A THUMBNAIL HISTORY OF THE PORTLAND WATERFRONT
The fur trade, as every Oregon school kid knows, is the reason the Hudson Bay Company
shop near the mouth of the Willamette River way back in the 1820s. But following the
hordes of settlers the fur trade gave way to the more practical commodities of lumber
By the late 1840s Portland was well under way to becoming an important commercial
center. A new
plank road connected the city with the rich farmlands of the Tualitin Valley. This
drawn carts to cross the West Hills giving farmers of the region access to sell their
world markets. In 1849 gold was discovered in California creating a huge demand for
timber. Portland became a boom town.
By the mid 1870s this new, booming, prospering Portland had a rough and tumble
famous for it´s corrupt officials, vices, and shanghaings. The clipper ships of
required large crews that needed to be regularly replenished. Gangs of crimps
were employed for the job of obtaining crew members for these ships by any means
necessary. A blackjack
to the back of the skull, a Mickey Finn in a glass of whiskey, and some unfortunate
find himself on the slow boat to China (as the saying goes).
The loading and unloading of ships' cargoes required a large work force in those
would gather on the docks in the early morning at what was referred to as the shape
up. A hiring
boss, working for the shipping company, would show up to hire as many men as he felt the
required. In many instances the hiring boss would require a kick back from the men that
for the job. It was a miserable thing to be poor and unemployed in those days, but it
better to be working either. The wages were too low to sustain a family and the work was
treacherous and brutal. There were never enough jobs to go around, and there were always
hanging around the docks to see that men who didn't make the shape up were offered the
to ship out.
In 1883 the transcontinental Great Northern Railroad connected to Portland, setting
the final element that would seal it´s destiny as one of the world´s great
cities; a deep water port connected to the inland by navigable rivers, and now by
By the 20th century the proliferation of steamships cut back on the numbers of men
man the sails, but the work along shore increased with the growth of industry. Dock work
hard. Benefits of any kind were unheard of, the pay was low, and the work was dangerous.
social conditions of the time the waterfronts of world became battlefields of the labor
The Pacific Northwest was no different. Various unions rose and fell until, in the
entire work force of west coast longshoremen were united, culminating in bloody
1934. Since then
longshore workers have been hired from a union hiring hall and wages, benefits, and
conditions have been negotiated in contractual agreements between the union and an
representing the interests of the shipping companies.
As the 20th century progressed the Portland waterfront changed dramatically. Cargo
unloading became increasingly automated. World War II brought shipbuilding to Portland
influx of African American workers. Soon thereafter the longshore union was racially
The 1960s ushered in the era of containerization and a number of resulting labor
culminated in a long and bitter strike in 1971. By 1980 the longshore union finally
to enter its ranks.