Even in Oregon, which is known for dramatic landscapes, few employers can offer a more scenic workplace than Shaver Transportation. It’s the rare traveler who doesn’t spot at least one of the company’s barges while following Interstate 84 through the Columbia River Gorge. One of Shaver’s boats even appeared in a 1952 Jimmy Stewart western.
But Shaver isn’t just part of the scenery. Now operated by the fifth generation of Shaver family members, the company is a part of Oregon history and continues to make an important contribution to the state’s economy.
Shaver Transportation was founded in Portland only 21 years after Oregon attained statehood and five years before the Statue of Liberty floated into New York Harbor. In the 143 years since, the company and its equipment have adapted to serve a growing region, developing markets and an evolving river system. In keeping with this history, its newest boats are designed to do not only the work required today, but also the work that may be required in coming years.
At the time of Shaver’s founding in 1880, transportation in the inland Northwest was focused on rivers, says Robert Rich, the company’s vice president for marine services. During the company’s early years, the services Shaver provided were limited to areas near the Columbia River. As logging increased, agriculture developed and dams in the Columbia and Snake River systems were built, however, the export value of goods coming to the river system grew.
Shaver’s fleet evolved and expanded as well. The evolution of cargo from simple log rafts to heavier bundled rafts required boats with increasing horsepower. Grain, which once was sacked and stacked on paddle-wheelers, now travels by bulk in covered, self-unloading barges. A single, four-barge tow now carries as much grain as 535 tractor-trailers, says Rich.
During World War II, when Kaiser shipyards in Portland and Vancouver worked around the clock, Shaver Transportation’s boats assisted more than 1,000 ship launchings. And just a few years later, one of the company’s oldest boats, the Henderson, appeared as the River Queen in “Bend of the River,” a western featuring Stewart, Rock Hudson and Julie Adams, better known as the co-star of “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
Shaver Transportation’s current fleet includes 22 grain barges and 16 tugs, most of which can serve multiple missions. More than half of the company’s tugs can be paired with barges to move cargo along the Columbia and Snake River system. Shaver carries about 40% of the barged wheat that moves from as far as Lewiston, Idaho, to export elevators in the ports of Portland, Vancouver, Kalama and Longview, says Rich.
Shaver also provides over 60% of ship assists on the river. Its tugs help ships maneuver while docking and exiting in Portland, Astoria, Port Westward and elsewhere. The company also moves unique cargo such as windmill blades, dam generators, navigation lock doors and even drilling equipment for Alaskan oil fields.
The company’s newest and most powerful boat, the 8,400-horsepower Samantha S, is capable of providing emergency services to stricken ships. It can travel hundreds of miles offshore, attach itself to a ship and tow it where it needs to go. It can fight fires as well, pumping as much as 12,000 gallons of water per minute.
Two of Shaver’s boats – the Samantha S and the company’s next most powerful boat, the Sommer S – are capable of serving as escorts to tankers traveling along the Columbia. Such escorts are required in Washington, says Rich, and eventually they are likely to be required in Oregon as well.
Shaver Transportation employs about 140 people directly and many more indirectly. The Samantha S and Sommer S were built by Diversified Marine in Portland, as is Shaver’s newest boat, a twin of the Sommer S. Most of the company’s barges, meanwhile, were built by Zidell Marine and Gunderson Marine in Portland.
Despite its longevity and the importance of its work, Shaver does periodically encounter rough sailing. The most significant threat on the horizon involves the diesel fuel that powers all of the company’s tugs, says Rich. Western state legislatures, including Oregon’s, regularly consider proposals that would ban petroleum-based diesel. Yet replacement fuels do not exist in volumes or at prices that would allow Shaver to replace the significant volume of diesel it procures locally now.
Ironically, barging is an incredibly efficient way to move goods. While trucking, rail and barging are all critical and interrelated parts of the region’s transportation network, barging generally moves the most cargo with a given volume of fuel. According to a 2022 Texas A&M Transportation Institute report, barging on average moves 675 tons of cargo one mile for every gallon of fuel used compared with 472 tons for rail and 151 tons for trucking.
Given the economic and environmental value of the barge and tug business, policymakers should be asking what they can do to ensure that Shaver Transportation lasts another 143 years.