60 Years of Containers: The Pioneers in the Pacific Northwest
On April 26, 1956, the Pan-Atlantic Steamship tanker Ideal-X sailed from Newark, New Jersey to Houston with a deckload of 58 33-foot containers for the company's new Sea-Land Service. The date is the generally acknowledged start of containerization. 10 years later, in 1966, Sea-Land expanded across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 2016 is the 60th anniversary of the Ideal-X sailing and the 50th anniversary of the container's global expansion.
Containers helped create our modern world carrying computers from China, shirts from Bangladesh and beer from everywhere.
While Sea-Land and founder Malcom McLean justifiably get credit for their roles in the revolution, it is solidly rooted in pioneering efforts the Pacific Northwest and the Territory of Alaska.
The '50s was an era before the interstates. Highways were congested and slow. Most railroads had limited or no interest in carrying trailers. Shipping suffered from high port costs and other problems.
Old-style freighters were loaded piece by piece, through small hatches. Cargo was dragged to the wings. Boxes, bags and loose steel piled on top of each other. Losses were severe and damage enormous.
Matson Navigation estimated 48 percent of the company's costs were for loading and unloading ships.
A former trucker, McLean devised a system to haul wheel-less trailers between New York/Newark and Houston. Ideal-X and three other tankers were soon carrying containers on deck, successfully reviving a dying coastal service.
However, years before the Ideal-X, Ocean Van Line was a pioneer. H. W. McCurdy's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest notes "Early in 1951, two ... motor ships were purchased on the East Coast from the Maritime Commission for use in this service. These vessels, with engines and house aft and a traveling crane operating the full length of the forward deck, had been in British wartime service."
They were brought to the Pacific Northwest by Ocean Tow, Inc. as the Alaska Cedar and Alaska Spruce. The next year, the pair with their rail-mounted 30-ton whirly cranes were central to the newly created affiliate Ocean Van Line (OVL). Col. L.B. DeLong was OVL president.
Associated Press reported, "Loaded with cargo, the trailer vans will be lifted from their wheels at departure points and stowed aboard ships. At destination, the trailers will be swung over the side of the ship and set on waiting truck chassis."
The first vessel to sail from Seattle and Tacoma to Anchorage was the Alaska Cedar on July 8, 1952. The ship and her sister could carry up to 66 30-foot containers (99 TEU) stowed athwartships, stacked two high below decks, with a single tier on deck.
OVL purchased 200 30-footers from Brown Trailers, Inc. of Spokane, including 69 refrigerated containers with nose-mounted Thermo-King units.
Brown Trailers' chief engineer Keith Tantlinger devised a simple modification to the company's highway trailers, strengthening the corners and adding the chassis component of 69 skeletal trailers, He was soon promoted to Vice President of Engineering at Brown.
The Fairbanks News-Miner noted, "Successful ocean shipment of perishable foods is one of the unusual features of this notable new shipping service," and described the aluminum containers as, "30 feet long with a capacity of 1,545 cubic feet. Weighing 4,630 lb. each, they carry approximately 25 tons of cargo apiece."
The concept had an immediate impact. At a rate hearing, Northwest Airlines complained about the impact OVL had on the airline's perishable business. However, the service was not a financial success. By March of 1953, the containers were transferred to Alaska Freight Lines, another affiliate, and both ships laid up.
Two years later, they were purchased by the W. R. Chamberlin Co. for the coastal lumber trade. The whirly cranes were replaced by pedestal cranes. Alaska Cedar, with a full load of lumber, broke up off Coos Bay in 1963 while Alaska Spruce sailed until 1971.
Alaska Freight Lines used the OVL containers for many years, stacked two-high and combined with other cargo on deck barges, becoming the first carrier to use containers on barges.
At the time, Alaska Steamship Lines was the biggest operator in Alaska, with a fleet of seven Liberty ships. According to McCurdy, in 1953, three of Alaska Steam's 440-foot Liberty ships "were refitted at Seattle for unitized cargo operation. Tripod mizzen masts were fitted to provide clear deck space and heavy lift gear, each vessel thus being made capable of handling 17 40-foot loaded trailer vans of 2,000 cubic foot capacity as deck cargo. Door to door delivery was provided in Alaska ports in connection with this innovation." The company was already using small 100-cubic foot-Cargo-Gard containers and other small units.
OVL's impact continued. In 1954, the US Army Transportation Services insisted all refrigerated shipments be unitized (in containers or trailers) rather than stowed loose in refrigerated chambers.
Both Alaska Steam and the Alaska Railroad added 24-foot containers to the mix in 1956.
