FAST BACKWARD: The making of Davao as an entry port

Except for few dust-biting researchers who love to plough archival records in search of historical nuggets, the name of William Gohn, an American planter, will never ring a bell. If ever he will honored in the future, part of his legacy has something to do with his almost forgotten, if passionate, 1923 campaign to open Davao as a regular port of entry.

William H. Gohn, a retired sergeant of Company C, 17th Infantry, US Army, and a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, was married to nurse Mary Mathewson, one-time acting director of Davao Mission Hospital, now Brokenshire Integrated Health Ministries, Inc. (BIHMI)).

Discharged from the military service in 1904, he was part-owner of the 126-hectare Keller & Gohn Plantation in Santa Cruz, Davao del Sur, which was founded in 1906. In later years, he became director of Gohn & Haley, Inc., which was organized in 1922.

But his greatest contribution to Davao’s economic history was as president of the Chamber of Commerce of Davao (CCD), campaigning keenly to convince the national government to extend Santa Ana pier by 100 feet to allow the docking of ocean steamer.

In the December 12, 1923, meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce (ACC), the organization advocated the opening of Davao as regular port of entry and the extending of the local pier, which were contained in the 1923 resolution of the local chamber.

In the resolution Gohn presented to chamber members and referred to the American chamber for support, a detailed comparison was made between Zamboanga and Davao ports:

‘There are as yet no official figures covering the foreign trade of Davao as all exports from Davao at present are included in the figures for the port of Zamboanga but the Luzon Stevedoring Company which has loaded all of the foreign vessels from Davao during the past six months, shows that there have been exported from Davao direct to Japan and the [United] States abaca and copra to the value of P1,900,00. Using these six months’ figures and allowing for a steady increase, there will probably be from 120,000 to 150,000 bales of abaca exported direct from Davao during the 12 months ending May 31, 1924. But in the estimate on the enclosed tabulated statement, we have figured only 100,000 bales in order to be conservative, and yet the total value of the exports from Davao this 12 months’ period are estimated at P4,175,000.

“[The] amount is practically double the value of the exports from Zamboanga during the year 1922 in spite of the fact that Davao is not an open port with a regularly established Customs House. On this account, it is necessary for all steamers to first call at Zamboanga to take on Customs officials and guards and for that reason fewer steamers call at Davao than otherwise would do so.

“It is also reasonable to suppose that if Davao were made an open port there would be at least as large direct imports into Davao as there were to Zamboanga during the year 1922. It, therefore, appears quite reasonable to believe that if Davao were made an open port, the total trade for the year 1924 would be at least P5,000,000 divided into exports of P4,250,00 and imports of P750,000.

“These figures seem to justify the making of Davao a regularly established open port since three ports have been maintained in the Philippine Islands for many years with annual imports and exports far below the business of Davao, but if the facts do not justify the making of Davao [as] an independent open port, it is certainly the port of Balabac [in Palawan], which, as stated before, was maintained for many years, although the total imports are exports annually were less than P50,000.”

As to the status of the Davao port facilities, the resolution further declared:

“Some years ago a small wooden dock was built on which the construction work [of the port facilities] was done for P5,000. It only extends into thirteen feet of water at low tide which is not of sufficient depth to allow large steamers to come alongside. It is now in a delapidated (sic) condition and the engineer has posted notices on it prohibiting more than one hundred kilos per square meter of floor space. It will probably be serviceable for another six months and when it goes down, the inter-island and direct shipping will be practically tied up for there will not be any facilities for loading lighters for direct shipment and the inter-island steamers will have to load and unload through the surf with cargo boats. We cannot only not get money to build a new dock but can’t even get enough to repair the old one.”

M.M. Saleeby, a Syrian-American representing Hanson and Orth in the American chamber, supported Gohn’s position, explaining conditions in Davao in 1906 have drastically changed over the years, now “turn[ing] out 15,000 bales, with unlimited possibilities in the future.”

He informed the ACC that in recent months there had been American ships calling at Santa Ana pier to haul hemp for direct export to the US but they were restricted from docking on the quay because of its length. Moreover, he explained, the Davao chamber’s appeal for funding to extend the pier and officially designating it as subport were deserving of government support.

To Gohn’s credit and the ACC’s representation, the Legislature later set aside P8,000 in appropriation to repair the Santa Ana pier. On the other hand, the Insular Collector of Customs acted on a letter sent to him by the CCD and endorsed the opening of Davao as an entry port.