Saturday, December 23, 2017

I Saw Three Ships

The sea connects us all.

A few weeks ago I headed out to Hawaii to explore the connections between Puget Sound and those islands. It is quite easy to find ships that have touched the shores of both. Today I am writing about three vessels from three very different eras and with three different propulsion systems. Each is currently home-berthed at Oahu and each has associations with our own neck of the water.

Falls of Clyde: Relic of the Age of Sail

The Falls of Clyde is a venerable sailing ship, one of the last of the iron-hulled tall ships that carried cargo around the world from the 19th through the 20th centuries. Like the three-masted ship Balclutha, the pride of San Francico's Hyde Street Pier, she was launched from Glasgow, Scotland. A four-masted, full rigged ship, the Falls of Clyde was an impressive sight in her day. Today she languishes in Honolulu Harbor, awaiting a nebulous fate.

Painting by Robert Carter, Image courtesy of Save Falls of Clyde - International.

Falls of Clyde was launched in Scotland in 1878, a decade before Balclutha. Following decades of service in the cargo trades, and another career as a petroleum depot in Ketchikan, Alaska, Falls of Clyde wound up as a mastless hulk in Lake Washington waiting for a new owner. There was talk of using the ship as a breakwater in British Columbia, the fate of a number of sailing ships, including the St. Paul and Forest Friend. At last a home was found for her in Honolulu, one of her many ports of call in her heyday. Late in 1963 the old ship was towed out through the Lake Washington Ship Canal and out to sea. The Navy tug Moctoba took her all the way to Oahu. She arrived in Honolulu on November 17 to a shower of flowers from a helicopter.

The Falls of Clyde is towed through the large locks at Ballard in 1963 on her way to a new berth as a museum ship in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle Division.

The old windjammer enjoyed a number of years as a tourist attraction in Honolulu (and was even featured in a couple of episodes of Magnum P.I!) Unfortunately she fell victim to the all-too-common hazards of financing and deferred maintenance. By 2008 she was closed to visitors.

No longer a welcome presence where she sits surrounded by colorful fish, the Falls of Clyde awaits her fate. For years her advocates have strategized a way to keep her from the ocean floor. At this writing, the organizations Friends of the Falls of Clyde and Save Falls of Clyde - International have a plan to transport the ship back to her home country of Scotland next summer to be restored. If all goes well, she will enter drydock at Troon on the Firth of Clyde.

The Falls of Clyde in Honolulu, at the old "royal pier" adjacent to Aloha Tower, 2017. A maritime museum on the pier, seen behind the ship, closed in 2009. At this writing, nautical artifacts from the museum are being removed to storage in the care of the Bishop Museum. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

Detail of the bow and part of the bowsprit of the ship.  A thistle, the national flower of Scotland, is shown prominently. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

The USS Missouri: The Last Battleship...?

The battleship Missouri has no critical tie to the Hawaiian Islands. She was towed to Pearl Harbor in 1998 to join an eclectic group of marine museums run by the National Park Service, including the sunken USS Arizona and its iconic memorial and the submarine Bowfin. Since early 1999 Mighty Mo has been open to visitors; to date over seven million folks have toured the ship in her new home.

Although the Missouri did not launch until 1944, well after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she did play a  combat role in the war. Her most notable claim to fame is having served as the site of the formal Japanese surrender to Allied Forces. That event took place in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. It is considered the official end of World War II.

The USS Missouri, BB-63, dated after its 1986 reconstruction and recommissioning. 
From the collection of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

The Missouri also had a long-association with Puget Sound. More than half her life was spent at Bremerton's Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as part of the Navy's "mothball fleet." Washingtonians became so accustomed to seeing the Missouri at various events and ceremonies around the sound, that when the Navy opened a bidding process to acquire the decommissioned battleship, citizens and elected officials of this state were quick to organize a drive to keep the ship here. The frustrating, contentious, and ultimately doomed effort, including claims of double-dealing by the Navy, are detailed in a HistoryLink essay by Daryl C. McClary.

Hokule'a and her sisters 

Hokule'a with her sails in the crab claw formation. Photo courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society

The Hokule'a occupies a strange place in maritime history: both modern and very ancient. The double-hulled voyager canoe, powered only by sail and oar, and using ancient wayfinding navigation, is a recreations of the ancient vessels that brought Polynesians to Hawaii and elsewhere sometime in the first millennium A.D. First launched with a big splash in 1976, Hokule'a gained new fame and relevance in the age of social media. Her three-year good will tour circumnavigated the globe, 2014-2017, and included a meet-up with the Draken Harald Harfagre, a recreation of a Viking ship, on the Erie Canal!


The just-concluded World Tour did not include a stop on our West Coast. However, two decades ago, a goodwill tour brought Hokule'a and her sister ship, Hawai'iloa to our shores. The vessels were transported to Seattle by Matson Lines and first welcomed at Golden Gardens at the end of May, 1995. For the next few months, the canoes, together and separately, visited a number of ports of call from Alaska to San Diego. In the Northwest the vessels were seen at the Center for Wooden Boats, the Suquamish Reservation on Bainbridge Island, Neah Bay, Bellingham, Tacoma and Vancouver. Hokule'a participated in National Maritime Week festivities on the Seattle Waterfront during the third week of May.

An important part of the mission of Hokule'a is to make contact with indigenous populations around the globe. Hawai'iloa had a special mission in the Northwest -- to thank the Native Alaskan tribes that had provided two massive Sitka spruce logs to form the hulls of the vessel. Unlike Hokule'a, which used some modern materials in construction such as fiberglass and plywood, Hawai'ilo was  to be built with only indigenous materials. Unfortunately, by the 1990s logging had taken a toll on the stands of koa, the famous hardwood, in Hawaii. In desperation, the builders turned to friends in Alaska and found sympathetic ears among the Tlinget, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples who managed a large wilderness area. With the gift of the trees, freshly-cut for the purpose, Hawai'ilo was launched in 1993.

