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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A History of Containerization in the California Maritime Industry: The Case of San Francisco


Maritime cargo was traditionally delivered to the waterfront. placed aboard ship by crane, and stowed item by item in a ship's hold by hand, a process which had been dependent on manual labor for as long as ships had carried cargo. In the 1960s this system was threatened by the introduction of a process which packaged cargo into large steel containers at its place or origin, transported the loaded containers by specially designed trucks, trains, and ships, and delivered them to their destination without the items or cargo being touched by human hands. This new, mechanized system threatened the jobs of longshoremen on the docks, and required maritime carr!ers and port managers to accommodate to its special needs. This history describes the manner in which these groups struggled to create a policy to meet the challenges presented by the introduction or containerization into the California maritime industry.

The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union faced the threat posed by this new labor replacing technology, by abandoning its traditional opposition to mechanization and accepting the new technology on the waterfront.

In the traditionally conservative maritime industry, most carriers either gave short shrift to containerization, or tried to superimpose it onto the existing cargo transportation methods, thus failing to realize the full benefits of the new technology. The Matson Navigation Company, however, after analyzing the new system with operations research methodology, made the full commitment containerization required. and became the pathfinder for the new technology in the California mari­time cargo transportation industry.

The Port of San Francisco, however. did not make a full commitment to con­tainerization and failed to reap the benefits which it brought to other state and national ports. In Its efforts to meet the challenges posed by the new technology, the port was burdened with the heritage of an outdated system of state ownership with its tradition of conservative management. When port administrators attempted to create a policy to meet the challenges posed by this new cargo transportation system. there was disagreement and public outcry not only over the means to accomplish that goal, but also over the definition of the goal. More than a quarter or a century after Matson's first container ship sailed under the Golden Gate, the Port or San Francisco still struggles to create a viable policy to meet the demands of this now universally accepted maritime technology.

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