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Tacoma’s renowned chronicler of the working waterfront has died. Ron Magden was 92.

Tacoma historian Ron Magden, seen here in 2014, was the renowned chronicler of the working waterfront. He died recently at 92.
Tacoma historian Ron Magden, seen here in 2014, was the renowned chronicler of the working waterfront. He died recently at 92. News Tribune file photo

On the shelf of books essential to any reporter hoping to get a sense of the region he’d moved to and now was covering, Murray Morgan’s “Skid Road” and “Puget’s Sound” were the first to be placed there and pulled down for frequent reference.

But nestled beside them, and referred to even more frequently, was Ron Magden’s “The Working Waterfront.”

The book (Magden was co-author) was essential reading for those hoping to understand Tacoma’s maritime heritage, its labor history and how the region’s ports, especially Tacoma’s, wound up looking like they do now, which is much differently than they did as recently as 60 years ago.

Think about it. Commercial airplanes have evolved from propeller to jet power, airports now have jetways, but the passenger of decades ago wouldn’t find the configurations different to the point of not recognizing them. Railroads haven’t had a truly revolutionary change in how they look or operate since they abandoned steam.

But the working waterfronts that Magden’s books and other writings describe barely resemble modern-era ports beyond the involvement of a boat carrying cargo from one place to another. The kinds of cargo, where it’s going from and to, how it’s carried, how it’s loaded and unloaded, the number of people employed and the type of work they do, even the look, sound and, to be honest, reputation of the waterfront reflect completely different eras.

You can’t really understand where you are or where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been and how you got here. A longtime devotion to studying and chronicling that history was the reason Magden’s name showed up in so many news stories about Tacoma’s waterfront. It’s interesting that even people actually in the business regarded Magden as the go-to source for information, as reflected in a post on the Port of Tacoma’s blog following Magden’s passing on Dec. 31 at the age of 92.

“The Port of Tacoma purchased many copies of [Magden’s] books and Port staff still use them as important reference sources today,” the post said. “He was the Port’s ‘go-to guy’ when we needed additional background information and historical details about the Port of Tacoma’s history and the development of the Tacoma Tideflats. His knowledge, interest and passion for the Port’s historical development and the people behind those developments was unsurpassed. Over the years, we interviewed Ron many times to help the Port tell various stories and gain insights into the people, companies and developments that have helped shape our working waterfront.”

Where that background was most useful was in trying to trace and understand the port’s transformation to containerized cargo loaded and unloaded by giant cranes, and how what Magden describes as “the greatest change in the history of West Coast labor relations had been accomplished without a strike,” in spite of a tumultuous labor history on those waterfronts.

“Tacoma longshoremen learned how to operate the high-technology equipment necessary to load and discharge container and roll-on roll-off ships,” Magden wrote. “Preparing to serve large container shipping lines demonstrates one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Tacoma longshoremen. They have survived by controlling technological change rather than fighting its introduction.”

It’s tempting to view Magden’s writings as chronicles of a vanishing past. Working waterfronts continue to change; Seattle’s picked up and moved, to be replaced by tourist attractions. Outside of a few pockets of the economy, organized labor is a minor influence or non-existent. Maritime operations get only occasional attention from government, the media and the public.

But what’s past is merely prologue, and Magden had some thoughts on where the trends were heading.

“There are predictions that by the year 2025, all major waterfronts will be 100 percent automated,” he wrote. “Robots will be discharging and loading ships by computer commands. This prophecy may become a reality, but there is little doubt that Tacoma longshoremen will be the computer operators. The rank and file will still be in command.”

His observations become all the more timely in light of a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey on the future of automated ports. More automation is definitely the direction of the trend, the report says, but it’s also not the automatic cost-cutting, productivity-boosting panacea that might be hoped for.

“Although ports have adopted automation more slowly than comparable sectors, notably mining and warehousing, the pace is now starting to accelerate,” the report’s executive summary says. “Automated ports are safer than conventional ones. The number of human-related disruptions falls, and performance becomes more predictable. Yet the up-front capital expenditures are quite high, and the operational challenges — a shortage of capabilities, poor data, siloed operations and difficulty handling exceptions — are very significant. A McKinsey survey indicates that while operating expenses decline, so does productivity, and the returns on invested capital are currently lower than the industry norm.”

Eventually the industry will straighten out some of the kinks and reap benefits from what it calls Port 4.0, but it won’t come without active management, and the gains won’t be universal, the report adds.

We won’t have Ron Magden to explain these latest developments, but we do have his legacy of researching and writing to provide some needed perspective: dramatic transformations have come to the waterfront before. This is just one more chapter in that saga.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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