Portland Waterfront 1940 through 1979

Nina Crow
Written by Nina Crow

Machinery and War

Portland Rose rolls up her sleeves

Oregon’s shipyards had gone into nearly complete decline following World War I and with the onset of the great depression. But the natural amenities that had made Portland a ship building center in the days of the tall ships had not gone away. The city’s well-protected inland port combined with its place as a center of both waterborne and rail transportation made it a natural choice for the large projects that were being blown along with the gathering war clouds.

Henry J. Kaiser was an industrial contractor who had built his reputation on effective management strategies that included good pay for his workers, and bringing projects in on time and within budget. Kaiser was contracted by the British government to build ships for the war effort even before the United States was drawn into the war. He owned seven major shipyards on the west coast during the war period including the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation with a yard at Swan Island in Portland. Kaiser’s yards manufactured two relatively low cost and quick-to-build styles of cargo vessel, the Victory Ship and the Liberty Ship. Between the years 1941 and 1945, the Portland shipyard delivered 455 ships to be used in the war effort.

A great influx of people, women and men of all races, came to Portland and Vancouver to work in Kaiser’s shipyards. The yards employed tens of thousands of workers at one time and worked around the clock, seven days a week. The shipyards operated 24-hour childcare centers for working mothers. Kaiser used government funds to build a special housing project, with schools and a community center at a location near the Columbia river between his two shipyards, one in Portland the other across the Columbia river in Vancouver, Washington. The project was called Vanport after the two cities. While the war lasted, some of Portland’s new residents had a better life than they had ever known. The shipyards meant liberation for many women, whose options before and after the war were largely limited to certain forms of low paid menial labor, or staying home as a housewife. Building the Liberty ships was a precursor to the kind of equal employment opportunities and wages that people of color and working class American women should rightfully have, but it would be many decades after the end of the war before they would begin to see the like again.

Post War

While shipbuilding accounted for tens of thousands of new jobs, the war effort revamped much of the rest of Portland’s languishing waterfront industry with the increased need for lumber and other commodities traditional to the port. The war had been good to Portland, revitalizing its depressed industry and upping its population by at least 70,000 new people. The post war waterfront got off to a brisk start as well. The Liberty ships built here would return to be dismantled and reformed as river barges, or turned into scrap. The hungry war torn populations of Asia and Europe would keep the grain terminals humming night and day. The sawmills and lumberyards would work overtime in their contribution to the massive rebuilding projects around the globe.

The Vanport Flood, Portland’s Miniature Katrina

Following the war the Vanport housing project was home to about 40,000 people, a significant percentage of whom were African Americans, and as such it was the most integrated neighborhood in a city that was at that time unabashedly racist. The project was constructed in the reclaimed marshland of the low delta between the city limits of Portland and the Columbia river. The area was protected against high water during the flood season by dikes. In May of 1948 a sudden thaw in the snow-capped mountains feeding the Columbia and Willamette rivers caused a flood of record levels, 23 feet above flood stage. On the morning of Memorial day, Sunday May 30, 1948, the Public Housing Authority posted fliers in the Vanport neighborhood that read:


At 4:05 that afternoon a 200-foot section of dike burst, and the city was soon underwater leaving tens of thousands of people homeless and fifteen people dead. The area was later designated for recreational use and the city was never rebuilt.

Years of Labor Unrest

Following the war came a period of renewed labor unrest that affected the entire nation, but especially the Pacific coast. The president at that time, Harry Truman, had a particularly harsh agenda in store for American labor. When both the railroad workers and coal miners went on strike in the spring of 1946 Truman used the military to take control of the coal mines, and threatened to draft the railroad workers into the military to get the trains running again.

After seeing the U.S. government successfully break the strength of unions through the use of the military, maritime unions, on both coasts and in Hawaii, joined together to form the Committee for Maritime Unity (CMU) with strong connections to maritime unions in foreign countries: Great Britain, Scandinavia, Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan, etc. This international unity insured that even if the U.S. military were to take over the American maritime shipping activities, the vessels would not be unloaded once they arrived at their destinations. Following this, in the fall of 1946, the ILWU on the Pacific coast held a strike that lasted for 52 days.

The year 1946 had seen many strikes throughout American industry. As a reaction to this, by June of 1947 the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, formally, the Labor-Management Relations Act, worked its way through Congress and was passed. Armed with this new legislation, the Waterfront Employers Association moved to take control of dispatching in the hiring hall, a move that would set the clock back to the days of the “shape up.” The need for a hiring hall and the elimination of the “shape up” was the main reason behind the strike of 1934. The longshoremen hated the “shape up” so vehemently that they referred to it as the “slave market,” and in 1948, newly armed with the authority of the Taft-Hartley Act, the employers tried to re-establish a similar hiring method. The union went on strike again, and the foresight of union leaders in establishing unity between unions and on an international scale was rewarded: after 95 days the union emerged from the strike with its hiring hall intact, wages increased, benefits increased, and job security strengthened.

