Longshoremen and Local Historians Preserved Tacoma’s Waterfront History

In this look back at Humanities Washington’s past, we look at The Working Waterfront, a 1979 project chronicling the stories of longshoreman in Tacoma.

A longshoreman drives goods across the Port of Tacoma in 1921 | Photo: Port of Tacoma, courtesy of ILWU Local #23.

A longshoreman drives goods in the Port of Tacoma in 1921. The Working Waterfront combined the official history of the port with stories from a variety of longshoremen | Photo: Port of Tacoma, courtesy of ILWU Local #23.

Humanities Washington is celebrating our 40th anniversary with 40 Years of Washington Stories. Each week on Spark, we’ll offer a snapshot from our past, sharing forty years of stories that have helped shape the humanities in Washington state.

In order to preserve the unsung working-class history of their port, the longshoremen of Tacoma’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23 joined forces with Humanities Washington in 1979. Conceived by longshore activist Phil Lelli, the project brought together the ILWU’s archives, local historians and the personal stories of over 30 longshoremen to provide material for a book entitled The Working Waterfront: The Story of Tacoma’s Ships and Men.

The book chronicles over a century of Tacoma’s waterfront history, beginning with its origins as a trading outpost in the 19th century and concluding by exploring the challenges of increased mechanization that the port faced in the late 1970s. Historian Ronald Magden, who co-authored the text, went on to publish two more books exploring the relationship between the longshoremen of Seattle and Tacoma and their respective ports.

The ILWU Local 23 project stands as an excellent example of community-driven historical work, helping to preserve memories of Tacoma that might otherwise have been lost. Magden reissued the book in 1991 under the title The Working Longshormen. In the concluding chapter, Magden defies those who predict the demise of the longshoremen and looks proudly towards the future:

“There are predictions that by the year 2025, all major waterfronts will be 100 percent automated. Robots will be discharging and loading ships by computer commands. This prophecy may become a reality, but there is little doubt that Tacoma longshoremen will be the computer operators. The rank and file will still be in command.”

2 thoughts on “Longshoremen and Local Historians Preserved Tacoma’s Waterfront History”

  1. Barbara Bingham says:

    If anyone has a photo of Paddy Morris, a longshoreman of Tacoma in the 1930s I would be very grateful to see it. He was my grandmother’s brother and I would love to put a face to a name. He sent parcels to his sister in Cork, Ireland during World War 2 but we have no other knowledge of this man.

  2. Barbara Bingham says:

    A post script to my previous comment:
    Paddy Morris was David or W.T, known to have married Ida. She was living in 1104 S. Yakima, Apt. 301, Tacoma Y, Washington, zip code 98405 in 1963 .

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