Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 28 April 2022
Journeys to a Free State: The Potential of the Port
In the spring of 1922, the Cork Harbour Commissioners commissioned Mr George F Nicholson, chief engineer of the Port of Seattle, to come to Cork in order to research and write up a paper on the challenges in the development of the port of Cork in the short term. George gave a public lecture in Cobh on his work in March 1922. His work was also discussed at length in the meetings of the Cork Harbour Commissioners across the Spring of that year. He pitched a need to invest two million sterling (€145 million today) to modernise port facilities.
In the public lecture, George emphasised the fact that, he was an outside engineer and had no local connections. The Port Commissioners of Seattle granted George a leave of absence, without pay, for from four to six months. The Cork side were interested in the story of the Port of Seattle. The concept of that port had just come into existence on 5 September 1911, by a vote of the people of the Port District. It was created with a view to recovering public control over the waterfront of Seattle. Port construction commenced in 1913 with the establishment of a home port for the local fishermen. From the beginning, the importance of recognising the waterfront with railroads, warehouses, and industrial sites was crucial.
The Seattle terminal was finished in 1914 and became the Northern Pacific Fishing Fleet’s home of operations. By 1916 Seattle had six separate deep-draft terminals, comprising one for grain and one for refrigerated goods, and a storage facility that held nearly one million gallons of vegetable oil. Seattle swiftly became the leading port on the West Coast in terms of the dollar value of its imports and exports, and it reigned unchallenged in Washington for decades.
George was employed to see if any learnings could be brought from Seattle to Cork Harbour. He opened his talk in Cobh saying that his opinion was unbiased, and his recommendations were made from a purely engineering and traffic standpoint. At the outset, he thought that Cork Harbour should be made a national port, if not the national port of Ireland, by the new Provisional Government. Mr Nicholson stated that the Lower Harbour should be given preference in the future development work, especially developing the rail connections and deep water shipping.
George advocated very strongly in his lecture that the City of Cork and town of Cobh consolidate as one city under one corporate limit. This, he argued, was necessary for the “successful development of Cork Harbour as a whole”. Cork Harbour, he detailed, had a fine opportunity in its new development work, to install more efficient facilities than the surrounding European Ports. But harmonious co-operation between the two communities, acting as one city, with the Harbour Board was vitally essential.
George called for Cork and Cobh to learn from the serious mistakes made by other ports in this regard. He referenced the Atlantic Coast Ports of North America who profited by the mistakes made by the older European ports. In the previous fifteen years the Pacific Ports of North America had learned by the mistakes made by the Atlantic ports.
George pointed out that the upper river harbour in Cork city was not capable of accommodating the evolving size of ships that large steamship companies were standardising upon. There was also a great need at Cork for – (1) transit sheds, where goods could be stored in transit and protected from the weather; (2) shipside tracks, so that freight could be loaded direct between ship and railway wagons without man handling; and (3) mechanical freight handling equipment lor the economical handling of grain, coal, and all miscellaneous cargo.
George highlighted the importance of the entrance channel to the lower harbour was of first and prime importance. He noted that was no use in erecting modern facilities inside the harbour if steamers could not reach them in any kind of weather and at all stages of the tide.
George deemed that the deep water quay at Cobh was impossible for a number of reasons: (1) There was no room for future expansion, there were only 46 acres available, including a large portion of White Point, while at Cuskinny Bay there were several hundred acres. There were also issues in turning large vessels around rocks and at points in the main channel.
The place of Cuskinny Bay as a terminal site for the lower harbour was detailed in the lecture. George proposed that a modern terminal should erected there, and that any boat, large or small, could then berth there in the worst gale. He noted: “The Cuskinny pier would be the means of getting back the mail business going to Northern England and Scotland, as many hours would be saved. Also it would result, in the attracting of new commerce. When you have the passenger traffic, you will also obtain considerable freight traffic”.
George concluded by showing very interesting stereo views of the modern port of Seattle. It was clearly shown in these views the excellent terminals constructed in that port in the previous years at a cost of £3m; as well as the great assortment of mechanical freight handling equipment for which Seattle was noted. It had the reputation of owning and operating more labour-saving devices, in comparison with its number of terminal facilities, than any other port in the United States and Canada.
In the months that followed, George’s report was sidelined due to the Irish Civil War, but the creation of extra terminal space was kept on the Harbour Commissioner’s agenda but only became a physical reality in the mid to late twentieth century. One could argue that the Ringaskiddy port development in today’s context was inspired by a multitude of reports such as the Nichols report commissioned through the past century.
1148a. Postcard of Cork Harbour from Queenstown, now Cobh c.1910 from Cork Harbour Through Time by Kieran McCarthy & Dan Breen.