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Solving the Puzzle of a Misidentified Photo

Every once in a while, I get to follow my research down a rabbit hole. This happened while working on the exhibit "Tacoma in 1918" for the Tacoma Historical Society. The following article was recently published in their newsletter.

Ships on fire

Ships Burning at Minter, June 11, 1926

(Tacoma Public Library, Chapin Bowen Collection G49.1-007)

Even before starting research for the Tacoma Historical Society’s exhibit “Tacoma in 1918,” I knew I wanted to include this image of World War One ships burning in Henderson Bay near Minter in June 1926.

It’s a gripping photo. And it helps tell the story of the shipbuilding boom in Tacoma during the Great War and the glut of wooden ships after the war. Because the ghostly remnants of the ships can be seen at low tide, even today, their story is part of local lore.

Like so many others, I thought these ships were built at the Foundation Shipbuilding Company’s Tacoma shipyard. That is the information in the caption for this photo in just about any place you find it.

In one of those “ah-ha” moments during research, I realized these couldn’t be Foundation ships.

Foundation’s shipyard in Tacoma built 20 five-masted auxiliary schooners for the French Navy, part of a contract the company had for 40 ships.[1] Compare for yourself the daytime image of the ships lined up before they were set ablaze with images of the Foundation’s schooners. The shape of the bow is different.

Now look at the bow of the “Ferris” wooden freighters built by other Tacoma yards. The ships on fire are Ferris ships — so-called for Theodore E. Ferris, the naval architect who created the ship design for the U.S. Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC).

The ships before the bonfire (Tacoma Public Library, Chapin Bowen Collection G49.1-008)

The ships before the bonfire (Tacoma Public Library, Chapin Bowen Collection G49.1-008)

The Liberté, the last of the schooner’s built at Foundation’s Tacoma shipyard[2]

Ferris freighters under construction at Seaborn Shipyard in Tacoma, 1918[3]

So, where did these Ferris ships come from? The hunt was on.

Part of the answer was not hard to find. Local newspaper accounts about the bonfire, published on June 11, 1926, tell that Washington Tug and Barge of Seattle had purchased the Ferris ships several years before and towed them to Henderson Bay to burn for their metal. [4]

But how did Washington Tug and Barge end up with them, and could any of these be Tacoma built? To figure that out, we go back to 1918.

During 1918, four Tacoma shipyards were building wooden Ferris ships for the EFC.[5] When the war ended in November, several hulls at each lay incomplete.

By March 1919, the EFC was cancelling contracts and negotiating payments for unfinished ships.[6] In May, the Shipping Board ran ads across the country offering unfinished ships for sale. Ferris ships in Tacoma shipyards were included in the list: three at Babare Brothers, 63%-100% complete; six at Seaborn Shipyards Co., 37%-99% complete; three at Tacoma Shipbuilding Company, 28%-37% complete, and six at Wright Shipyards, 62-100% complete.[7] Unfinished ships from other Washington shipyards were also included in the list.[8]

By August, the Shipping Board had gathered more than forty unfinished wooden ships from yards throughout the region at Lake Union in Seattle.[9] The Shipping Board continued to offer the unfinished ships for sale.

Unfinished ships stored in Lake Union, early to late 1919

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph, Catalog #: NH 43179

Equitable Transportation Company of San Francisco was one buyer. They purchased at least 30 Ferris hulls during the early 1920s. They, in turn, sold about 20 (possibly more) to Washington Tug and Barge of Seattle. Washington Tug used some of the hulls as barges and towed them, filled with lumber, to destinations as distant as the East Coast.[10]

It was the company’s decision in 1926 to scrap some of the hulls that resulted in the big bonfire. An Associated Press story that appeared in newspapers throughout the country described it as a “four-and-a-quarter-million bonfire,” (the supposed value of the ships at wartime). The Tacoma News Tribune was more modest, describing it as a 1.5 million dollar bonfire. It also noted that the glow from the fire was visible from Olympia.[11]

I shared with Brian Kamens of the Northwest Room at Tacoma Public Library that the burning ships weren’t Foundation built, (TPL’s photo description was one of many places that had it that way). He did some additional digging and found an article published a few days before the bonfire naming four of the ships — all Ferris hulls built in Tacoma: the Puyallup and Chesterfield from Seaborn, and the Elestra and Elissa from Wright.[12]

So, it seems at least some of the ships that made up the big bonfire were Tacoma built, though not by Foundation’s shipyard.

That might have been the end of the story except for a series of photos in the collection of the Harbor History Museum. They show three wooden schooners smoldering on the beach at Minter.

Schooners on fire at Minter, c. 1926

(Harbor History Museum)

Could these be Foundation schooners scrapped at Minter, which might have led to the confusing caption for the lineup of burning ships? We return again to 1918.

Foundation’s Tacoma shipyard launched the last of its 20 ships just weeks after the war ended.[13] All its ships were delivered to the French (except for one lost along the way). The Tacoma yard then sat idle. In May 1919, the company announced the yard would be dismantled and machinery sent on to France. [14]

Records indicate that the majority of Foundation’s Tacoma-built ships were lost or demolished before 1926. A few lasted beyond 1926. One, the Justice, was scrapped in 1926. But its last port of registry was in France. A break up on the beach half a world away seems unlikely. [15]

So, if these schooners are not from Foundation’s shipyard, then whose?

