Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Final Barge Launched at Zidell's Southwest Portland Shipyard

 

August 1, 2017

The parallel-sided hull modules are assembled under cover and moved into place on the assembly area by the 80-ton gantry crane, where they are joined by the large bow and stern rakes. Photo by Peter Marsh.

Last fall, Jay Zidell, president of Zidell Marine Corporation (ZMC), announced that the family-owned company would cease work at its SW Portland Shipyard after the launch of the tank barge under construction for Harley Marine. The company has operated a marine business on this site under the Ross Island bridge since 1946, when it began dismantling World War II surplus naval vessels from the 1950's to the 1970's. More than 300 were recycled before Zidell turned to barge building and became one of the west coast's leaders in that field. The last launch was the 238th from the Portland site, plus 39 built in Tacoma from 1960-76, for a total of 277. Hence the name chosen by Harley Franco for the yard's final vessel: Zidell Marine 277.

The re-development of the surrounding South Waterfront area began more than a decade ago, and ZMC has gradually been surrounded on all sides by high-rise buildings. The Zidell property comprises 33 acres of riverfront on both sides of the Ross Island Bridge. It is bordered on the downstream side by the Tilikum Crossing, a new bridge built exclusively for pedestrians, bikes and transit. "The accelerating pace of transformation in the South Waterfront took us a little by surprise," Jay Zidell remarked early in 2016.

He had rejected all offers far longer than many observers had expected, but the decision to close was ultimately inevitable. Last September, he informed the barge-building crew in person in a company meeting. "This has been a difficult decision for me, and one that has come upon us faster than I was expecting--particularly recognizing the impacts on you," he told them. The closure marks the end of a century of shipbuilding and manufacturing in this area on the west bank of the Willamette River and upstream of the city center.

In the pioneer days, many wooden sternwheelers and barges were built and repaired here, and carried most of the goods and passengers in the Willamette Valley. In 1916, a decade before the bridge was erected, the site was improved by Columbia River Shipbuilding to participate in the short-lived boom in small cargo ships to carry military supplies to Europe in World War I.

In the same year, Commercial Iron Works was established nearby as a foundry and machine shop. They expanded into marine repairs in the 1920's, and small ship building resumed in 1935 when they launched the Rhododendron, an 80-foot Coast Guard buoy tender for the 17th Lighthouse District in Vancouver. Production continued with three tugs for Willamette Paper and the last of the traditional steam-powered sternwheelers, the 168-foot Jean, still afloat in North Portland.

Commercial was one of many outfits that closed their gates in 1946, giving Jay Zidell's father, Emery the opportunity to expand the family business in metal products and salvage, Zidell Machinery and Supply, begun by his father Sam in the 1920's. In anticipation of the government beginning to dispose of its vast wartime fleet, Emery leased the dock where Commercial had outfitted its naval vessels and named the new business Zidell Ship Dismantling. This decision paid off when the huge Pacific fleet, ranging from landing craft to small aircraft carriers was declared surplus to future needs.

Hundreds of these vessels made their last journey up the Willamette and under the bridges of Portland to Zidell's. The business prospered, and quickly became the largest ship breaker on the west coast. The company expanded along the shore to the north, and eventually purchased the site from the Union Pacific Railroad. When the thousands of Liberty ships still afloat were replaced with modern cargo vessels, many returned to Portland where more than 400 were launched at Kaiser's Oregon Shipbuilding – now Schnitzer Steel.

Realizing that basic marine equipment like pipes and valves could be re-used, Emery began marketing these products to meet the post-war building demand. This eventually led to the birth of Tube Forgings of America, which became one of the leading US manufacturers of precision welding fittings. Emery's son Jay grew up helping his father build the operation to re-sell or re-cycle as much of each ship as possible. They held military surplus sales on the weekends and attracted crowds of people looking for bargains in what was essentially a giant military parking lot sale. "At that time, it was a really good business for us to be in," Jay recalled.

Over 30 years, Zidell dismantled about 340 ships, from patrol boats to aircraft carriers. Most of the smaller craft came from the Astoria Reserve Naval Base where as many as 250 transport vessels were anchored in huge rafts. (Some of those ships in reserve were re-commissioned in the early 1950's for the Korean War, but they too were obsolete by 1960.)

The base began closing in 1962, the same year that Zidell commissioned its first small deck barge ZB-1 of 300 gross tons. Where possible, it was constructed using the recycled steel plate they had stored over the years.

At that time, the typical river barge was relatively small at around 100 feet long with a maximum beam of 36 feet – the size that allowed a pushtug and four barges to fit in the Bonneville Dam's original navigation lock that measured 500 feet by 76 feet, noted Bill Gobel, the company's VP and CEO who followed his father into the company in 1960. However, ZMC was also one of the first to demonstrate the potential of much bigger barges like today's 400 footers. They did this by stripping six Liberty ships down to the main deck and rolling a war-surplus mobile crane on board. These 440-foot crane-barges were successfully used locally for many years to unload ships at docks without the necessary facilities, and to transport heavy equipment.

Dam building on the Columbia accelerated in the 1960's and by 1968, the company could turn out as many as ten small barges in a year. The fourth of the BPA dams on the Columbia, the John Day Dam, was completed in 1971, opening a barge route to Washington's tri-cities region. This increased the demand for barges to carry wheat to the terminals in Portland and Zidell upgraded to meet the demand. Two adjacent high-bay shop and warehouse buildings 700 feet long and 50 feet wide were erected, equipped with the latest plasma burning equipment and served by 25-ton overhead cranes. There were still surplus ships arriving occasionally: the yard's final dismantling job came in 1974, with the last of the Essex-class 880-foot aircraft carriers, the USS Ticonderoga (commissioned 1944 at Newport News) making its last journey from San Diego. These carriers first had their upper works removed at Zidell's Tacoma dock on the Hylebos Waterway, before they were towed to Portland for complete dismantling.