We caught up with Hokule'a on a gloomy day at her home berth in Oahu: the Marine Training Education Center on Sand Island. The Hikianalia, another sister ship, sits to the fore. Though not the best location for photographs, this one does show the size of the canoe relative to small sailboats. 

Aloha 'oe!

Sources include Karl House and Joe Baar, PSMHS; Saltwater People Historical Society; Polynesian Voyaging Society; Friends of the Falls of Clyde;

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Deep Focus, Part I: The Joe Williamson Photographic Collection

Joe Williamson: sailor, photographer and collector. 
Photo, circa 1940; photographer unknown.

This essay first appeared on Inside Passage, the blog of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Part II is here.

Joe Williamson is a name often associated with the photographs of the Puget Sound Maritime Collection, but who was Joe, what is his collection, and how did it transform the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society?

Wikipedia labels Joe “Sailor and Photographer.” In his lifetime, much of it spent on the water, Williamson documented a wide swath of Northwest history with his camera, yet he does not garner the name recognition of Darius Kinsey, Joseph Scaylea, or the Curtis brothers. Perhaps this is because he himself did not consider photography his primary vocation. Photography was the means to an end and that end was spending as much time as possible on and around boats.

In his lifetime Williamson did everything from delivering photo orders by motorcycle for Bartell Drugs to running a darkroom to patrolling for fish pirates off the coast of Alaska. He traveled throughout the Northwest, wherever water could take him. And he took a lot of photos. In later days, he held court at a small photography shop close to the Seattle waterfront.

We’ll have more on Williamson’s storied and multifaceted career in future posts. Today we will focus on his photo collection and what became of it.


Joe collected maritime images and by the time of his retirement had amassed a collection of more than 60,000 prints and negatives. Exact numbers are hard to obtain, but it appears that about half the collection consists of photos Williamson took himself and the other half is made up of images purchased from other photographers or outlets. The sum includes 3,000 glass plate negatives acquired from the Webster & Stevens commercial photography company. A number of the images in the collection date to the late 19th century.

Williamson was aware of the value of his collection. In fact, he had set himself a very specific dual life-goal: to document maritime life and to build an asset that would serve to help fund his retirement. In 1979, at the age of 70, he offered the entire collection up for sale. The asking price: $50,000 ($163,000 in today’s dollars.) The San Francisco Maritime Museum was quick to make an offer, but Williamson hoped to conclude a sale with Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, the organization he had helped found in 1948.

Board vice president (soon to be president) Jim Cole remembers vowing aloud that the collection would not leave Puget Sound. The board had had enough of the better funded and more pro-active San Francisco Maritime Museum cherry-picking maritime artifacts from their backyard. Cole soon realized that his statement meant he was volunteering to lead the effort to raise the funds needed.

For the first time in the life of the Society the board jumped into the deep waters of fundraising to raise the $50,000 purchase price. Because of his close personal association with the group, Williamson allowed the group a year to reach this goal. Led by Cole, the board reached out to their membership and beyond, contacting old friends in the maritime trades and sending letters to businesses and foundations in the area.

Jim Cole remembers the challenge:

We talked about how we were going to do this. I had never done this kind of thing. We did send letters out. There was a lot of word of mouth activity. My late wife, Myrna, typed 180 letters to companies here.

A promise of $5,000 from H.W. McCurdy lent impetus to a campaign that was slow gaining momentum. Several companies made sizable donations, but the vast majority of the 476 gifts received came from individuals. It took nearly the entire year, but the group made their goal with enough to spare to purchase filing cabinets to house the collection.

Williamson's photo of a "Tugboat Annie" race, probably the 1940 event in Tacoma Harbor held in conjunction with the premier of the second Tugboat Annie movie, Tugboat Annie Sails Again.


As PSMHS zeroed in on its goal in the spring of 1980, the Museum of History and Industry, the Society’s partner and home base, showcased the collection in its Maritime Gallery (aka the Joshua Green-Dwight Merrill wing). The exhibit included 60 images along with ships models and other maritime artifacts. Jim Cole recalls that the exhibit opened with ceremony:
‘Mac’ McCurdy was going to cut the ribbon and he wanted Myrna to assist him. I said I’ll talk to her. She said “No, I’m not doing that.” I reported to him, and he said “She’ll do it!” I asked her a couple more times. She still said no. Well the night of the opening Mac makes this nice speech. There was a crowd there. And then he says “I would like to ask Mrs. Cole to help me cut the ribbon,” and that woman said “I would love to!” 


The huge Williamson Collection became the centerpiece of the PMSHS archives, which to that date had owned only a few small photographic collections to supplement its ships plans, models, and books. Acquisition of the wide-reaching collection transformed the PSMHS archives from a little known resource to an important and recognized repository of maritime history.

It transformed the Society in other ways, as well. Collection management became more than an abstract concept. Once PSMHS had taken possession of the thousands of prints and negatives, the real work began. 

-- Eleanor Boba


The corporate records of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society; interview with Jim Cole, 2/23/15; McDonald, Lucile. “The Famous Williamson Photo Collection.” The Sea Chest Dec. 1979; Hemion, Austen. “Joe D. Williamson.” The Sea Chest June 1994; The Seattle Times Historic Archive. Special thanks to Karl House and Judy Kebbekus, PSMHS volunteers.

Treasure Trove

The community of St. Michael, c. 1906. What appears to be water is frozen harbor ice.
Photographer unknown.

The Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society recently completed digitization of a unique group of primary historical records. The "Fragmentary Records of The Custom House of St. Michael, Alaska, 1894-1917" is now available to read via computer without risk of damage to the original documents.

Why is this important? The small island Alaskan community of Fort St. Michael, once a Russian trading post, then an American military site, sat close to the mouth of the Yukon River. As such it became the port of embarkation for miners headed up the Yukon River to the gold fields during the Gold Rush of 1897, as well as smaller strikes prior. In this chaotic period of marine traffic, the Customs House was a vital player in maintaining US law and order in a remote enclave.

