Port of Redwood City: The Forties Started Strong and Then Came World War II

The Port of Redwood City’s first full decade of operations as a publicly owned port – the 1940s – was disrupted by the war, but the early years of the decade experienced significant growth. The Pacific Portland Cement Co., which had opened operations near the port in the 1920s, continued to grow in the 1940s. Portland built a new $5 million plant adjacent to the port on property it owned, and in the 20th century it became known as Ideal Cement.

 Another famous cement company, Permanente Corporation, a precursor to Kaiser Cement, built new silos and facilities at the Port, some of which remain today.  In 1942, the Federal Works Agency granted $53,000 to the Port for construction of wharves that would double its facilities. This was done in part to enable the Permanente Corp. to ship cement from the port through the new silo facilities in which the company had invested $300,000, a hefty sum for the times. The channel was extended 500 feet west of the old wharves, and a single wharf was built. The volume of business, since the first ship docked in 1937, had jumped from approximately $85,000 to more than $1 million.

The Kaiser facility was used during and after the war to ship millions of tons of cement around the Pacific from Alaska to Hawaii to Guam for major construction projects.

The World War II years thwarted port growth because of the U.S. Navy’s use of the facilities for the war effort. By 1943, the port was so swamped with war work that 280 freight cars were lined up on the sidings from Redwood City to Salinas waiting to unload their cargo. Sixty-eight cars a day were handled by the workers at the port, where 20 had been considered a heavy load in the past.

The port was taken over in 1944 by the Navy as use as part of its overseas freight terminals. The Navy saw the importance of the port for feeding their sources overseas. From a stockpile that sometimes reached 200,000 barrels, ships and barges of American and Allied nations were loaded with oil drums that were destined for Pacific areas. Over 125 ships docked at the port in a 17-month period, and several times the docks reached capacity with three ships moored alongside the docking area.

The Navy’s control of the port was not without a battle itself. Reluctant to relinquish operations in the face of considerable growth in less than a decade, the Port Commission challenged the Navy takeover in U.S. Court, but lost when the Navy filed condemnation proceedings against the Port Commission. A U.S. District Court in San Francisco gave the Navy control over the port effective May 1, 1944.

  

  

 During the war years, even the British Ministry utilized the port facilities, storing 2,000 tons of tin and other materials for eventual shipment overseas. Out of the wartime use came a Navy-funded second wharf of 425 feet to add to the original 825-foot wharf, more warehouse and outside storage space, and better railroad trackage. The Navy returned operations to the Port Commission on Oct. 17, 1945. The SS Creighton Victory, destined for China with 300,000 barrels of kerosene, diesel oil, and gasoline, was the final “war effort” export by the Navy.

The port clearly lost business momentum during the war years. One of the first new post-war opportunities was creation of a mammoth lumber “stockpile” terminal. The first shipment of 500,000 board feet of lumber from Coos Bay, Oregon arrived Dec. 14, 1945.  Bolstered by the post-war's insatiable demand for lumber, Oregon-based Pope & Talbot was the primary port tenant that imported and exported lumber, to varying degrees of success based on the economies for the day, finally ending its Port operations in the 1980s. The cement and oil company operations also resumed. But the remainder of the decade was mixed economically, with periods of ups and downs, much like the recovering post-war economy across America. 

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Duane Sandul has served as public relations consultant for the port for 30 years, and before that reported on the port for both the Redwood City Tribune and San Mateo Times from 1973 to 1985.