Redwood City’s Port Has Multiple Birthdays

This year is the City of Redwood City's 150th anniversary and the Port of Redwood City's 80th anniversary, yet believe it or not, the port is older!

Why?  Read on to learn more!

The year was 1851, and San Francisco was growing by leaps and bounds as Gold Rush fever swept Northern California.  Such expansion demanded lumber, and along the hills of the Peninsula there was a mother lode of redwood timber waiting to be harvested.    Felling the trees was easy; the cost and difficulty lay in moving them down the mountainsides and wagon-hauling them overland to San Francisco for milling into lumber. 

One day in 1851 it was discovered that a creek running through the Peninsula emptied directly into a naturally deep channel of water that, in turn, flowed into San Francisco Bay.  Logging companies quickly made use of this valuable natural resource as a water highway, easily and economically moving huge redwood logs down from the hills and into the channel.  Once positioned in the channel, the logs were stacked on barges or lashed together for the final journey to San Francisco, where they were ultimately milled into lumber. 

Among the first entrepreneurs to use that waterway highway to move their timber to market were Dr. Robert O. Tripp, founder of the historic Woodside Store, and his partner, Mathias A. Parkhurst.  

Because redwood trees were so abundant, it’s not at all surprising that the creek was named “Redwood Creek,” and the town that sprang up near it was called “Redwood City.”  Unsurprisingly, the waterfront that was first known as El Embarcadero then became known as the Port of Redwood City.

During that era, the Redwood City waterfront was in an area near the current intersection of Broadway and Arguello streets, and stretched as far south as today’s downtown Post Office. It is hard to visualize this today because the creek and its branches downtown have been culverted and paved over, and Broadway has been realigned.

 Redwood City’s port distinguished it from other communities developing on the Peninsula – nearby towns such as San Mateo, Belmont and San Carlos.  As the only deep-water channel in the southern San Francisco Bay, forest products of all types were brought to the waterfront for export, and Redwood City became famous for its workable port, where materials could be shipped without the delay or expense of overland travel. It would be another 20 years before the transcontinental railroad system presented another option for the movement of cargo.

Many different types of businesses found the proximity to a deep-water channel of considerable economic benefit, and wharves and businesses soon occupied the entire length of Redwood Creek. Commercial shipping of products in addition to lumber thrived, especially shingles, grains, hay, and livestock.

There were three main wharves. The two largest wharves were on opposite sides of the creek at Broadway (then called Bridge Street).   The third wharf, owned by Frank’s Tannery, was farther down the creek near where the present-day Peninsula Boardwalk Plaza is located. The Port of Redwood City was at its zenith during the days of the Gold Rush. But gradually the forests dwindled and shipping declined. As dikes and levees were installed to reclaim swamplands north and east of town, land erosion took place and caused silt to start filling the channel. 

The building of the San Francisco-San Jose Railroad was a near fatal blow to the Port of Redwood City. It was now termed “useless” by its opponents and gradually forgotten as a force in the life of the community. But there was one group that kept its eyes on the port and the possibilities there – the federal government. Uncle Sam had always been interested in navigable channels, and small government subsidies kept the port alive during the years of competition with the powerful railroad interests and the battle against civic indifference.

As early as 1882 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers voiced its interest in the Port of Redwood City, which was also known then as El Embarcadero.  The Corps that year authorized the Port of Redwood City as a federally approved project, creating the ability for the port to seek federal funding for maintenance dredging henceforth. This enabled the port to continue to be used for shipping, and to this day, maintenance dredging is necessary from time to time to keep the channel open for commerce.

The port was “moved” further down the existing creek and channel towards San Francisco Bay to its present location along Seaport Boulevard east of Highway 101.  In 1903, the Corps increased the channel's width to 100 feet. After the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco, the Corps began a five-year project to widen the channel to 150 feet.

Civic interest in the port reawakened with increasing government interest and activity. As maritime activity prospered, the Redwood City Harbor Company was formed in 1912 by businessmen and civic leaders, but before the community could get solidly behind the port, World War I began and the Port of Redwood City was forgotten. The port was not ready to handle the large wartime cargos and most of the business went to ports in Oakland, Stockton, Richmond, and Sacramento.

In 1917 Redwood City once again attracted worldwide attention at its port with the construction of the steamship “Faith,” the world's first cement-hulled ocean-going vessel. The “Faith,” constructed at a shipyard on Redwood Creek when the port was still centered downtown, was built for fighting German U-boats in World War I. The ship never saw any military action, however, since the Armistice was signed a few months later.

In 1931 the War Department agreed to allot $26,000 for harbor development if the voters would match the pledge. Plans called for deepening the channel to 20 feet and widening it to 200 feet. This encouraged political leaders from all over San Mateo County to form a countywide committee at the prompting of legendary Burlingame Mayor C.A. Buck and Judge John J. McGrath of San Mateo, president of the Peninsula Industrial Conference. These two outsiders still saw the port as an economic engine of countywide importance. McGrath would later be elected to Congress and be a solid promoter of federal port funding.

Jumping ahead, on June 11, 1936, voters approved an amendment to the City Charter to establish a Port Department to “control, operate and manage development of the Port of Redwood City.”  The port to this day is governed by the City Charter, with only minor voter-approved changes made over the years.

It wasn’t until 1937 that the Port of Redwood City became official, establishing that year as the “modern” port’s birth date. Thus the port, whose founding goes back before the City’s, will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2017.

 The 92-acre port quickly became successful and profitable, and has remained so for most of its 80 years, creating its own income and operating without any tax funds.  The port remains a unique and valuable commercial and recreational asset to the City of Redwood City.

To learn more about the port’s and City’s colorful history, go to www.redwoodcity.org or the sesquicentennial microsite www.redwoodcityhistory.org.

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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.