A number of documents salvaged from the shuttered customs house found a home at PSMHS. In the early 1960s PSMHS member William Taylor, himself a traveler on the Dawson Trail as a boy, organized the material in a bound volume and provided a detailed historic overview in order to place them in context.

The document shown is a request for information to be used in a dispute over a "seaman's wages." 


The correspondence and records, both typed and hand-written, offer a window into life during this frenetic period of boom and bust. In amongst the routine matters of import, export, accidents, and taxation are glimpses of human drama:

There is a plea for special assistance from a miner “since I have already been so unfortunate as to have been blown into the Yukon.”

A request to the Treasury Department for clarification of some points of maritime law relating to stranded sailors reveals the precariousness of sea life: “I have the honor to inform you that on November 30th last [1901], the Chilean steam whaler “Fearless” was blown on the rocks and wrecked at Dutch Harbor...The wreck of the vessel left the crew destitute.”

A “poor lone mother” in Ohio begs for information about her lost son: “His last letter was June 1902 and promised to be home and we received no more of since. He should have been on the General Siglin.” A hand notation on the page indicates there was no news of the boy and newspapers of the day gave the sealing schooner up for lost.

An unusual item, which may have been sent to all U.S. ports of call, is a request from the French ambassador to be on the look-out for a stolen work of art from the French town of Laguenne…”a so-called Eucharistic dove of the thirteenth century, of gilt and enameled copper, standing on an engraved copper tray hanging by four chains from a jeweled crown. The eyes of the dove are represented by gems, and the wings and tail are also set with rare stones. In the back there is a hinged opening for the introduction of the [sacramental] hosts.” An internet search easily picks up images of these religious artifacts.

It comes as little surprise that the regulation of the liquor trade commands a large share of the correspondence. Several documents relate to the request of a James Wilson to receive a permit to sell “intoxicating liquors for medicinal, mechanical and scientific purposes” at his place of business in Circle City, Alaska. The exact type of business is not specified, but it should be noted that Circle City was a distant outpost on the Yukon River populated almost exclusively by miners.

What type of medicinal liquor did Mr. Wilson propose to sell? The import permit issued at Sitka in 1896 lists the following:

200 gals whiskey

20 gals Rum

50 gals Brandy

50 gals Port wine

50 gals sherry

200 gals Claret

1 case Absinthe

1 case Chartreuse

1 case Benedictine

50 bbls Beer

5 bbls Porter

One hopes that these quantities were sufficient to last until the Klondike Stampede of 1897 turned Circle City back into a ghost town.

Others attempted less legal methods of bringing liquor to the cold country. In 1898 the Collector of Customs at St. Michael was warned by his counterpart in Sitka that “the steamship ‘Laurada’ has aboard a valuable cargo of whiskey, which it will be attempted to land unlawfully within the District of Alaska; that the bulk of the liquor is stored underneath the ship’s coal, so that great care must be taken that none of the liquor is landed over and above what appears on her manifest as ship’s stores, and in bond.”


Digitization of a large volume is not inexpensive. We are grateful to a group of historians researching shipwrecks on the Yukon River, the S.S. Politkovsky research team, for a special donation to make this happen. PSMHS Executive Director Karen Marshall worked with the University of Washington Digital Initiatives Program to create high-quality scans of each page of the collection, including a map hand-drawn and colored by Mr. Taylor. Thanks to their efforts, Mr. Taylor’s compilation can be stored permanently within archival-quality housing while digital copies are available to view on CD-ROM.

PSMHS has over 800 cubic feet of archival materials available for scholarly and personal research, including over 60,000 maritime related photographs and negatives, including the Joe Williamson Collection, 7,000 ships’ plans, press clippings, legal and financial records of a number of maritime companies and shipbuilding firms, and detailed records of ships’ movement in and out of Puget Sound ports during the first half of the 20th century. Our holdings relate to maritime life and commerce both in Puget Sound and up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California.
If you are interested in working with our collections, please contact the PSMHS office to schedule an appointment in our research center, located in Georgetown at the MOHAI Resource Center.

-- Eleanor Boba

Navigating the Archives with Karl House

Anyone who has called on the resources of the Puget Sound Maritime archives in the past decade has likely made contact with Karl House, the Society’s Research Coordinator. If he can’t find it, it probably can’t be found.

Karl’s long career navigating on sea and land may have helped prepare him for this position. In a series of oral history interviews, Karl shared his personal history with us, a history that begins close to the water.

Before he was four, Karl spent time on board the tugboat Defiance, captained by his father for Washington Tug and Barge Company.

He was towing sawdust barges between the mill at Port Gamble and the paper mill at Port Townsend. I was able to ride with him on some of those trips. They’re really etched in my memory and I’ve been fond of tugboats ever since.
Junior Mariner Karl House on board the tug Defiance, c. 1938. 
Photo courtesy of Karl House.

Like falling off a log

Tugboats became a recurring theme in Karl’s life. The day after he graduated from Queen Anne High School in Seattle, Karl signed on as deckhand aboard a Foss Company tugboat, the Hazel Foss. He continued to work for Foss and other companies during summers and breaks from college, earning enough to pay his way through the “U Dub.” He remembers the work being lots of fun, with the possible exception of one memorable event in 1952:

I fell off a log raft being towed by Foss #18 on the Duwamish River in December of 1952. It was dark out. I had moored a log raft at the South Island log storage on the Duwamish River. I had tied it up and I was returning to the tug to take the tug’s towing bridles off the front end of the log raft and when I went to remove the second bridle the boomstick [one of the long logs that corralled each section of logs] turned slightly and I fell overboard.
I was dressed in winter clothing: heavy jacket and shirt and I had on these heavy boots that were used for working on log rafts. When I fell overboard, because of the current going downstream in the river, I was washed under the logs in the first section of the tow. The logs were tight enough together that there wasn’t room for me to climb up on a log, so I had to stay underwater for about 70 feet until I came to the next section of logs where there was a crosswise boomstick and I knew there would be an opening of eight or ten feet [before the logs in the next section,] so I felt the bottom of the boomstick and I was able to grab the bottom of the boomstick and pull myself over the side and get up out of the water.

