Containers Transform the Waterfront 

In 1960, the San Francisco Transportation Club members gathered to hear from industry experts. San Francisco was the largest port on the west coast. Oakland was the port across the Bay, unable to compete effectively in capturing shipping trade. At the meeting, Ray Watts, executive director of the Port of San Francisco, told the audience, "Containerization won't last. We've been handling break bulk cargo for fifty years, and we are not going to stop now." Ben Nutter, executive director of the Port of Oakland, jokingly told Mr. Watts, "You take all the non-containerized cargo, and I'll take all the container cargo. And that way we won't have any more arguments." Watts responded, "It's a deal." And it was a deal, for Oakland. Through its focus on containerized shipping, Oakland soon eclipsed San Francisco, becoming the second largest port in the nation, after New York.

The idea of container shipping originated with Sea-Land Services, Inc. in New Jersey. In 1956, they were the first to put cargo in specially designed boxes, called "sea chests," for safe and efficient transport. In 1959, at Encinal Terminals in Alameda, Matson Lines installed the first container crane to facilitate the loading and unloading of containers from a cargo ship. In 1961, Ben Nutter visited the Sea-Land headquarters in New Jersey to negotiate a deal that would bring Sea-Land to Oakland. Within the next few years, both Sea-Land and Matson had built container terminals in Oakland. Oakland's commitment to containerization had begun.

The impact on the Port of Oakland was enormous. In 1962, there were four break bulk marine terminals with just 14 berths. That year the Port handled a total of 787,603 revenue tons of cargo, of which less than 7% was containerized. Container cargo volume surpassed break-bulk tonnage in 1968, and by 1972, the Port of Oakland had moved into second place nationally and first place on the West Coast.

Dan Westerlin
Port of Oakland

Oakland Museum of California Logo  "Walk Along the Water"
  Oakland Museum of California, used with permission.