A Now Forgotten Stench

From the city’s origins the Willamette had been the means of removal for liquid waste from flouring mills and other riverside operations. It also became the sole repository for Portland’s sewers (as well as the sewers of upstream cities), and as the decades rolled by and the population rose, the output from sewers, dead animals, agricultural waste, pulp and paper mills and other manufacturing plants turned the once clear, salmon-filled waters into an unbelievably foul, slow moving cesspool.

Glenn D. Carter, the first aquatic biologist to work for the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA), describes this scenario in 1956:

Fish kills were common in the river, massive rafts of decaying algae floated downstream, and a thick layer of bacterial slime covered much of the river bottom and shoreline. Rotting vegetation, bacterial slime, and countless dead fish produced highly unpleasant sights and odors. Large deposits of sewage sludge accumulated around sewage outfalls.

The OSSA was started in 1939 and since then had been trying to encourage cities on the Willamette to divert sewage to stabilization ponds where it was treated with chlorine and other disinfectants before returning to the river. Portland was the last community to take action in this area, developing the Columbia Blvd Wastewater Treatment Plant in the 1950s. This did nothing about the agricultural and industrial waste, especially the tons of dioxide-laden sludge pouring out of the pulp and paper mills up river. Neither did it stop sewage from overflowing into the river when any large amount of rainfall occurred, a common enough event in western Oregon. The need for a separate system for sewage from the rainfall runoff on the city’s streets is a problem that did not begin to be addressed until the next (21st) century.

In 1962 an Oregon journalist, Tom McCall, produced the television documentary, “Pollution in Paradise” showing the forlorn Willamette river as a garbage strewn, polluted sewer where fish introduced to the waters for the sake of the cameras lasted only a few agonizing minutes. This documentary set in motion McCall’s political career helping to earn him the governorship in 1966. In 1969 he would demand that pulp and paper mills cease operation during salmon runs so the fish could actually make it to spawning grounds. The days of being able to use the Willamette river as an industrial waste dump were over. His crusade to start cleaning up the river, and the rest of the environmental horrors in the state would earn him a place of honor in the history of Oregon.

Today when we think of waterfront property as being prime real estate, it is difficult to empathize with the Portlanders of yesteryear who turned their backs to the river and held their noses. When the vision of a riverfront Portland Public Market failed and the building went from being a Naval headquarters, to a newspaper publishing house, to a useless old hulk that needed to be torn down, it didn’t occur to anyone that the waterfront was prime property, but rather that it was a good place in 1968 to turn into a multi-lane expressway along the west bank of the Willamette called Harbor Drive. And when, in 1959, Interstate 5 was being built through the heart of the city, the east bank of the polluted sewer seemed like a wonderful place to put a freeway. This decision, stemmed from unbridled worship of the automobile, in an automobile-centric society, and it is a decision that will be rued long into the years to come. What could have been one of the most pleasant, lively, economically thriving riverfronts in America is now a cacophony–a racing, growling, roaring hell of traffic, elevated on its viaducts, circling on its clover leaves, and rising onto its two gargantuan freeway bridges on opposing ends of the downtown like deformed bookends. This may sound terribly opinionated to someone less offended by the blighted east side of the river, but it is beyond question that had the freeway not been built in this location, the east bank today would be a line of parks, restaurants, and luxury hotels.

The Modernization and Mechanization Agreement

In 1957 leaders of the Pacific Coast Longshoremen—Harry Bridges, Howard Bodien, and L.B. Thomas—set up a special caucus to consider the use of new machinery in loading and unloading ships. It was obvious that change was on its way. Since the beginning of time ships had been loaded by the sweat of one’s brow and an aching back. The large diesel steamships of the day took large gangs of workmen to transfer cargo to and from the holds. “Roll on roll off” ships had been developed by the military during the war and now industry was looking to use them. Containerization was still only a theory, but it was a theory whose value was obvious and whose time would come, no matter how strong the workforce resisted. In October a three-day caucus was held in Portland with longshoremen from the entire West Coast and including Alaska and Hawaii to discuss mechanization and what it would mean to the union.

By the time the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement was on the table in 1960 the union had been debating these items for several years. Many of the members were completely opposed to mechanization, and saw entering into a cooperative agreement with the employers as a sell out. But the majority could see that it was not going to be possible to hold back modernization, and there could be some great advantages for the rank and file. For one thing work on a mechanized waterfront would not be as grueling, and it could possibly be a safer and happier place.

Under this first agreement it was decided that:

  • The current workforce would not be laid off.
  • If mechanization resulted in a reduced workforce the workforce would be reduced by voluntary early retirements.
  • If the workforce needed to be reduced by involuntary early retirements there would be a higher pension benefit.
  • Increased profits would mean increased wages and benefits.
  • Mechanization would be introduced wherever possible to make difficult, grueling, or dangerous work easier and/or safer.