In the Navy

The year 1955 was an eventful one for Karl. In short order he graduated from the UW with a degree in transportation business, married his high school friend Deane Hullin, and was accepted to the Navy Officer Candidate Program in Rhode Island. By the end of the year he was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Shortly thereafter Ensign House shipped out on the General J.C. Breckinridge, a Navy troop transport and passenger carrier home-ported in San Francisco, giving him his first true deepwater experience.
We’d make a trip from San Francisco to Yokohama, maybe down to Okinawa, then turn around and come back, get into San Francisco and spend maybe four or five days there, fix stuff that was broken, re-store the ship and head back out again. So the ships were underway a lot!

Karl, right, and LTJG Hal Murphy in the pilothouse of the Breckinridge, 1957. 
For some reason Karl acquired the nicknames "Brow" and "Charlie Brow" while in the Navy!
 Photo courtesy of Karl House.

In 1957 Karl was transferred to the General William Mitchell, home-ported at Pier 91 in Seattle. On the Mitchell as operations officer and navigation officer, Karl found himself often negotiating the approaches to Incheon [aka Inchon], Korea, a place made famous by General MacArthur’s surprise invasion of the peninsula during the Korean War. He describes the challenges:

Incheon is on the west coast of Korea and it is about 40 or 50 miles inland through a bunch of small islands and rocks from the Yellow Sea. The tidal range of Incheon is about 28 feet, similar to the tidal range of Anchorage, Alaska. Because of the tidal range at Incheon there are a lot of tidal currents and, at that time, 1956-1958, there were no current tables published for Incheon so it was quite a learning process to try to figure out the currents and their velocities while entering and leaving the approaches to Incheon.
We never ran aground or wrecked, but the best information we had for charts were British hydrographic surveys from 1938. Because up until the time General MacArthur ordered the invasion at Incheon it wasn’t much of a port really. There are no pier facilities there so anything that comes aboard ship or goes off ship has to go by lighter, and it is mostly done at at least half tide or higher.

Why would MacArthur pick that spot then?

Because nobody thought that he would do that due to the navigational difficulties, shallow water at low tide, and so on. Incheon is on a latitude right across from Seoul, Korea and the Korean peninsula isn’t all that wide. So the reasoning for going in at Incheon was to cut off the North Korean forces which had penetrated south on the peninsula almost to the end of Korea before they were stopped. So MacArthur ordered the Incheon invasion to cut off the North Korean army from their source of supply -- food and ammunition and whatever else an army needs.  
Cover of a booklet detailing life aboard the General Mitchell
Courtesy of Karl House.

Back on Dry Land

With the conclusion of his required active duty, and with a wife and two young sons at home, now-Lieutenant House began his land-based career, while remaining a naval reservist. Going to work for his father-in-law’s company, the venerable Hullin Transfer Company, and its sister concern, Federal Transfer Company, Karl learned the business of trucking freight, working his way up from unloading box cars at night to general manager of both companies. His career at Hullin/Federal spanned 29 years until the business ceased operation in 1988. All the while he continued to drill with the Naval Reserve, both at Lake Union and at Sand Point.

Working for Hullin gave the Houses a chance to use a company-owned boat, the Davy Bill, for family trips to the San Juans and the Gulf Islands. Once again Karl was back on inland waters! After retirement Karl and his wife purchased a 42-foot fiberglass Grand Banks boat named Rapture which took them as far as Alaska. A favorite place for cruising family vacations was Desolation Sound in British Columbia.

At the age of 65 Karl took on yet another maritime career: tour boat captain. With a master mariner’s license obtained in 1999, Karl was able to hire out as a relief captain on several of the sightseeing boats that churned the waters of Puget Sound and Lake Washington, including the Spirit of ’76. Although generally enjoyable, the work did have its hazards:

More often than any other activities done with the Spirit of ’76 was hauling parties of University students which from time to time got pretty unsettling. It was licensed to haul as many as 298 passengers. I recall one trip that we had almost capacity. We had the University of Washington marching band and they invited their friends from the UCLA band that was in town. There was very little room on that boat with all those people on it.

Navigating New Waters

In 1981 Karl’s mother gave him a gift membership to Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Some years later he answered the call of then-PSMHS librarian Jack Carver to help out in the library.

The first thing I had to learn was where the stuff was in the library and what the extent of some of the  collections were to help find answers to questions coming in. Then one of the things I did was process photo orders when the person in charge of photographs was not present to do so, so I became somewhat familiar with handling the photos and I got a lot of help from the MOHAI [Museum of History and Industry] people: Howard Giske and Kathleen Knies and Carolyn Marr. They were all very good at teaching me how to do these things and continue to be very helpful and excellent people to work with.

In the decade plus that Karl has been working in the library (both at the old MOHAI and the new), he has become the go-to guy for research inquiries on all things maritime. MOHAI Curator of Photography Howard Giske sums it up:

To all of his colleagues at the MOHAI Resource Center library, Karl House is a reliable, diligent and deeply knowledgeable partner, the right man with the right answers to pretty much all maritime questions. If he can’t locate it in PSMHS’s extensive collections, he may be able to find it at home! And Karl’s friendly, easy-going personality is always welcome aboard the good ship MOHAI.

PSMHS boardmember Roger Ottenbach concurs, adding

He does all this in a way that the person asking the question feels he really enjoys providing the info.

No doubt they are right!

A full transcript of the oral history interview with Karl House is available in the PSMHS office: For information on the PSMHS research holdings and how to access them, see our webpage:

-- Eleanor Boba

Karl and Deane House, 2008. Karl in his service dress whites. 
The Houses have two sons, Drew and Todd. 
Photo courtesy of Karl House.

