Retiree digs deep for photos of the Port, which was created 105 years ago

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In the digital age, there’s something magical about a place like the Washington State Archives. Deep in the vault of the Puget Sound Regional Branch in Bellevue, history is preserved the old-fashioned way.

Rod Koon made many visits to the archive's office, digging into the Port of Tacoma’s first century. The facility contains thousands of photos, negatives, slides and newspaper clippings that capture many key milestones of the Port’s history. 

For 38 years, Koon worked in the Port’s communications office. After retiring, he wrote a photo book about Port history.

“I just think it's a fascinating story to tell,” Koon said. 

Going through hundreds of photo negatives, Koon unearthed moments nearly lost to time. For example, President Warren Harding’s 1923 speech at Tacoma’s Stadium Bowl is well-documented. What Koon didn’t know, until he found the photos, was that after his speech, Harding left for Alaska from Pier 2 at the Port.

“You can't just go on the internet and type in something and necessarily see President Harding at the Port of Tacoma.” That’s because so many photos have yet to be digitized. “The only ones that have been digitized as far as I know are the ones I digitized when I bought a scanner,” Koon said. 

He is now traveling the region, giving presentations where he shares images from 105 years of Port history. Koon traces the big milestones, from the Port’s creation by Pierce County voters on November 5, 1918. 

The first ship to call at the Port of Tacoma was the Edmore, which arrived on March 25, 1921. Logs and lumber drove the Port’s early years, and the building of a grain terminal and a cold storage facility were key events of the 1930s. During the peak of World War II shipbuilding in Tacoma, 33,000 people worked at Todd-Pacific Shipyards. The postwar period saw growth of new industries and dramatic Port expansion plans, which began coming to fruition in the 1960s with projects like the dredging and extension of both the Hylebos and Blair waterways. 

In the 1980s, the Port opened the first dockside intermodal rail yard on the West Coast and welcomed new container cranes on a ship from Japan, the first time they showed up fully assembled. It was a time of major growth for the Port, which Koon was able to personally witness during his long Port career. 

The story of the ever-changing Port still fascinates Koon, especially the stories of its early decades that he uncovered during his visits to the archives. 

“You got to dig deep to get to the history.”