Seattle Now & Then: The Fireboat Duwamish

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The nearly new fireboat Duwamish holds to her Firehouse No. 5 at the foot of Madison Street, circa 1912. (courtesy Lawton Gowey)
NOW: Not as powerful as the Duwamish, the fireboat Chief Seattle, on the right, is yet faster and so better able to serve also as a rescue boat. (Jean Sherrard)

Seattle’s second fireboat, the Duwamish, is now a century old and although no longer chasing waterfront or waterborne fires she apparently could be with a 100-year tune up.  Instead its iron-clad 120 feet floats in her slip beside the lightship Swiftsure at the South Lake Union Park accepting visitors and hoping for enthused volunteers.

The Duwamish was built nearby in Richmond Beach, and her designer, the naval architect Eugene L. McAllaster, made her strong enough to ram and sink burning wooden vessels (if needs be) and flat enough (with a low draft) to chase fires bordering shallow tideflats.  And he equipped her to break records in shooting water at her targets – eventually 1.6 tons of it a second. However, it was a power used more often for water shows during city celebrations or spectacular welcomes for visiting ships or dignitaries when they were still arriving here by sea.

Launched on July 3, 1909, it was then polished, appointed and delivered to waterfront Station No. 5, here at the foot of Madison Street. Soon after the Duwamish took to her slip, the largest wooden dock on the Pacific Coast was built directly south of her.  The short-lived Grand Trunk Pacific dock is seen here sometime before July 30, 1914, when it was consumed in what was then the city’s most spectacular fire since the “great” one of 1889 razed the business district and most of the waterfront.  While the combined barrage from the water canons of the Duwamish and the Snoqualmie, her smaller sister vessel, could not save the Grand Trunk, they are credited with keeping its neighbors, including Fire Station No. 5, from igniting.

The Grant Trunk Dock fire of 1914, with the Duwamish on the left flooding its north side and protecting both Pier 3/54 and Fire Station #5. Far right stands the Colman Dock tower.
A few hours separate the above view from the earlier scene above it. Here the Grand Trunk has been razed to its pilings and one big pier to the south part of the scorched Colman Dock tower has also been removed.

During World War 2, the Duwamish worked for the Coast Guard as a patrol boat.  After returning to her original service she was converted in 1949 to diesel-electric power and thereby became “the most powerful fireboat in the world.”  In 1986, one year after her retirement, the Duwamish was added to the list of Seattle Landmarks, and three years later she was made a National Historic Landmark as well.


The ‘Now’ photo was taken from the far end of the open air seating alongside Ivar’s. Here’s the Chief Seattle from the other direction, now a backdrop for the feeding of seagulls.

Mother, child, and gulls meet for fish'n'chips

Anything to add, Paul?  Yes Jean, as time allows and before nightybears I’ll add a few past features and other things that gather around the slip to the south side of Pier 3/54.   I’ll start off with a compliment to your mother-child fish-bar dining photo above and then go forward with a feature on the Puget Sound steamer Alida, an early story as our “now-and-thens” go.  It appeared first in the Seattle Times Pacific Mag on August 12, 1984.

These Acres of Clams Fish Stand customers were watching the birds 50 years ago. It is dated Aug. 6, 1960 by its photographer, Robert Bradley.


The scene above is the second oldest surviving photographic record of Seattle’s waterfront. The view was made from the end of Henry Yesler’s wharf, and looks across his mill pond to the sidewheeler Alida.  Above and behind the steamship’s paddle is the dirt intersection of Marion St. and Front St. (now First Ave). That puts the Alida in the parking lot now bordered by Post and Western avenues and Columbia and Marion streets – or just behind the Colman Building.

The occasion is either in the summer of 1870 or 1871. The steeple-topped Methodist Protestant Church on the left was built in 1864, as we see it here. In the summer of 1872 its’ builder and pastor, Rev. Daniel Bagley, added a second story with a mansard roof. Bagley was also the main force behind the construction of the University of Washington, the classic white structure with the dome-shaped cupola at the center horizon.

The photograph’s third tower, on the right, tops Seattle’s first public school. Central School was built in 1870 back away from the northwest comer of Third and Madison. If the bell in its bell tower were still calling classes, it would be clanging near the main banking lobby of  the Seafirst tower. (This was first printed in Pacific, Aug. 12,  1984. SeaFirst is by now long-gone.)

The Alida’s 115-foot keel was laid in Olympia in 1869. but its upper structure was completed in Seattle, in June of the following year, at Hammond’s boat yard near the foot of Columbia St., or just to the right of this scene. Perhaps, the occasion for this photograph is shortly after her inaugural launching.

The Alida first tested the water on June 29, 1870. Captain E. A. Starr invited Seattle’s establishment on the roundtrip trial run to Port Townsend. The July 4 edition of the Weekly Intelligencer reported that “During the passage down, the beautiful weather, the delightful scenery, the rapid and easy progress made, and last though not least, the excellent instrumental and vocal music which was furnished by the ladies, all contributed to the enjoyment of the occasion.” The steam to Port Townsend took four hours and eight minutes, and a little more on the return.

The Alida’s 20-year career on Puget Sound began with a few months of glory. She was the first steamship to successfully intrude on the monopoly which another sidewheeler, the Eliza Anderson, had on the Sound. What the Alida’s owners, the Starr brothers, won from the Alida’s triumph was shortlived. She was too slow and too light face the open waters of the straits.

In 1871 the Starr brothers introduced a second and stronger sidewheeler, the North Pacific. For ten years it controlled the Victoria run, while the Alida was restricted to steaming between Olympia and Port Townsend and way points, including Seattle.