Deep Focus, Part II: Joe Williamson, Reluctant Photographer

In our very first blog post we talked about the Joe Williamson Collection of maritime photographs which forms the heart of our archives. In researching the story we learned some interesting tidbits about the man who was an avid collector of photographs, a photographer in his own right, and a sailor, as well as one of the founders, and first president, of our historical society.

First and foremost Joe Williamson (1909-1994) was a man who loved ships. Almost every article and interview about him refers to the fact that he wasn't wild about photography itself. It was the output of his work that held his fascination. He loved developing film.

In 1979 intrepid newspaperwoman Lucile McDonald interviewed Joe for an article, reproduced here, that appeared in the December issue of the The Sea Chest, the quarterly journal of the historical society. Read it to hear, in Joe's own words, how he amassed his collection of maritime photographs, as well as stories of his early seafaring adventures.

This photo shows Joe, as a lad of six or so, on a bike along with his brothers Glen (left) and Paul, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of Leslie Williamson Lowell. As a young man Joe could be spotted riding his Indian Scout motorcycle on his rounds making deliveries for Bartell Drugs and other concerns.  

Ships and shops

By his late twenties, Joe had settled down somewhat and was selling maritime photographs from a waterfront shop he called the “Marine Salon.” Between 1937 and 1962 Joe operated a series of small shops, all on or near the Seattle waterfront.

PSMHS Research Coordinator Karl House recalls patronizing Joe’s shops as a youth:

I first met Joe Williamson because I used to buy pictures of tugboats from him when I was a young boy in elementary school, maybe eight or nine years old. I knew where it was, ‘cause you could go there on the bus. Well, I knew the shop because I’d been in with my dad before, and I knew it cost 50 cents to buy an 8 by 10 picture of a tug. Their photo salon was on the little viaduct that goes from First Avenue over the railroad tracks into the Colman Ferry Dock. That was the first Joe Williamson shop I was in. Subsequent to that he moved to a larger shop in the ferry dock itself and I bought a number of pictures over the years there. He was in the shop on the ferry dock for several years.

He was courteous and he would pull out pictures of various tugs, even though I only had enough money usually to buy one at a time. I’d pick out a picture and he’d sell it to me. If he wasn’t there, his wife would wait on me. She knew about everything that was in there, where the things were filed and so forth. Everybody on the waterfront pretty much knew a lot about what Joe did.

Ron Burke, long-time editor of the PSMHS journal The Sea Chest, also has fond memories of visiting Joe’s shop.

I grew up in Bremerton and whenever I came to Seattle [on the ferry], I would walk past Joe Williamson's Marine Photo Shop on the Marion Street pedestrian viaduct from the ferry dock. As a teenager and a Sea Scout in the 1940s, I got interested in maritime history and I used to drop by his shop and talk to him about it.  
One Christmas my grandmother gave me five dollars.  I took it to Joe's shop and started to order photos and told him to stop me when I reached the five dollar limit.  As I recall, I was able to buy eight photos, all of which I still have and [some of which I]  have used in The Sea Chest. 
Later, during my college summers, I worked on eight different ferries and ships and bought photos of each of them from Joe.  Also, in that work, I needed Coast Guard endorsements which required current photo ID cards and I always went to Joe to take my photos.

Indeed, Joe’s work extended beyond simply taking pictures and selling them. He was a creative entrepreneur, turning ships photos into Christmas cards, selling photos to various newspapers and periodicals, and collaborating with marine historian Jim Gibbs on a series of pictorial books.

During the same period he owned two ships, which he christened PhotoShip and PhotoQueen, respectively, and which he captained in his quest for adventure and photos. Karl House remembers them:

He had two different boats from which he took pictures. The first one was called PhotoShip and I’d say it was maybe a 30-foot boat. Then he bought a larger boat, called PhotoQueen, which was probably 50 or 55 feet. He could stay out on that boat for longer periods of time because it had all the cooking and live-aboard facilities that you needed on a boat that size. So he’d go as far out as the San Juan Islands and do some photo shoots there. Anyplace there was a photo opportunity.

Joe’s shop was always more than a collection of prints; it grew into a sort of gallery of maritime artifacts, including ships models, ships name plates, and other “relics and souvenirs” as the daily paper described it. One particular relic surfaced among Joe’s trove in 1947: part of the whistle from the well-beloved Bailey Gatzert, a sternwheeler which plied the waters of Puget Sound from 1890 to 1926. The familiar Bailey Gatzert whistle consisted of four chimes (some say five), one of which Joe holds above. Seattle Times Archives, December 7, 1947.  

Joe at MOHAI

Museum of History and Industry Curator of Photography Howard Giske met Joe shortly after his collection was acquired by PSMHS and conveyed to storage at the old MOHAI at Montlake. In his early 70s at that point, Joe traveled from his home on Bainbridge Island to lend a hand in the darkroom:

He lived in Winslow, not far from the ferry dock. He would walk down to the ferry dock, get on the boat, gab with old pals and cronies, I’m sure – he knew a lot of the ferryboat people. He would walk off at Colman Dock and would walk from there to MOHAI…to Montlake! He always had interesting stories, charming tales to tell about his walk to the museum that day. Just a chatty, lively fellow to have on the team.

PSMHS board member Pat Hartle remembers that Joe would also walk from the ferry dock to the Yankee Diner in Ballard for dinner meetings of the historical society. Each jaunt was a walk of about five miles in one direction!

Former Puget Maritime Board President Jim Cole, who led the charge to obtain the Williamson Collection, recalls Joe at MOHAI:

Of course, the collection was his child. He wanted to make sure everything was done right. It was probably hard to let go.

The Man with the Pipe

Joe is most often remembered as the man with a pipe in his mouth. Howard Giske recalls setting up some of Joe’s old darkroom equipment at MOHAI: 

He had always been a pipe smoker [so] we really had to work hard to get those lenses and condensers and things all cleaned up. He loved the darkroom work, he said. He really wasn’t all that interested in the photography and the camera work, but he’d smoke his pipe back there [in the darkroom.] A cloud of smoke! You couldn't catch anything on fire really, but he would kind of pollute the air with that old pipe. In a lot of the pictures taken of him you see him with his pipe.

