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Why is Seattle Known For Wooden Boats?

Jun 29th, 2022

If you’ve spent any time living in Seattle or around the Puget Sound, you’ll have surely noticed how many boats there are. Not just cargo ships — after all, Seattle is still a big port city — but small wooden boats used as pleasure craft. Private vessels tethered to docks and marinas pop up every now and then in the crowded waterways around the Puget Sound, Lake Union and Lake Washington.

There’s a large boating community here that has seeped into the very culture and history of the region. The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) at South Lake Union details the history of boating in these parts, dating back as far as the original inhabitants of this land who traveled by hand-made canoes and rafts. The Center for Wooden Boats is just next door, and it is a treasure trove of maritime history that showcases expertly crafted wooden boats and a wealth of educational materials. 

Port Townsend, just across the Puget Sound, has a thriving maritime culture and is home to the largest wooden boat festival on the continent. It draws boat enthusiasts from all over the world and features hundreds of vessels of all shapes and sizes — all of which, of course, are handmade from wood. 

So why do Seattle and the Puget Sound have such a thriving wooden boat culture? What guided the city toward handmade vessels rather than large, commercial cargo ships? Let’s set sail and find out!

Seattle’s history of wooden boats

Seattle back then 

To understand what made Seattle the maritime center it is today, we have to go back in time a little bit.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Seattle had been an official municipality for about 50 years already. It was first incorporated as a settlement in 1853, as a town in 1865 and as a city in 1869, and its first few decades of life were filled with plenty of growth, tragedy and progress.

Seattle had a thriving lumber industry that dominated the local economy from the 1850s to the 1890s. Easy access to the forests of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia via the many waterways made Seattle the ideal center for shipping lumber further down the coast to California’s major cities, and this industry built the foundations of Seattle’s early success. 

June of 1889 saw the Great Seattle Fire decimate much of the business district downtown, as nearly all the buildings were entirely made of wood. Though 25 city blocks were completely destroyed, the citizens and local government were eager to rebuild the city and make it better than before. New buildings were rebuilt atop the rubble of the old, and city planners reorganized the streets and blocks into a much more efficient layout. The result was a massive boom in population within a year of the fire, and by 1890 the city had grown by 33%. 

The Klondike Gold Rush came soon after, following the 1897 arrival of the S.S. Portland from Alaska with a full ton of gold fresh from the Yukon River stored in its hull. The amount of traffic going through the city into Canada gave rise to a host of entrepreneurs who sold goods, food, clothing and supplies to the eager gold-diggers. It was during this time that companies like Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom and UPS first started, and the salmon trade became wildly popular during this time, too. 

The timber boom and the gold rush both contributed greatly to the city’s wild success, and by the 20th century Seattle had firmly established itself as a hub for trade, transportation, business, agriculture and retail in the Pacific Northwest. 

The boat building boom

So, now we’ve set the stage for the next wave of industry that has come to define Seattle — the maritime industry. 

The first wave of interest in boats came from the shores of Seattle where boat houses were constructed at the end of streetcar lines. These boat-rental docks were frequented by working men who found community and relaxation amongst the city docks, and this spurred an interest in pleasure craft and boat-building among the businesspeople and workers of Seattle.

In 1917, the Lake Washington Ship Canal completed its construction and was opened to the public. It connected the freshwater Lake Washington with the salty Puget Sound via Lake Union, which finally gave people access to both interior and exterior waterways around Seattle and Bellevue.

This canal was intended to lead to a large commercial shipping industry in Seattle with shipbuilding facilities at every turn, but instead the waterway gave rise to a smaller boating industry — one that featured smaller pleasure craft handmade by artisans for specific clients. 

The rise of the wooden boat industry is credited to a few different factors.

Quality materials

The PNW is covered in forests, and these forests are home to a wide variety of trees that are perfect for boat building, like yellow, red and Port Orford cedars, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and white oak. 

Skilled labor

You know what they say: a forest of boat-building trees without boat-building people is just a forest of grounded boats. 

Or, you know, something like that. Probably.

Skilled laborers were vital to the rise of the maritime industry here in Seattle. The late 1800s and the early 1900s saw an immense growth of unions in the city, and by the 1920s almost everything was run by unions. These unions included the shipwrights union, which developed an apprenticeship program that fed artisans and laborers into the local economy. 

When the Seattle Edison Technical School opened a boat-building program in South Lake Union in 1936, even more skilled workers entered the scene.

Client relationships

Building a custom wooden boat takes an immense amount of work and is incredibly expensive, even back in the mid-1900s. Builders wanted to make sure that their customers had good credit and would take care of the boats, and customers wanted to make sure the builders made a vessel worthy of their money. This required an immense amount of trust between the buyer and the builder, and this created deep relationships between the two parties over time. 

Builders were involved in the maintenance and repair of the boat long after the boat’s sale, and customers who enjoyed their purchase made repeat purchases from specific builders. Wealthy customers eventually had a family boatbuilder, just as they may have had a family doctor or a family lawyer. These kinds of relationships kept the boat-building industry thriving, and is why it has continued to thrive to this very day!

To sum it up

In the end, the wooden boat industry that thrives in Seattle today is a great example of how local workers and artisans used what was available to create an industry that has lasted nearly a century. Many boats that were crafted in the 1920s are still sailing around the Puget Sound today, and the craftsmen and craftswomen who continue to study and perfect their art have a century of Seattle-based artisans supporting them in their industry today.

So, next time you’re in South Lake Union or around our luxury Seattle apartments, go check out the MOHAI and the Center of Wooden Boats to see firsthand how this industry helped shape Seattle’s culture today. 


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/quangle

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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