1930 - 1939
The 1930s were dominated by the devastating economic impacts of the Great Depression. Seattle faced record-breaking unemployment and growing homelessness. “In 1932 we prayed for something to happen,” the Port’s 1934 Year Book states, “In 1933 we just prayed.”
There was a glimmer of hope in 1934 as international trade grew, but labor strikes and the loss of the silk trade negated even those gains. Although there were few positive milestones, the business of the Port continued, but at a much slower pace. The Commission optimistically envisioned two major projects that would be realized in the coming decades – a new airport and a saltwater haven for recreational boating.
Four transit sheds are built at Pier 40 (today’s Pier 90 at Terminal 91) to store the enormous amount of canned salmon moving through the Port. This year, nearly 250 million pounds of canned salmon are shipped.
Hooverville, a collection of shacks built by unemployed workers, is erected on vacant Port of Seattle property, property that later will be dramatically transformed to accommodate containerization. At times, throughout the depression, nearly a thousand men made this Hooverville their home.
Pier 11 (later Lenora Street Terminal, which encompasses, Piers 64 and 65) is acquired and a passenger terminal is added for the Canada-Pacific Steamship Company’s Vancouver-Victoria-Seattle passenger sailings.
The Bell Street Bridge is replaced to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles on the road, and thus increased traffic between the waterfront and Belltown.
The Port’s Spokane Street Terminal (just north of the West Seattle Bridge, along the East Waterway) becomes home to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Frozen Pack Laboratory, the first of its kind in the world. It is designed exclusively to research preserving fruits and vegetables by freezing. The government had conducted experiments at Spokane St. Cold Storage since 1934, but it wasn’t until 1931 that a dedicated lab was built.
Although it will be more than 20 years before construction begins on Shilshole Bay Marina, plans are in the works. Having been deeded tidelands at Shilshole Bay in 1929 by the State of Washington, the City of Seattle approves a statute authorizing it to convey the land to the Port of Seattle.
Day Wages: The Port Commission works to ease unemployment. All maintenance and renewal work is done by day laborers, with preference given to family men who are taxpayers in the district. New crews are employed each week to distribute the limited jobs fairly.
FDR: Franklin Delano Roosevelt visits Seattle prior to his election as President.
The average monthly earnings for stevedores are down to just $80 a month from $165 a month in 1929. The value of foreign imports is a mere $37 million, versus nearly $257 million in 1928. For the third consecutive year, the Port operates at a loss, yet continued investments and improvements to position the Port for the future and the hoped-for end of the Depression.
In its annual report, the Port declares, “The paralysis which had gripped the Country since 1929 has vanished. We are going places and doing things.”
The Port establishes an apple inspection service for the safe handling of apples and pears for export.
Reorganization in the Port results in appointing the first general manager, J.R. West (former chief engineer), and placing three divisions – engineering, operations, and accounting – under his control. The following year the Port will replace the general manager with Colonel W.C. Bickford and add Chief Engineer to his title.
The Boeing airplane factory occupies land on the Duwamish Waterway and completes new plane assembly here. This area will eventually become home to the Port’s Terminal 115.
Three state projects — the Coulee and Bonneville Dams and the Seattle municipal light development on the Skagit River — create badly needed jobs.
Long-time Port auditor, Matt H. Gormley, commits suicide on May 9, after learning he is under suspicion for embezzlement of more than $70,000. Expressing concern for his family in his suicide note, he writes, “I hope my fault will not be visited too heavily on my family – the best a man could have” and left instructions for his children to take care of their mother (Seattle Daily Times, May 9, 1934).
A bitter labor and bloody strike paralyzes West Coast ports, including Seattle, from May 9 to July 31. Seven strikers are killed in the West. In Seattle, 1,400 longshoremen gather on the waterfront, blocking shipments through the port. Read more about the strike.
Laborers and Seattle Mayor Charles L. Smith are deadlocked during the strike. Police use beatings, tear gas and guns to intimidate strikers. Seattle International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) leader Shelvy Daffron is shot and killed by police. An attempt by the mayor and police to break the strike results in the June 20th “Battle at Smith Cove.” Two hundred and twenty-five police men, armed with shotguns, hold back strikers at Smith Cove, while 150 strike-breakers unload vessels. But the cargo doesn’t get far; the strikers hold their ground and block any movement. Visit the Terminal 91 page to learn more.
Construction begins on the seawall between Madison and Bay Streets.
Bad News: On June 18, the Port Commission, once lucrative for Seattle, would be moving to the Port of Los Angeles.
The Commission launches an aggressive program to help reclaim lost trade and build commerce for the future. The Port touts its position as the “the shortest route to the Orient,” “the gateway to Alaska,” and the shipping center for the growing industrial and agricultural areas of Washington and Idaho. Modernization of shipping and refrigeration begins, helping to increase agricultural exports.
B.M. Patton is appointed as the Port’s eastern representative in Chicago. His job is to build trade with Asia. This is the first remote Port position dedicated to facilitating foreign trade relationships.
Future FTZ: Port considers establishment of a Foreign Trade Zone. (See 1949 for more information.)
Funds for Fish: A majority of the Port improvement funds are spent upgrading facilities at Fishermen’s Terminal, home to the region's commercial fishing fleet.
Late in October, the Pacific Coast Maritime Strike closes down trade for 90 days and halts the movement of nearly one million tons of cargo in Seattle.
More than 8,000 tons of bananas are imported from Ecuador and Central America. Many arrive through the “Banana Terminals” owned by Ames. The Port will later purchase that property to develop Terminal 5. Elsewhere on the waterfront, 1.8 million boxes of apples are exported to countries around the world, including Brazil and the Netherlands.
Railroad Avenue gets a new name and pavement. The smooth new surface is great for cars and a big improvement from the days of waterfront danger and congestion.
Longshore Workers stop work at the Port for nine days in a contract dispute with the Waterfront Employers Association.
Germany invades Poland. World War II begins.
Before containerization, longshoremen painstakingly hauled cargo by hand, in sacks, boxes and bales, using only pallets and tractors. This “break-bulk cargo” made longshore work tough. Some early mechanization, including forklifts, cranes and derricks, made the job at least a bit less back-breaking and quicker.
Port engineers design sawtooth mooring piers for Fishermen's Terminal. This design attracts national attention and is copied by many other fishing terminals.