Joe (center) with the other founding members of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society in 1948. From left: Jim Gibbs, Tom Sandry, Joe, Bob Leithead, and Austen Hemion. Photo, PSMHS.

-- Eleanor Boba


  • The corporate records of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.
  • McDonald, Lucile. “The Famous Williamson Photo Collection.” The Sea Chest December 1979.
  • Hemion, Austen. “Joe D. Williamson.” The Sea Chest June 1994.
  • The Seattle Times Historic Archive, various articles.
  • Oral history interviews with Jim Cole (2015), Karl House (2015), and Howard Giske (2015.)
  • Email communication with Ron Burke (2015) and Pat Hartle (2015).
  • Special thanks to Joe’s great niece, Leslie Williamson Lowell, for use of a family photo.

Into the Surf

From 1927 until 1968 the Coast Guard maintained a life-saving station at Point Reyes, California, in the shadow of Chimney Rock on Drakes Bay. The station house, with its marine railway, still stands, although it is used only occasionally by nonprofit groups. Recent visitors to the shoreline witnessed some restoration work going on and were allowed a glimpse inside the structure.

The road to the Lifesaving Station is a ten minute walk from the public parking lot at Chimney Rock. Look for signs pointing to the station (to the right as you face the sea) and to the Elephant Seals (to the left).

The tracks leading from the station directly into the surf by means of an incline plane are probably the last existing marine railway on the Pacific Coast. Motorized lifeboats were assured a fast launch into the surf in times when every minute counted.

The cradle that held the motor lifeboat  waits in the ground floor boat bay for the last lifeboat, currently undergoing restoration. Living quarters for crew were on the second floor.

The names and relics of wrecked ships adorn the walls of the ground floor boat bay: the cargo ship Munleon, lumber steamer Hartwood, the oil tanker Richfield were three of the lucky ones among many wrecks during the 1920s and 1930s. All lives were saved. During this period a shipwreck and rescue often drew crowds of spectators to the station grounds.

By the 1950s technological advances in lifesaving began to put the Point Reyes station, with its 36-foot lifeboats and breeches buoy, out of business. In 1968 the station was closed; in 1989 it was declared a National Historic Landmark. A modern Coast Guard rescue, complete with helicopters, now operates out of Bodega Bay. 

Accidental tourists were treated to the release of rehabilitated sea mammals: three juvenile California sea lions (Carmella, Mariachi, and Leeward, above) and one young female elephant seal (Rail Buddy below), restored to health by the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center. These guys heard the call of the sea and knew exactly what to do.

The U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS) was founded in 1871. In 1915 the service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the modern Coast Guard.

The Point Reyes Lifeboat Station was originally established on another spot on the peninsula (the much less protected South Beach) in 1888. During this period, surfmen went out in man-powered boats. (Point Reyes National Seashore photo)

The life-saving station at Point Reyes has a connection to another landmark in the district....a tiny cemetery overlooking Drake's Estero on the road between the coast and town. For photos of the gravestones of some surfmen see the author's own blog, Remnants of the Past.

Thanks to park ranger Sarah at the Lifeboat Station for information and to Alan Humphrey for photography.

-- Eleanor Boba

Deconstructing Annie

Promotional poster for Tugboat Annie
Image courtesy of Jerry Murbach,

Filming Tugboat Annie: Fact and Fiction on Puget Sound


In 1933 Seattle played a part in a blockbuster movie. Tugboat Annie, the story of a wise-cracking female tug skipper in the mythical Secoma community on Puget Sound, was the hit of the day, in many cases being held over for a second week at movie houses across the country! It made over a million dollars for MGM, a huge sum in the day.

The movie, starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, appeared in theaters only weeks after filming was complete. Background scenes featured Lake Union, Queen Anne Hill, and Puget Sound. A tugboat crashes into a ferry on Elliott Bay. And a passenger liner arrives at the Bell Street Pier to the cheers of thousands. 

The bulk of the filming of Tugboat Annie took place on sound stages, sound pools, and lakes in or near MGM's Culver City studios. However, enough scenes were filmed in and around Seattle to justify calling Tugboat Annie the first major movie to be shot in  Seattle. (Barring an episode of a Ripley's Believe it or Not filmed in Tacoma in 1932, it was the first film to be shot in Washington State.)


The movie was based on the short stories of Norman Reilly Raine published in The Saturday Evening Post. Raine began writing his Annie stories in 1931 during a brief stint as a writing instructor at the University of Washington. He gathered inspiration for his popular tales from visiting the Seattle waterfront, incorporating the atmosphere and characters into his stories. 

The unsinkable Annie (a widow in the stories, 'though married in the movie) is a tough-talking, late middle-aged skipper who more than holds her own with both the seafaring and landlubbing men she encounters. She is master of the Narcissus, a sea-going tug. The yarns are full of salty language and local color.
"Tugboat Annie Brennan relinquished the wheel to Shiftless. 'When you wake up,' she told him, 'try to remember we're headin' for Everett, not China.' She stood in the wheelhouse doorway for a minute, and pushed back her old felt hat, drawing deep into her capacious chest the invigorating Puget Sound air, fragrant of pines and the sea. 'These is the days I like,' she went on contentedly, half to herself. 'There's a kind of a twang in the air. My goodness, I'm that hungry I could eat a horse and chase the driver." (From the story "When Greek meets Greek")


Legends take shape where history meets myth. The most enduring mythic element of Annie's legend is that her character was based on Thea Foss, matriarch of the Foss Family and founder of the Foss tugboat business (now Foss Maritime). This myth, nurtured over decades, has taken on the status of gospel despite the fact that the women shared little beyond business acumen. 

Thea Foss (left) with Mathilda Berg in front of the Foss family home in Tacoma, 1910.
 Image courtesy of Washington State Historical Society.

