History of the Portland Waterfront

1848-1869 1870-1899 1900-1939 IMAGE GALLERIES
1940-1979 1980-the present wallpapers and links contact

© 2021 Barney Blalock, click for more info...   Thumbnail History...



The fur trade, as every Oregon school kid knows, is the reason the Hudson Bay Company set up shop near the mouth of the Willamette River way back in the 1820s. But following the arrival of hordes of settlers the fur trade gave way to the more practical commodities of lumber and wheat. 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 allowed horse drawn carts to cross the West Hills giving farmers of the region access to sell their produce in world markets. In 1849 gold was discovered in California creating a huge demand for grain and timber. Portland became a boom town.

By the mid 1870s this new, booming, prospering Portland had a rough and tumble waterfront famous for it´s corrupt officials, vices, and shanghaings. The clipper ships of the day 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 fellow would 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 days. Men 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 job required. In many instances the hiring boss would require a kick back from the men that he chose for the job. It was a miserable thing to be poor and unemployed in those days, but it wasn't much 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 crimps hanging around the docks to see that men who didn't make the shape up were offered the opportunity to ship out.

In 1883 the transcontinental Great Northern Railroad connected to Portland, setting in place the final element that would seal it´s destiny as one of the world´s great port cities; a deep water port connected to the inland by navigable rivers, and now by railroads.

By the 20th century the proliferation of steamships cut back on the numbers of men needed to man the sails, but the work along shore increased with the growth of industry. Dock work remained hard. Benefits of any kind were unheard of, the pay was low, and the work was dangerous. Given the social conditions of the time the waterfronts of world became battlefields of the labor movement. The Pacific Northwest was no different. Various unions rose and fell until, in the 1930s, the entire work force of west coast longshoremen were united, culminating in bloody confrontations in 1934. Since then longshore workers have been hired from a union hiring hall and wages, benefits, and working conditions have been negotiated in contractual agreements between the union and an association representing the interests of the shipping companies.

As the 20th century progressed the Portland waterfront changed dramatically. Cargo loading and unloading became increasingly automated. World War II brought shipbuilding to Portland and an influx of African American workers. Soon thereafter the longshore union was racially integrated. The 1960s ushered in the era of containerization and a number of resulting labor disputes that culminated in a long and bitter strike in 1971. By 1980 the longshore union finally allowed women to enter its ranks.