appointed by the mayor or governor, or by independent port authorities with appointed commissions.  Washington, however, has retained the commitment to direct local control demonstrated in the 1911 legislation.  With 75 independent, locally run port districts (many quite small in area and population), the state has more separate ports than any other state, and its two biggest ports -- Seattle and Tacoma -- are the largest ports in the world with directly elected commissioners.

Getting Started

Even before the Port District Act took effect on June 8, 1911, public port supporters began organizing a campaign to place creation of a King County-wide Port of Seattle on the September 5, 1911, ballot.  The proposition passed by a wide margin and the Port of Seattle became Washington's first public port. Voters in Chehalis County (the name would be changed to Grays Harbor County in 1915) soon followed suit, voting overwhelmingly on December 12, 1911, to create the county-wide Port of Grays Harbor. 

Four months later, on April 6, 1912, voters in the vicinity of Vancouver, Clark County, created Washington's third public port. The Port of Vancouver was the first Washington port district on the Columbia River and the first to encompass only part of a county (Clark County voters would eventually form two more port districts).  Some proposals to create port districts failed. The first attempt to establish a Port of Tacoma was narrowly defeated on November 5, 1912. In 1913, the Port of Bremerton became the state's fourth port district. It was the first of many districts to be created in Kitsap County, which currently (2010) has 12 ports, more than any other county in the state.

Not all of these first port districts were active from the start. The Port of Bremerton was formed to take ownership of a municipal wharf whose legality was challenged by the private owners of the city's only other wharf, but aside from reaching a settlement that allowed the municipal wharf to remain, the Port was largely inactive until 1943.  Similarly, the Port of Vancouver, lacking funds and property, did little until World War I stimulated demand for shipbuilding.  At the Port of Grays Harbor, public port advocate Frank Lamb was elected to the port commission, but until the end of the decade he was stymied in developing the harbor by fellow commissioners allied with the private timber companies and mill owners who had little interest in public harbor facilities.

One port district that hit the ground running was the Port of Kennewick, created in 1915 to ready the area in and around Kennewick for the increase in Columbia River steamboat traffic following the opening of the Celilo Canal downriver near The Dalles.  Over the next two years, the Port built warehouses and wharves to handle record volumes of steamboat cargo and passengers; then when steamboat traffic declined, it turned to building rail and water transfer facilities to serve the railroads and barges that supplanted the steamboats.

However, in the first years after passage of the Port District Act, most of the action, and controversy, revolved around the Port of Seattle.  Unlike in Grays Harbor, all three original Seattle Port Commissioners were united in their commitment to a publicly owned and operated port.  They infuriated the city's business establishment and newspapers, who had only reluctantly supported the port district concept in the first place, by setting rates for wharves and cold storage facilities below competing private businesses and by adopting the closed-shop rule demanded by longshore unions.  Press attacks on the Port of Seattle were relentless, and opponents won state legislation that would have restricted the powers of port commissioners, but voters rejected the changes.

By 1916, the Port of Seattle's astounding commercial success largely ended attacks on the Commission.  The outbreak of World War I in Europe, by sharply reducing shipping on the Atlantic, produced a corresponding jump in Pacific trade. With its low rates and large new terminals and piers that could accommodate bigger ships and load them faster than rival ports, the Port of Seattle captured the bulk of the new trade. In 1918 Seattle was the second busiest port in the country, behind only New York, and that year set a tonnage record for foreign trade that it did not surpass until 1965. The Port of Seattle's growth leveled off in the 1920s and it never again achieved quite as high a national ranking, but its early success encouraged many other cities, in Washington and around the country, to form public ports.  

Ports Proliferate

With Seattle reaping the benefits of its public port and with World War I creating demand not just for docks and piers but also for ship-building yards, other cities revived or initiated port districts.  In 1918, Vancouver voters approved the Port of Vancouver's first project, developing a shipyard on a riverfront site that became the core of the growing port's property. That same year, Pierce County voters overwhelmingly approved formation of the Port of Tacoma, which they had earlier rejected, and voters in the Everett area created the Port of Everett. Both Puget Sound ports would grow to become major deepwater marine terminals and drivers of economic development in their regions.

Across the sound, smaller communities in Kitsap and Mason counties began organizing port districts to develop or improve docks for the Mosquito Fleet -- the network of many small independent steamship lines that well into the twentieth century were the primary means of cargo and passenger transportation around much of Puget Sound, especially on the west side where railroads did not reach.  The small settlements of Hansville and Eglon, located on either side of Point No Point near the northern tip of the Kitsap peninsula, each established a port for that purpose in 1919.  (Hansville's port has since dissolved.)  So did somewhat larger Kingston,  a few miles south, which set up a port to purchase and improve the steamship dock at the base of the unincorporated town's main street. Since 1951, the Port of Kingston, which went on to develop a large marina, has leased the dock to Washington State Ferries for the Kingston-Edmonds run.