The reality is that Raine became acquainted with Wedell Foss, one of Thea's three sons and a partner in the family business. The Foss corporate history, written by Michael Skalley, credits Wedell Foss with suggesting the plot for Raine's first Tugboat Annie story. Raine himself identifies Wedell Foss as one of his informants in a telling interview with Pacific Motor Boat magazine (November, 1934):
"With the background for a story developing in my mind, and a tentative character to fit into it, I still had no plot. It was then that I sought the cooperation from the heads of the tugboat lines in Seattle and later with the Wrigley and Red Stack people down the coast. ....I sought out and talked with Wedell Foss, that canny Norse member of the Foss Company, Inc., and with George Cary, the genial partner of the Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company. From the first gentleman I got a stirring and interesting episode around which to build my plot; from the second I got material to supplement it; and so steamed back to my office full of beer and inspiration, and commenced to bang out Tugboat Annie."
Kate Sutton of the Providence Steamboat Company on board the Walter E. Sutton. When asked if she was the inspiration for Tugboat Annie, she reportedly said "I hope not!"  Photo courtesy of Providence Steamboat Company collection, Steamship Historical Society Archives,

So who was Annie? Was she Wedell's mild-mannered mother, who never actually plowed the waters? Was she Kate Sutton, the owner and manager of the Providence Steamboat Company in Rhode Island whom Raine had heard of from a reporter friend? Was she entirely fictional?

The answer appears to be a little bit of each.....along with a large dose of Marie Dressler.

In the Pacific Motor Boat article Raine goes on to explain:
"Then, suddenly, I ran into an obstacle. The good lady in Providence was not, I speedily saw, a sufficiently colorful and definite character around whom to build the story....Then I recollected having seen, some time before in the film "Min and Bill" a marvelous piece of characterization of a waterfront character, played by that grand old trouper, Marie Dressler. I had my answer. I would write Miss Dressler into the character. Not, be it noted, with any idea of motion picture sale or production, but simply as someone whom I could visualize clearly as I wrote; who was rough of tongue and soft of heart; who could be adamant in a business deal, yet hold the affection and interest of magazine readers, as Miss Dressler won the affection and admiration of picture fans."
Thea Foss is not mentioned in the Pacific Motor Boat interview although Raine must have been aware of her through his friendship with her son. Wedell Foss, himself, is sometimes mentioned as the inspiration for Annie's rival in the movie and later her son's boss, Red Severn. Others see Severn as a nod to shipping magnate Robert Dollar.


The bigwigs in Hollywood clearly identified Dressler with the part, as well. Fresh from her Oscar win for Min and Bill, the 64-year old* Dressler's star was riding high in 1933. Unfortunately her health was not. Knowing full well that she was battling cancer, MGM's Louis B. Mayer talked her into a punishing three-film contract over a six month schedule. 

Betty Lee's well researched biography of Dressler, based on primary source material including the diaries of Dressler's close companion, Claire Dubrey, details how Mayer protected his valuable property:
"As he had previously arranged for Dinner at Eight, Mayer ordered that the star's working day be confined to three hours, that stand-ins be used for rehearsals, and that a sofa be available for Dressler's use when the camera's were not turning."

This brings us to a second myth -- that Marie Dressler was in Seattle for the filming of Tugboat Annie. Despite misinformation from director Mervyn LeRoy's own self-serving and inaccurate autobiography, this is extremely unlikely. All scenes with Dressler and co-star Wallace Beery were filmed at MGM studios, even those on the water. There was no need for them to travel to Puget Sound, especially in Dressler's condition. The local newspapers, full of coverage of the film crew on Lake Union, make no mention of the presence of either star. 

Another fable connected to Dressler's mythical stay in Seattle can be traced to her own autobiography. The story goes that Louis B. Mayer purchased a small cottage Marie had admired and had it moved to Seattle for use as her dressing room and residence while on location. Dressler's use of the phrase "on location" was quickly misinterpreted by some biographers to mean Seattle. A close reading of Lee's biography of Dressler make it clear that the location was a lake near the Culver City studios.

Despite such pampering, the Tugboat Annie shoot was not easy on Dressler and others. In her autobiography, the actress describes filming in MGM’s tank:
“The most grueling piece of physical labor I ever put in was during the filming of the storm scenes in ‘Tugboat Annie.’ One coastwise sailor in the cast told me that in twenty years’ experience aboard tramp steamers he had never encountered rougher seas than those manufactured in our studios. They should have been good. Mr. Mayer spent $30,000 on the dock alone! Able-bodied men were slapped down by waves the script described as mild. There was more than one arm in a sling, and at least one leg in a plaster cast before we got through.” (Dressler, My Own Story, 271-72)


Marie and Wally may not have acted in Seattle, but there were other actors with strong local connections. MGM hired several local boats in starring roles: the Arthur Foss tugboat (then called the Wallowa) played the part of the Narcissus, Tugboat Annie's own boat; the Sea King, owned by the Gilkey Brothers, portrayed rival towboat Firefly; and a cannery ship, the General W.C. Gorges, a former German steamship, stood in for the fictional Glacier Queen, a passenger liner captained by Annie's son in the movie. The ferryboat Washington of Kirkland, sailing under its own name, is t-boned by the Narcissus in Elliott Bay. No fault of Annie's, the accident occurs when her husband is distracted by a cask of bootleg "hooch" floating in the bay.

Originally the Prinz Sigismund, the steamer was seized from the Germans during World War I and became an American troop transport, renamed the General W.C. Gorgas. Later the ship was used for commercial purposes, including salmon cannery work, until World War II when she once again became a troop transport. In 1945 she was sold to the Soviet Union. 
Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Many other tugs and boats were hired as extras. Employees of Foss Tugboat and Barge were pulled into service by Wedell Foss, a strong booster for the production. 

Mervyn LeRoy came to town to direct his floating actors. The director of Little Caesar was quoted in the paper as saying "I've directed mobs of 'gangsters,' but you can't talk to a tugboat -- you must do it with signals to their pilots." (Seattle Daily News, April 11, 1933.) Crowds gathered on the shores of Lake Union to watch the action.