In November 1955, White Pass & Yukon Railway's new 342-foot 4,000-ton Clifford J Rogers sailed from Vancouver, BC to Skagway with a load of 8-foot containers, inaugurating the world's first fully integrated container service, with containers moving by ship, on rail, to Whitehorse, Yukon, then on trailers to destinations throughout the Yukon via the still dirt and gravel Alaska-Canada Highway, that had been built in World War II.
White Pass had previously relied on Canadian Pacific and Union Steamship. Dick Sladden, retired White Pass manager of ocean services in an interview 10 years ago, explained, freight was shipped from Vancouver by the steamers Yukon Princess and Cassiar. At Skagway, cartons and boxes were unloaded one at a time by hand from a ship and transferred into boxcars, then transferred to trucks at Whitehorse.
The company wanted containerization, but the lines would not change, so White Pass ordered its own ship from Canadian Vickers in Montreal and ordered 550 8-foot containers, including 40 refrigerated and 180 insulated units.
Below decks the ship had room for 165 7-foot by 8-foot by 8-foot containers, each with a maximum gross weight of 8 tons and 400 cubic foot capacity. Harbour & Shipping magazine wrote the containers were stowed "three deep and two abreast the entire length of the hold, locked into place top and bottom. The pilfer- proof, spoil-proof containers can't slide or topple in rough weather."
More could be stowed on deck, which was also used for automobiles and other cargo. Highlighting the minimal mechanization of the time, a key concern was obtaining forklifts that could handle the 8-ton containers and stack them three high. Nine Gehlinger forklifts, made in The Dalles, Oregon, were purchased for Vancouver, Skagway and Whitehorse. Sladden explained, "The forklifts were the largest machines on the Vancouver waterfront at the time."
He noted, "Carling Breweries packed 144 bottles of beer with straw into a wooden barrel" for shipment to the Yukon. With containers, "the company simply loaded up a container with cases of beer and sealed the door." 450 dozen beers in retail cartons fitted nicely into an 8-foot container.
Southbound, asbestos from the Cassiar mine in Northern British Columbia provided steady business. For the next ten years, the Rogers maintained a biweekly service.
As Alaska was entering statehood, Crowley, in 1958, started Puget Sound-Alaska Van Lines in association with Alaska Railroad. The railroad provided 100 containers and Crowley bought 600 more. In a 1972 oral history interview, Thomas Crowley said, "We designed barges that would carry 300 containers. Because they were just regular boxes we could stack up four high." It was the first time containers had been stacked on deck that high on any vessel. The service operated between Seattle and Seward. By 1962, Crowley added rail car barges for Alaska Hydro-Train for Whittier to the tow. When the 1964 earthquake destroyed the Seward dock, Crowley suspended the container service, but retained the rail business until 2000.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast , as 1956 dawned, Sea-Land, still known as Pan-Atlantic Steamships, was well aware of developments in the Pacific Northwest. A Pan Atlantic executive phoned Brown Trailers and wanted to talk to an engineer, not a salesman. Tantlinger, now Brown's Vice President of Engineering, flew east to meet him. After building two prototypes, Brown was given an initial order for 200 33-footers, which were built at the company's Toledo and Reading, Pa. plants.
At the same time, McLean hired Tantlinger away from Brown. Over the next two years, Tantlinger, on behalf of Sea-Land, filed 18 patents related to containers, most importantly for the twist lock and corner casting. He did extensive work developing the cell guides used below decks for containers and was actively involved in the 1957 conversion of the war-built C2 freighter Gateway City into the first full container ship with a capacity of 226 35-foot containers (396 TEU), the then-standard length for trucks on the East Coast. Five more C2s were also converted and in 1958, the tankers and 33-foot containers were gone.
A key element of the Gateway City conversion was the addition of a pair of gantry cranes, one forward of the bridge and one aft. These were built by Skagit Steel and Iron Works of Sedro Woolley, based on the company's experience in the logging industry, again a result of Tantlinger's Washington State background. The cranes were powered by 290-HP diesel engines and ran on rails supported by sponsons attached to the hull.
Sea-Land expanded, adding Puerto Rico, then in 1962, an intercoastal service between the East Coast and California, with a feeder barge between Oakland and Portland.
In 1964, after buying Alaska Freight Lines, Sea-Land began service to Alaska, with the company's first voyage by SS New Orleans, sailing from Seattle on May 5 and arriving in Anchorage May 9, with relief supplies following the big earthquake. The New Orleans was followed two weeks later by the Mobile. They were soon renamed Anchorage and Seattle.