Ports that were initially formed mostly to serve the Mosquito Fleet followed in the Kitsap County communities of Brownsville (1920), Silverdale (1920), Illahee (1922), Manchester (1923), Waterman (1923), Keyport (1923), and Tracyton (1929).  For similar reasons, voters in Mason County created four small ports on Hood Canal -- Allyn (1921), Grapeview (1923), Tahuya (1925 -- dissolved in 2007), and Dewatto (1927).

Kitsap Peninsula and Hood Canal residents were not the only ones to organize port districts during the 1920s, which saw more ports created than any other decade in the 100-year history of Washington public ports.  Voters in Cowlitz County created two ports on the Columbia River -- the Port of Kalama in 1920 and the Port of Kelso in 1921 (voters changed that name to the Port of Longview in 1929).  Thanks to dredging, large ocean-going ships could call at both ports, as they did at the Port of Vancouver upriver, giving Washington three deepwater ports on the river.  On salt water, formation of the ports of Bellingham (1920), Olympia (1922), Port Angeles (1922), and Anacortes (1926) brought Washington to its current total of 11 ports with deep draft marine terminals.  Rounding out Washington port district creation in the 1920s, Jefferson County voters formed the Port of Port Townsend in 1924, the Port of Mabana was formed on Camano Island in Island County in 1926, and three of Pacific County's eventual four port districts -- Ilwaco, Peninsula, and Willapa Harbor -- were set up in 1928.

The increase in public ports was not confined to Washington.  Throughout the 1920s, publicly run ports were inaugurated or expanded all along the West and Gulf coasts, inspired in part by the Port of Seattle's success and in some cases, including Oakland and Los Angeles, hiring away Port of Seattle employees to carry out their building programs. 

Not surprisingly, the emergence of new and expanded ports throughout the state and up and down the West Coast led to increasingly fierce competition between public ports. Individual ports cut wharf rates to attract business, resulting in rate wars that benefited shipping companies at the expense of the ports.  By 1929, the Port Authorities Association established a uniform rate structure for all West Coast ports, but the issues raised by different public port districts competing for the same shipping customers would persist into the twenty-first century.

Depression and Industrial Development

The Great Depression that began with the 1929 stock market crash significantly slowed the rate of port district formation. 

Only two of today's ports were established in the 1930s -- Indianola (1933) in Kitsap County and Camas-Washougal (1935) in Clark County. (The Port of North Bonneville, formed in 1938, later merged with the Port of Wind River to create the Port of Skamania County). Maritime trade, foreign and domestic, plummeted and existing ports, struggling just to survive, undertook little or no new development. 

The core mission of port districts -- stimulating commerce and economic development -- was naturally both particularly important and unusually difficult during the Depression.  In 1939, as part of its ongoing efforts to re-start the economy, the state Legislature gave ports an additional tool for promoting development, the first of many expanded powers that it would grant in ensuing decades. Ports had been involved in industrial development from their inception by dredging and filling to build waterways and create industrial land and by constructing terminals, warehouses, cold storage plants, and other facilities. But the 1939 legislation expressly authorized ports to create Industrial Development Districts -- designated areas within the overall port district in which ports could levy special taxes and develop industrial sites, with utilities, roads, rail lines, waterways, and other improvements, to attract private industries and the jobs and economic growth they would bring. 

Both new and existing port districts quickly utilized the new development powers. The Port of Tacoma established a development district on the Commencement Bay tideflats and began working to recruit industrial tenants.  In Clark County, residents of the Ridgefield area created the Port of Ridgefield in 1940 to further the area's economic development, which the new port did by establishing the Lake River Industrial Site on the slough that connects Lake Vancouver to the Columbia River. 

Ridgefield was one of two new port districts formed in 1940. Voters in Franklin County established the Port of Pasco that year to develop facilities for barge shipping to carry wheat and other grain from the surrounding Columbia Basin region to the deepwater terminals downriver. Pasco would be the first (and largest) of many new ports on the mid-Columbia and lower Snake rivers to take advantage of the series of dams constructed on the river system beginning in the 1930s as part of the Columbia Basin Project. That massive engineering effort provided water to irrigate the fertile but arid Columbia Basin, generated large quantities of inexpensive electricity, controlled flooding -- and eliminated rapids and other obstacles to navigation by turning the rivers into a series of slackwater reservoirs ideal for transporting the region's grain and other agricultural products by barge. The Port of Klickitat, in western Klickitat County just upstream from Bonneville Dam, the farthest downriver of the dams, followed in 1944. 