The tug Sea King played the part of the Firefly in Tugboat Annie.
Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

Because many of the maritime scenes were filmed in Culver City, it was necessary to build a replica of the Wallowa for exterior shots. Well-known naval architect Carl Nordstrom was hired to prepare plans of the boat. The Seattle Daily Times reports that Nordstrom was to draw up plans for both the Wallowa and the Sea King, but it is possible that the plans for the Sea King were never used. Portions of the Glacier Queen were constructed on MGM's Stage 22. 

That a replica of the Wallowa was built is confirmed by photos in the book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot which show the tug on a studio lake as late as 1970 alongside other famous film vessels including the Cotton Blossom from Showboat

Plans of the Arthur Foss as drawn by naval architect Carl Nordstrom. The venerable tug still floats at the historic ships pier at Lake Union Park. Image courtesy of Northwest Seaport.
Movie magic allowed these boats to change identity for subsequent movies. The Wallowa replica may or may not have been used as an extra in another Wallace Beery film, Barnacle Bill, in 1940. About the same time the erstwhile Narcissus had a narrow escape. According to M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
"In November of 1940, because of falling high-tension wires, fire raged through the area, destroying much of the [Lot One] set and threatening the old Tugboat Annie tugboat. The heat was so intense, and aggravated by a stiff ocean breeze, that windows in the studio's Cartoon Department across Overland Avenue were shattered....The tugboat survived, however, and would finally be secured on the Lot Three lake." (p. 119)

The galley of the Arthur Foss is a bit more cramped that that of the Narcissus in the movie. 
Photo, Alan Humphrey.

Seattleites also had their chance to be extras in a real Hollywood movie: somewhere between "a few score" and ten-thousand locals turned out as unpaid extras for the big scene where the Glacier Queen steams alongside the Bell Street Pier to brass bands and streamers. Other locals were on hand as background characters in the scenes filmed on Lake Union. A local houseboat dweller, Maria Fisk, was hired to double Marie Dressler in long shots on the boat. Seattle Mayor John Dore, enthralled by movie-making, reportedly donned a sailor's cap to appear in some scenes. Of course local pilots and crewmen worked the boats. Captain Clarence Howden piloted the Wallowa/Narcissus.


Tugboat Annie had its world premier at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle on July 28, 1933. The city made the most of the honor. The first showing, at 11:30 in the morning, was heralded with a cacophony of ships whistles in the harbor. The big event in the evening involved fireworks, balloons, klieg lights, and many local celebrities including Mayor Dore and Lieutenant-Governor Victor Meyers. Governor Clarence D. Martin sent a telegram, as did the film's stars. The Seattle Star covered the celebrations:
"While a cool evening breeze brought the salty breath of Elliott bay up thru downtown canyons, glaring arc lights swept the faces of thousands who came to watch the first showing of the picture which is to send the echo of Puget Sound towboat whistles around the world." (July 29, 1933)
The ferryboat Washington of Kirkland makes its way through the Ballard Locks in this photo courtesy of Kirkland Heritage Society. The museum ship St. Paul can be seen in the background with an "open" sign attached to its foremast. 


Tacoma held its own premier of the movie three weeks following the Seattle event, rightfully claiming a share of cinema history. "Secoma," after all, was a mash-up of the two port cities. On the Sunday following the opening the first Tugboat Annie races were held on Commencement Bay to great fanfare. Myth has Marie Dressler personally presenting the silver loving cup to Captain Arthur Hofstead of the tug Peter Foss which had nosed out the Captain O.G. Olsen by a scant three feet.

Although the Marie Dressler Loving Cup may have been donated by the actress or her people, the Tacoma News Tribune informs us that the prize was presented by Leroy V. Johnson, general manager of the Jensen-von Herberg Company which owned the local theater showing Tugboat Annie.

Tugboat racing became a staple at maritime events in Puget Sound from that day.

A Tugboat Annie race photographed by Joe Williamson, circa 1940.
The Arthur Foss is in the lead. Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime.


Marie Dressler died of cancer a year to the day from the Seattle premier of Tugboat Annie. Her character, Captain Annie Brennan, pursued her adventures on Puget Sound in two more movies, a short-lived TV series, and some 75 short stories which trickled out from the pen of Norman Reilly Raine until the author's death in 1971.

Seattle would not see another major motion picture company until Elvis Presley came to town in 1962 to film It Happened at the World's Fair (released in 1963). By that time Seattle was identified more with the aerospace industry than with the maritime. Tugboat Annie remains a pleasant reminder of rough and tumble days in a waterfront town.

Cast and crew publicity photo for Tugboat Annie, 1933. From left front are Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Mervyn LeRoy, and writer Norman Reilly Raine. Famed cameraman Gregg Toland leans over Miss Dressler. Image Courtesy of Tacoma Public Library, C157920-3.

Selected sources:  

  • Selected articles from The Seattle Daily Times, The Tacoma News Tribune, The Seattle Star
  • Stephen Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, 2011.
  • Norman Reilly Raine, Tugboat Annie (collected stories), 1934.
  • Norman Reilly Raine, "That's How Tugboat Annie was born," Pacific Motor Boat, November 1934.
  • Mervyn LeRoy with Dick Kleiner, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, 1974.
  • Marie Dressler with Mildred Harrington, My Own Story, 1934.
  • Matthew Kennedy, Marie Dressler: A Biography, 1999.
  • Victoria Sturtevant, A Great Big Girl like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler, 2009.
  • Betty Lee, Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star, 1997.
  • Michael Skalley, Foss: Ninety Years of Towboating, 1981.
  • "The Providence Steamboat Company: Still a Family Business," PowerShips, the Magazine of the Steamship Historical Society of America, Summer 2012.
  • Gordon Newell, ed., The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1966.

*In good Hollywood tradition, Dressler's age is uncertain. Dates for her birth range from 1865 to 1868 to 1871, the date that appears on her grave marker.