The schooners at Minter were not the only ones getting scrapped in the 1920s. Schooners had been used in the Pacific Coast lumber trade since the 1800s, and they grew in size over the years. In the early 1900s, 4- and 5-schooners loading lumber at local mills was a common sight. But by the 1920s, steel was replacing wood. Nieder and Marcus, a shipwrecking firm in Seattle, scrapped several 4- and 5-masted wood schooners, formerly used in the lumber trade, at Richmond Beach (north Seattle) in the 1920s and 1930s.[16]

The memory of a Minter resident added another piece to the puzzle. Alva McKinley was interviewed by the News Tribune in 1956 about the ship remains on the beach. He sent a follow-up letter, which the paper published.[17] In his letter, Alva indicated there were several instances of ships towed to Minter and scrapped, taking place over weeks or even months (he also describes how some came loose, dotting other beaches in the area). He recalled seeing three schooners on the beach some time before the ships of the big bonfire.

I don’t know where the schooners on Minter’s beach came from, or exactly when.[18] I do think it much more likely they were relics of the lumber trade than relics of Foundation’s Tacoma shipyard. But I think their similarity to Foundation’s schooners may have led to the missidentification of the bonfire photo.


[1] The other 20 were built at Foundation’s shipyard in Portland.

[2] Foundation Shipbuilder, December 1918, p. 2

[3] Pacific Marine Review, August 1918, p. 85

[4] Tacoma News Tribune, June 11, 1926, p. 1.

[5] Babare Brothers, Seaborn Shipyards, Tacoma Shipbuilding Company, and Wright Shipyards. Todd Shipyard Tacoma built steel ships.

[6] For example, The Oregon Daily Journal, March 28, 1919, p. 18 describes details of orders to be completed and cancelled for Portland shipyards.

[7] One example of the ad: Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 10, 1919, p. 13.

[8] Ships from yards located in Seattle, Bellingham, Aberdeen, Raymond, Vancouver, and Grays Harbor.

[9] The Oregon Daily Journal, August 31, 1919, page 24. The UP story ran in numerous papers, though they differ in the number of ships (46 or 48).

[10] Equitable sold three hulls to Washington Tug and Barge in 1922 (Oakland Tribune, December 13, 1922, p. 31). This sale is also mentioned in McCurdy, who notes they purchased a schooner, too (p. 322). Equitable purchased 29 more hulls in 1924. One of the owners of Washington Tug and Barge facilitated the purchase (The Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1924, p. 13.) Articles published in 1926 about the big bonfire state that Washington Tug had purchased the ships it planned to burn two years earlier from Equitable, e.g. Oakland Tribune, May 27, 1926, p. 39. I have not been able to locate sales or purchasing records for either company, so I can’t be sure of how many hulls were involved in the resale. Washington Tug’s experimental use of the hulls as barges is noted in McCurdy and other sources.

[11] AP story, e.g. Oakland Tribune, June 11, 1926, p. 39. Tacoma News Tribune, June 11, p. 1

[12] Tacoma Daily Ledger, June 3, 1926, p. 1.Washington Tug and Barge had purchased the unfinished Puyallup from Equitable in 1922, along with two other Ferris hulls, the Oelwein (Seaborn built) and the Ahmik (built by Allen Shipyard in Seattle), and a schooner, the Nottingham (which they used as a barge). The purchase is mentioned in McCurdy, p. 322, and in the Nautical Gazette, Dec. 1922, p. 812, though the latter gets some of the name spellings incorrect (“oetwin” and “ahmix”).

[13] The Foundation Shipbuilder, the company’s newsletter, chronicles the completion of all the ships.

[14] January 1919 news stories about a threatened strike in Tacoma shipyards mentions that the Foundation yard would not be affected because it was no longer operating. (Oakland Tribune, January 21, 1919, p.1) The Oregon Daily Journal, May 23, 1919 describes the announced closure of the yard.

[15] I tracked the eventual fate of the ships through several sources. The two I found most helpful were: John Lyman’s series “Pacific Coast-Built Sailers of WWI” published in The Marine Digest, 1942, and the Mirimar Ship Index: Foundation ships built at the Portland yard had similar fates. Most were gone before 1926. Two were scrapped in 1926: the Capitaine Guynemer’s last home port was in France, and the General Serret’s last home port was Venice. Foundation was not the only Tacoma shipyard building schooners during the war years. In 1916 and 1917, Seaborn built four five-masted schooners and Babare built one four-masted schooner. From Seaborn Shipyard: Seaborn (broken up in Germany in 1935), H.C. Hansen (wrecked outside Tankar, 1924), Levi W. Ostrander (last known owners were Germans out of Shanghai, 1924), and the Betsy Ross (still afloat in the 1940s), and from the Babare shipyard, the Else’s last owner was out of Mobile, and he dropped her registry in 1929.

[16] A list of ships scrapped by Nieder and Marcus appears in Log Chips (Lyman, John, ed. Log Chips, 1951, p 40). McCurdy and other sources describe this company scrapping ships at Richmond Beach. Company records at UW also name Richmond Beach, if they name the location.

[17] Tacoma News Tribune, Dec. 23, 1956, p. B10, and Dec. 30, 1956, p. A10.

[18] Alva’s letter says the scrapings occurred in 1929 (clearly not the case for the bonfire). Other notations in the Harbor History Museum’s files suggest the schooner photos may date to the 1930s.

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