Harbor Island controversy

Port of Seattle. Washington State Archives. Port of Seattle Records Collection. 1912.


The Port of Seattle was formed as the first public port district in Washington state by a vote of the citizens of King County in the 1911 General Election. The new Port Commission took office January 1912. Almost immediately, controversy erupted.


Would the Port of Seattle contract out its shipping and cargo-handling functions to a private company like all other public port authorities in the United States at that time, or would it administer and run the operations of the port by itself? The outcome of this controversy would define the port’s development over the next 100 years and beyond. Ultimately, it would also influence how other port authorities throughout Washington and the rest of the country would administer and operate their vital transportation and shipping services.


Start with secondary sources 

Use secondary sources to gain basic knowledge of your topic, its significance, and historical context.

Ask a Librarian online at Washington State Library to get expert help in locating useful secondary sources. 


Then use primary sources

Use primary sources to deepen your understanding of the topic, and assemble evidence to support your own analysis and interpretation.

Ask an Archivist online at Washington State Archives to get expert help in locating useful primary sources.


Some key historical research questions:

  • Why was the Port of Seattle formed by the voters of King County?
  • What was the Port District Act of 1911, and why was it important to the development of the Port of Seattle?
  • Why was the improvement of Seattle’s port facilities important to Seattle’s, Puget Sound’s, and Washington state’s economies?
  • Who were Hiram Chittenden, Robert Bridges, C. E. Remsberg, R. H. Thompson, George Cotterill, Vigil Bogue, R. F. Ayers, Charles Fenn, Scott Calhoun, and “Colonel” Blethen?
  • How did each of them participate in and affect the outcome of the Harbor Island Controversy?
  • Why are Bush Terminals and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” important?
  • How did the Port Commission move forward with developing its facilities after the Harbor Island Controversy was resolved?
  • Consider other possibilities for historical questions as you analyze and interpret this topic.


Back to History Day topic guide