December 10, 2015

Extinct whirley cranes discovered in Oregon!

Whirley crane, Zidell Company shipyard, Portland, Ore. 2015 (photo by author)

Early this year I wrote a blog post about the magnificent whirley cranes of the Kaiser shipyards. Kaiser had first used whirleys while building Grand Coulee Dam, and when he began making cargo ships during World War II he brought them down to his Richmond, Calif. and Portland, Ore., area yards. I ended with a description of a stoic whirley installed at Kaiser Richmond shipyard number 3 as part of the Rosie the Riveter National Park. I called it “the last crane.”

"Zidell's Delight" whirley on Liberty ship hull, circa 1965. Photo #550 courtesy Zidell shipyard, Portland, Ore.

I was wrong.

This summer the Oregon Historical Society in Portland mounted an incredible exhibition on World War II, and I was invited to give a presentation about Henry J. Kaiser’s Home Front social benefit legacies. While visiting there I had a chance to tour the Zidell shipyard on the bank of the Willamette River (adjacent to the Oregon Health Sciences University). If good forces align this strip will one day be the site of an outdoor maritime display, combining biking and walking recreation with the rich and diverse history of the region — including WWII Kaiser shipbuilding.

Yes, it was. Not just one whirley crane — two whirley cranes, fully functioning and going about their business of building barges, which is what Zidell does so well. I couldn’t have been more surprised if a dinosaur crawled out of the Willamette and bit me.

More research remains to be done about the lineage of these beasts. Larry Richards, Zidell’s unofficial archivist and historian, tells me that these machines were bought at auction in 1981 from the Port of Long Beach in Southern California.

"Zidell's Delight" whirley on Liberty ship hull, circa 1965. Photo #526 courtesy Zidell shipyard, Portland, Ore.

When Zidell entered the ship dismantling business in 1946, the company at first rented a portion of the old Commercial Ironworks shipyard on the Willamette River, at the west end of the Ross Island Bridge. That yard had a long dock on the river bank, and there were two whirleys on that dock. As that business grew for Zidell, the company rented greater portions of the shipyard and eventually purchased it from the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1950s.

Over the years, other cranes were purchased and installed on the dock and even on converted hulls of Liberty ships, creating vessels which were known as “Zidell Delights”. Those vessels were used in various construction and loading venues in the Pacific Northwest. In the 1960s we built five of these vessels, each of which used a Liberty ship hull as its base with the dimensions of 400 x 58 x 25 feet.

History lives on in the Zidell yards.


As of March 2017 a webcam monitors an osprey nest at the top of a whirley crane in the WWII Richmond shipyard!

Thank you, Golden Gate Audubon Society.