From Steam to Diesel Fuel,
by Sean Meyers, Special to The Business Journal
This year Shaver Transportation Co. of Portland will celebrate 125 years of hauling cargo up and down the Columbia, Willamette and Snake rivers.
Founded by George Washington Shaver in 1880, Shaver Transportation's early business included long runs to Idaho through the rapids of the Snake River. But much of the company's early work consisted of local transportation of timber, agricultural products and people on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, which were the Interstate 84 and Interstate 5 of the era. The first Portland bridge across the Willamette wasn't completed until 1887.
Many of the steamships were shallow-draft sternwheelers, which were very maneuverable and durable. Some were capable of steaming up smaller rivers like the Yamhill as far as Dayton. One business partner of Shaver bragged that he could get a steamship "anywhere where the roses are wet with dew."
Much of Shaver's current business consists of bringing wheat from inland Columbia ports back to the Port of Portland, which accounts for almost one-third of U.S. wheat exports, second only to New Orleans.
But Shaver and other small companies didn't get much wheat hauling business on the Columbia in the 1880s. The market was monopolized by a large competitor called the Oregon Steam Navigation Co., which sponsored construction of a railway along the river in 1909 that effectively ended the movement of wheat on the Columbia.
Grain transportation on the river didn't rebound until the 1930s, when the fuel-efficient system of diesel-powered tugs and barges began. Shaver began by hauling sacks of wheat. The construction of dams on the Columbia from 1941 to 1968 made the river much more navigable for large barges, which can now hold as much as 4,000 tons of wheat.
In addition to wheat transportation, Shaver also assists cargo vessels with tractor tugs. The company has about 100 employees, 16 barges and 11 tugs, including the modern Willamette and Deschutes tractor tugs, each capable of generating up to 3,600 horsepower. Shaver is headquartered on a 5-acre lot on Northwest Front Street.
It remains very much a family business. Steve Shaver, George's great-great-grandson, is company president. Steve's father, Harry, is chairman of the board. Harry's brother, George, died last September at the age of 79. He was remembered for his distinguished bearing and for his effective advocacy on behalf of the industry. George's son, G. Dixon Shaver, is currently company vice president, as well as a board member and part owner.
George's daughter, Mary, made history in 1982 when she started Anchorage Launch Service, a Portland water taxi that specializes in ferrying Portland officials to ships awaiting portage. By one newspaper account, Mary became the first Pacific Northwest woman to successfully start a major river business since Thea Foss of Puget Sound established Foss Maritime Co. in 1889.
There are also plenty of little Shavers running around. Steve's daughter, Rickie, works in purchasing at Shaver Transportation, representing the family's sixth generation on the docks.
It's currently slack tide at Shaver Transportation, says Ken Ritter, who manages upriver traffic for the company. Grain shipments traditionally taper off at this time of year and the soft white wheat market, which hit a six-year high last year when prices reached $4 a bushel and exports to China were booming, has cooled off.
The potential for increased river and ocean traffic in Oregon is great, according to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which estimates that barge traffic on the Columbia could safely double and notes that many of the eastbound containers are currently empty. Barge transportation is more fuel-efficient (if one does not consider the electric power lost when water is flushed through locks rather than past hydroelectric turbines - bluefish adds), cost-effective and reliable, the PNWA maintains, and helps keep traffic and pollution away from population centers. An ocean vessel headed south to California can carry enough timber to replace more than 500 fully loaded semi-trucks that would otherwise have to drive down I-5.
The recent increase in fuel prices won't give barges a competitive advantage over rail, however, says Ritter, who estimates that rail has 60 percent of the current grain transportation market verses 40 percent for barges. "Railroads have the advantage of buying fuel nationally, where it's cheaper, and averaging out its price."
A serious threat to the barge industry is numerous lawsuits by environmental organizations that don't want any dredging of the Snake or Columbia rivers, claiming that it destroys habitat for salmon and other wildlife.
Although Shaver's barges have a relatively shallow draft -- 14 feet -- parts of the Snake River must be kept at artificially high levels to allow passage. The barge industry maintains that dredging is necessary because each spring brings new deposits of soil into the river, worsening the problem.
Opposition to dredging on the Snake has replaced dam breaching as the environmental movement's primary legal tactic to improve fish runs, says Steve Shaver, company president. "We're waiting for important decisions from federal judges in Portland and Seattle."
The barge industry wants more focus on other ways to improve fish habitat and points out that biologists still don't really know what makes salmon runs fluctuate so wildly from year to year.
Can Shaver Transportation survive another 125 years? It's not a question that's actively contemplated at company headquarters, says Shaver.
"It's hard to imagine what will happen that far in the future, when a person's not going to be around," Shaver says. "We do our planning five years ahead. That's the length of our union contract."
Snake River Commodity Tonnage, Army Corps of Engineers data from 1990-2002
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