Looking ahead, the assembly area was enlarged and a pair of 35-ton Whirley track cranes were installed in the late 1970's; they were replaced by two 38-ton models from the Port of Long Beach in 1981. The next year saw the launch of a 230-foot by 60-foot, 30,000-barrel tank barge, but this was the end of a regional construction boom. Barge construction ground to a halt and the Zidell yard was closed from 1982 to 1990. In 1987, the last of the four Snake River dams was completed, opening a route to Washington's Palouse wheat farming area and boosting the upriver towboat business.

The yard was re-opened in 1990 and a couple of grain hopper barges were delivered to plans from local naval architect J. Cameron McKernan using computer-aided drafting (CAD) for the first time. The next contract was for a large ocean-going deck cargo barge 302 feet long and 76 feet wide. "The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 resulted in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was to bring about the biggest single change in tank-vessel construction since the change from riveting to welding," Gobel recalled. It required all new oil tankers and tank-barges be built with double hulls, but existing barges could continue in use for up to 25 years.

An important change on the Columbia River navigation system also helped bring about the first order for an OPA 90 barge. It was the opening of the new lock at Bonneville Dam in 1993, which replaced the under-sized original lock opened in 1938. The new lock matched the BPA system's standard on the seven post-war dams of 85 feet wide and 676 feet long and cleared the long-standing bottleneck at Bonneville. This convinced Tidewater Barge Lines of Vancouver to build a new class of tank barges to fit the BPA's new lock size.

Zidell modified their launch ramp to accommodate this additional beam and handle the extra weight of the double hull. The first OPA 90 tank barge was designed by Elliot Bay Design Group and was 328 feet long, with a 76-foot beam and 22-foot depth of hull and a capacity of 69,000 barrels. The minimum void width for flammable liquid cargo as described in the new American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) rule was 2 feet, but the team elected to increase this to 2.5 feet on the bottom and 3 feet on the sides for easier access. There was also a considerable increase in complexity of piping for the vapor control and recovery system to meet the rules.

Since that time, the Shipyard has built 20 additional tank barges to seven different designs. "They are far more complex and all took a year or more to complete," explained Gobel. The parallel-sided hull modules were assembled under cover and moved into place on the assembly area by the 80-ton gantry crane. The large bow and stern rakes were assembled outside the fabrication shop and moved by multi-wheel carriers. The barges were all assembled, painted, and outfitted on the assembly pad, then the complete hull was jacked up onto rubber-tired platforms to move ahead to the launch ramp.

The largest and heaviest was 365 feet 78 feet with an 88,000-barrel capacity, built in 2007. McKernan retired soon after, and all later designs came from the Elliot Bay Design Group in Seattle. However, his daughter Mary-Anne continued to provide CAD production support as a staff member until the last launch. Zidell's last barge is one of the largest at 421 feet by 76 feet by 27 feet deep, with a capacity of 80,000 barrels. Like all the recent ocean-going tank barges, it is fitted with an ATB coupler – the popular Articouple from Japan.

The specifications for this vessel include inert gas generators from Maritime Protection AS powered by two Volvo air-cooled engines, plus two generators and an HPU driven by three smaller John Deere engines. Other gear includes JK Fab's Emergency Tow Wire Storage Reel, a 75' radius hose crane from North Pacific Crane Co. of Seattle, and Nabrico deck winches.

The owner is Harley Marine, who have taken delivery of at least 25 barges over the last 30 years. At the ceremonial launch on June 16 Jay Zidell and Bill Gobel addressed the large crowd, noting the company's history of 56 years of barge building, and acknowledging Harley and Tidewater, local suppliers and long-serving employees. "This is the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another," Jay announced. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Harley Franco, founder of Harley Marine, and Kurt Lindsey of Petro Marine Services also spoke. The barge will be chartered to Petro Marine to carry fuel from Washington to Alaska, where it will support the fleet that serves the state's fishing industry.

The last barge was the most complex and heaviest ever at 3,400 tons and refused to join the celebration on schedule; it remained stuck on the ways for a couple of hours after the bottle was broken by Charlene Zidell, Jay's sister. ZMC will still be involved in marine transportation through west coast Barge, an affiliate company, he pointed out. The company will continue chartering the dozen barges built and owned by the family. The management of the property's transformation is a responsibility that the Zidell family considers essential to their legacy.

The Zidell property will become modern urban waterfront when final cleanup work at the yard, employing a number of the yard's production crew, is completed. Photo by Peter Marsh.

This began in the 1980's with the discovery that the ship dismantling period, though long in the past, had left a serious environmental issue that was surveyed in 1986 by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality. "Once we became aware of it, we knew we had a legal responsibility, and we wanted to step up and do the right thing," Jay explained. "It was a vastly larger undertaking, both in time and cost, than we imagined going into it."

Sampling the site and developing a cleanup plan took years before work began to remove the most contaminated soil and river sediment. The land and a portion of the riverbed was covered with a deep layer of clean sand, dirt and gravel, and planted with more than 15,000 native plants. The entire process took more than 20 years and cost more than $30 million, but thanks to favorable court rulings, the Zidells recouped a large portion of their expenses from insurance companies and the federal government.

Before the property is transformed into a modern urban waterfront, there will be more cleanup work at the yard to ready it for the next phase, which will employ a number of the production crew. The company was also organizing a program to help its employees transition into employment in other local shipyards or related fields.

 
 

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