The outbreak of World War II temporarily rendered efforts to stimulate industry unnecessary.  Well before the United States entered the war, the combat in the Atlantic (as in World War I) boosted Pacific shipping, and the United States government launched a massive ship-building effort. Washington's economy was soon booming, with the waterfront and harbors especially busy. In Vancouver, Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, shipyards, many located on port district lands, worked around the clock throughout the war years to churn out thousands of ships for the Navy and merchant marine.  Once the United States joined the fighting, most of Seattle's and Tacoma's port facilities were given over to military use and the docks were crowded with men and materiel on their way to the front lines.

Much of that materiel was stored and shipped from the huge army depot at Pasco, whose eight warehouses -- each nearly 1,000 feet long and flanked on both sides by railroad tracks so that several trains could be loaded simultaneously -- later became part of the Port of Pasco's Big Pasco Industrial Center.

Into the Air

The war years brought more laws increasing the authority of port commissioners, allowing them to move rapidly on needed projects but reducing voter control.  In 1941, the Legislature limited the requirement that voters approve port bond issues.  Two years later, legislators eliminated the requirement, in place since passage of the original Port District Act in 1911, that voters approve the "comprehensive scheme" that each port district must adopt to guide its development.

More dramatically, in 1941 the Legislature extended the reach of ports from their traditional role on the water into the new realm of the air.  For years, many had seen the provision of runways, terminals, and other facilities for airplane travel as a logical extension of port districts' development and operation of seaports -- the very word "airport" recognized the similarity in purpose and function. As far back as the 1920s, when Boeing Company founder William E. Boeing (1881-1956) threatened to move his business out of state if local leaders did not provide an airfield he could use, Port of Seattle Commissioner George B. Lamping opined that port districts were the agencies best suited for the job. Port of Tacoma commissioners expressed support (provided the airport was built between the two cities), but Lamping's Seattle colleagues did not and King County built Boeing Field.

There was good reason for port commissioners' caution.  In an early decision, issued at a time when the political and legal establishment was still fairly skeptical of public port districts, the Washington Supreme Court had ruled that the powers granted to port districts had to be strictly and narrowly interpreted, so that if there was any doubt, the power would be denied.  This legal doctrine helps explain why the Legislature has so many times over the years deemed it necessary to enumerate further powers granted to port districts.  As to airports specifically, the 1911 Port District Act, passed less than eight years after the Wright brothers' first airplane flight, made no mention of air travel or airports, so there was a substantial risk that courts would conclude port districts could not operate airports.

Thirty years later, on the eve of World War II, there was an urgent national need for airport development and the Washington Legislature removed any doubt about port districts' powers in the field by designating ports as empowered, along with counties, cities, and towns, to acquire and operate airports. That allowed the Port of Seattle to step up when, after the military took control of Boeing Field and other existing airports, the federal Civil Aeronautics Administration offered $1 million to any local government that would operate a new regional airport. Seattle's Port Commission voted in March 1942 to build Seattle-Tacoma Airport (quickly shortened to Sea-Tac) at Bow Lake, midway between Seattle and Tacoma. 

Sea-Tac saw little civilian use until after the war ended, but by 1949 the Port of Seattle had built a new terminal and formally dedicated Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  Over the next six decades, the Port continually expanded the airport, which is the largest in the Northwest.  In 2010, Sea-Tac accounted for by far the largest share of both the revenues and the jobs generated by the Port of Seattle. 

With legal authority in hand, over the years other port districts also took on the task of running airports, among them many World War II-era airfields that were no longer used by the military. Washington ports, including several in Eastern Washington and two in the San Juan Islands that were formed primarily or exclusively for that purpose, now own or operate more than 30 airports.

To continue to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Washington State Public Port Districts (Seattle: League of Women Voters of Washington, 1989); Washington State Public Port Districts: Governance Issues (Seattle: League of Women Voters of Washington, 1992); David J. Olson, "Public Port Accountability," in Urban ports and Harbor Management ed. by Marc J. Hershman (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1988); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Press, 1998), 22-24, 40-51; Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); Special Report: Washington's Public Ports (Olympia: Washington Research Council, 1990); "Port Districts," Puget Sound Business Journal, May 1-7, 1992, p. 30; 2010 Port Directory (Olympia: Washington Public Ports Association, 2010); Commissioner Resource Guide (Olympia: Washington Public Ports Association, 2010); Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) website accessed June 15, 2010 (http://www.washingtonports.org/); Amy C. Allison and Jerold W. Heller, "History and Evolution of Port Districts," WPPA website accessed June 15, 2010 (washingtonports.org/member_resources/events/cleallisonheller.ppt); Robin Torner, "The Public Port Concept and Its Contribution to the Economic Development of Washington," typescript dated 1993, Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA) files, Olympia; "Legislative History: Public Ports of Washington," Washington Senate Transportation Committee memorandum dated September 14, 1982, WPPA files; 1911 Wash. Laws, ch. 92; RCW (Revised Code of Washington) Title 53 (Port Districts); Huggins v. Bridges, 97 Wash. 553, 166 P. 780 (1917).
Note: This essay was corrected and revised on March 10, 2011.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You