This was not the agreement to end all agreements. There would be lots of loose ends to tie up and lots of details to attend to in future contracts. Many longshoremen felt like they had been “sold down the river” to use an old shanghai phrase. But a new era of efficiency was being ushered in, with its Panamax vessels the size of mountains and gigantic cranes rising from the waterfront, visible from fifteen miles away.

Globe Dock Burns

The morning of July 11, 1960, was a quiet, no-work Sunday at Globe dock on the east bank of the Willamette just north of the Steel Bridge. There had been a grain dock at this location for about a hundred years. The current dock was a large warehouse for sacked grain joined by the cement towers of a grain elevator that would be small by Midwest standards. Somehow a fire broke out in the warehouse turning it to charred ruble, despite the brave efforts of a Portland fire boat.

At docks such as these, ships would pull along side and gangs of longshoremen would move hand trucks loaded with sacks of grain from the warehouse to the dock where the sacks would be either taken aboard by winch-driven nets, or by gas powered conveyor belts. It took dozens of men many shifts, sometimes weeks, to load a vessel. It the grain was loaded in bulk, rather than sacks, it could be loaded on board a ship using conveyor belts and spouts. A modern export grain elevator could load an entire ship in just a few shifts using a crew totaling less than ten men. Needless to say the warehouse was not rebuilt but in its place a modern export elevator. Up and down the river this same scenario had occurred until the sixteen grain docks of 1900 became a few efficient elevators. The new concrete “house” at Globe rose from the ashes at the same time as urban renewal scrapped the neighborhood on the cliff above into the dustbin and replaced it with the Memorial Coliseum and acres of concrete parking lots. It was a new look for old Albina.

Old Habits Die Hard

In 1934 when the West Coast longshoremen were being organized, Harry Bridges had insisted that African American men be included in the union in San Francisco where he was president. The reason for this was as much pragmatic as it was anything altruistic. The employers had been able to easily break strikes in the past by going to the African American sections of the city and recruiting workers from there. In the 1930s Portland did not have enough African Americans to make this a viability. By the 1960s this was an entirely different story. The other West Coast ILWU locals were integrated, but not Local 8 in Portland. This speaks well of the sovereignty of the individual locals, but quite badly of the racist attitudes of, in the case of Portland, its members. It wasn’t until 1964 that Local 8 in Portland registered its first 50 African American workers as part of a larger group of 300 new registrants, and this it did by the order of a federal judge. For more information see this website: www.labornet.org

Containerization and Portland Public Dock Improvements

By 1971 containerization was no longer just a theory. Ports all around the world were being outfitted with the machinery, and vessels were being built to handle standardized shipping containers that would load from trucks, to rail cars, to vessels with the only manual labor involved being the work of strapping the containers in place. In 1969 the Portland Public Docks had started on a

$14 million refurbishing of Terminal 2 outfitting the terminal for containers, a project that included a 50-ton American “whirley crane” and a 40-ton straight line container crane. The plan included improvements to the automobile unloading docks and Terminal 6 as well and was scheduled for completion in 1974. In order for the Columbia and Willamette rivers to be able to receive the larger container vessels the rivers were dredged deeper, to 40 feet, a project completed in 1976.

The improvements to the Portland Public Docks in the 1970s also included a $6 million modernization of the Terminal 4 grain elevator, and the construction of a new $15 million elevator at Terminal 5 in the new Rivergate Industrial Park.

The shipping companies had previously worked out a mechanization agreement, but now they wanted to have “steady men” skilled in the operation of the tremendously expensive machinery involved in the containerization process. It was over the issue of “steady men” and against the advice of Harry Bridges that the ILWU went on strike in 1971. The strike lasted for 130 days, and when it was all over the union had gained little and the employers had their 9.43 “steady man” clause. For more information on this period go to this website: americanhistory.si.edu

Grain Inspectors Strike Brings in the Feds

In July of 1976 the State of Oregon grain inspectors who were members of the newly formed ILWU local 40 went on strike and the work on the waterfronts of Astoria and Portland came to a halt. Official inspection of export grain was required by both federal regulations and the contracts of overseas customers, so the grain could not be shipped without them. Rather than set a wage and benefit precedent for other Oregon State employees the state gave up the business of grain inspection, dropping all of the State Grain Division employees from its ranks. Since the requirement was still there for official inspection, the USDA was forced to come in and take over the operations, a condition that still exists to this day.

Waterfront Park

Tearing down the old Journal (Public Market) building had been a bad idea, but replacing it with a riverfront expressway in 1968 was downright unnecessary. So the heavy machinery came out again and in 1974 Harbor Drive was dug up to make way for acres and acres of greenery, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, named after the champion of the environment. This green space was to become Portland’s front yard, a place for relaxation, festivals and music throughout the year. It eventually included the Japanese-American Historical Plaza, honoring those citizens who were wrongfully sent to internment camps during World War II, a beautiful plaza lined with sculpture and flowering Japanese cherry trees.

About the author

Nina Crow

Nina Crow

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