Matson Navigation was also moving forward, having started carrying 24-foot aluminum containers on the decks of conventional ships. The first was a 1958 sailing of the Hawaiian Merchant. Soon Matson's regular ships were modified to handle 75 containers on deck.
The 24-footer was chosen as a west coast truck could haul two in tandem, and the axle spacing of the chassis permitted hauling a 24-footer with a 20-ton load.
Matson's first full container ship, a conversion, was the Hawaiian Citizen in 1960, with a capacity of 426 24-foot containers (511 TEU). After the conversion in Portland, the first sailing was delayed almost two weeks over a manning dispute. The Seafarers International Union wanted 51 unlicensed crewmen. Matson held out for 48, awarded following a court hearing and arbitration. With licensed deck officers and engineers, the total crew was just under 60.
Hawaiian Citizen was the first gearless container ship, as Matson had developed the A-frame container crane, built by PACECO. Three cranes were built in 1959 and 1960 and erected at Alameda, Los Angeles and Honolulu.
Two ore carriers, Hawaiian and Californian were purchased and converted to carry about 400 containers to Hawaii, returning with bulk sugar and empties on deck.
As Matson used a grounded operation, it turned to the Clark Company, which had taken over the Ross Group. Ross carriers were a standard feature in lumber yards straddling lumber. Matson wanted a larger straddle carrier to handle containers at its terminals.
In November 1965, White Pass replaced the Rogers with the 396-foot, 6,000-ton Frank H Brown, a fully cellular ship fitted with a 40-ton Munck gantry crane and with a capacity for 252 25 foot 3 inch containers. The Norwegian-built crane was a larger version of gantry cranes installed on two west coast newsprint carriers recently built for Crown Zellerbach.
Sladden said Matson Navigation had given White Pass a great deal of assistance in setting up the service and using straddle carriers. Matson strongly pressed them to adopt the 24-foot container size, also common in Alaska. Matson was pushing to have the size recognized internationally. In the end, however, White Pass went its own way choosing a size best suited to the railroad.
Neither Matson nor White Pass used the now-common twist locks. Their straddle carriers and cranes used automatic retractable mini-hooks, of two different designs, to lift the containers.
Meanwhile, at ISO meetings in Paris, Sea-Land released the patents on its twist locks and corner castings, opening the way for standardization of containers and their sizes.
Up to 1965, the container revolution mainly involved US domestic trades, although small numbers of containers, mainly 20 footers, sailed internationally as deck cargo on ships of American Mail Line and other carriers.
This changed in April 1966 with the first transatlantic sailing of Sea-Land's Fairland¸ with a full load of 226 35-footers, from Port Elizabeth NJ to Rotterdam, Bremen and Grangemouth (for Glasgow). Scotch whisky, in bottles and tank containers, wine and Heineken beer were among early products carried. Because of labor problems in London, England was served by a feeder barge to an obscure ferry port known as Felixstowe. Four sister ships, including Gateway City, provided weekly sailings.
Moore McCormack and United States Lines joined the fray with semi-container ships at almost the same time.
In the Pacific, in the face of the escalating Vietnam War, Sea-Land won a two-year contract to haul military supplies from Seattle and Oakland to Okinawa. Three ships were pulled off Sea-Land's intercoastal service. The first sailing was in July of 1966. A call at Subic Bay was soon added.
In Vietnam, a logistics snarl, with ships spending weeks at anchor, was endangering the war effort. Sea-Land proposed and won a huge contract for seven container ships and full logistical service including installing two container cranes at Cam Ranh Bay. Six of the ships were to sail directly from the US west coast to Vietnam, with the seventh a feeder. Service began in June of 1967 with crane-equipped ships and in November with gearless ships using the new cranes at Cam Ranh Bay. The seven ships carried 10 percent of the material, including most sensitive items, except ammunition. 250 ships were needed for the rest.
Matson's Pacific Trader made the first commercial transpacific container sailing in late 1967 after being converted in a Japanese Shipyard.
The next fall, six Japanese lines introduced six ships in two consortiums between Japan and California. The first of these, NYK's new 800-TEU Hakone Maru could handle a small number of Matson's 24-footers on deck. The Japanese Lines added a three-ship service to the PNW two years later.
Sea-Land's ships and containers were returning empty from Vietnam. Looking for more revenue, in December of 1968, the line began a one-way service from Yokohama to Seattle and Oakland. Kobe, Hong Kong and Taiwan were soon added.
By 1975, more than 650 full container ships were sailing the Seven Seas. There has been steady growth in numbers and sizes ever since. The 18,000 TEU CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin that recently called Long Beach has 45 times the capacity of 1957's Gateway City.