The Alida came to her somewhat bizarre end in 1890. While anchored just offshore in Gig Harbor a brush fire swept down to her mooring and burned her to the water.

A year earlier the Seattle waterfront was also swept by fire. When it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1889, all of what is water in this historical scene was planked over and eventually filled in to the sea wall that is 500 feet out from First Ave.


Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889 burned 130 acres of the central business district and left the city’s fire ‘ department red-faced. There wasn’t enough pressure to conjure a flood against the flames, and there wasn’t a hose strong or long enough to reach the fire with salt water pumped from Elliott Bay. When the smoke cleared the message was obvious.        The then mayor, the ship builder Robert Moran, told the enflamed citizens assembled in the armory at Union Street and Fourth Avenue that rebuilding a city should also include a fire department that could safeguard the new quarters.  Within a year the city had five new firehouses, an electric alarm system with 31 boxes and the first fireboat on the West Coast: the Snoqualmie.

The Snoqualmie posing ca. 1901. Pier 3 (54) is behind her.
The Chief Seattle with Pier 54 "parked" behind her in 1997.

The Snoqualmie was designed by William Cowles, a New York naval architect as a 91-foot, coal burning, tug-shaped ship that would do 11 knots and shoot 6,000 gallons of saltwater per minute.  The fireboat’s trial run was a celebrated affair. On deck for a closer look was T.J. Conway, assistant manager of the Pacific Insurance Association. He later announced to the press, “She did very well, splendidly in fact, and l shall feel justified in recommending a liberal reduction in insurance rates here.”

For the businessmen on the waterfront this we delightful news. More than 60 wharves and warehouses with frontage of more than two miles had been put up since the fire flattened everything there south of Union Street.

The end of the coal bunkers that held the foot of Madison Street for most of the 1890s before the construction of Pier 3 (54).

The Snoqualmie made its home in a slip next to Fire Station No.5 at the foot of Madison Street. For 37 years the fireboat wandered up and down the waterfront looking for small fires to put out or big ones to contain. The new fireboat was also used to rescue ships in Puget Sound and even salvage them, using its strong pumps to raise sunken vessels. ‘

The Snoqualmie fought its last fire on Elliott Bay in 1927, the year it gave up its slip to the new fireboat in town, the Alki. For the next 47 years the Snoqualmie helped lower insurance rates on Lake Union and then served as a small freighter between here and Alaska.

The last fire the Snoqualmie attended was its own. Only eight years ago (first published in 1984 that might mean 1976) it burned for 36 hours off shore of the fuel dock at Kodiak, Alaska.

Looking south from Pier 3(54) to the profile of most of Colman Dock with Firestation #5 on the far left, and center-left the fireboat Snoqualmie moored to this side of the "mosquito fleet' steamer Burton. In 1911 the wide waterfront slip between the fire station and Colman Dock was filled with the then largest wooden wharf on the Pacific Coast, the Grand Trunk Pacific Dock.


In their basic shape, it is easy to compare the past and present of these three piers along the Seattle waterfront. (This would be especially true if we could find the “now” photographed for this story when it first appeared on May 25, 1986, now nearly a quarter-century ago. For the moment the reader is asked to imagine it, or to proceed to the “Keep Clam” waterfront trolley island and inspect it.  And, of course, don’t expect the trolley.)

The timber quay against which these railroad piers were constructed at the very beginning of the 20th-century were built over the tides. The holes or "death traps" evident on the left look down on the bay.

Where they differ dramatically is in their uses. The historical photographer took his shot about 1902, soon after the Northern Pacific Railroad built the piers that were then numbered 3 through 5. (During World War II, in an official “act of war,” they were re-numbered 54 through 56).

The railroad’s first tenants at Pier 3 were James Galbraith and Cecil Bacon who had already been selling hay and feed on the waterfront in the 1890s, before their first step into the 20th century and Pier 54. When the partners moved on to the new pier, they widened their commercial cast to include building materials.

The Kitsap fleet in the slip between Pier 3/54 and the Grand Trunk Dock from which the photograph was recorded.

The early wharf was mostly known for being the home port for many of the vessels in the famous “Mosquito Fleet.”  The Kitsap Transportation company’s busiest packet was for the little steamers that plied Puget Sound waters carrying passengers to the Kitsap mainland and Bainbridge Island.

The next pier north, Pier 4(55), became port for ocean-going steamers that sailed to Antwerp, London, Mexico and San Francisco. But in 1902 the gilded romance of Alaska was the larger allure with the Alaska Commercial Company’s coast steamers named Portland, St. Paul and Bertha carrying gold seekers north to Nome.

The last pier, No. 5/56 was taken over by the English stenographer turned shipping magnate Frank Waterhouse and his steamship line, which was the first to regularly reach the European Mediterranean from Puget Sound by way of Hawaii, the Philippines, Australia and the Suez Canal. Trade with Russia through Vladivostok was also one of Waterhouse’s commercial coups until the 1917 revolution put a stop to it.

Today this section of the old working waterfront is mostly for playing. And one of the very first players was Ivar Haglund who in 1938 opened his little aquarium on Pier 3 and, of course, at the same spot opened his famous “Acres of Clams” during the buoyant clam-happy post-war summer of 1946.  In its abiding dedication to hoaxes, Ivar’s is presently celebrating it’s 100th anniversary on the pier – 30 years early.

Another study of the pier's water end taken from the Grand Trunk Dock. The date for this is about 1911. (Used courtesy of Jim Westall)
When new, Pier 3/54 had as yet no enclosed shed attached to its north side - now the home of Ivar's Acres of Clams. In 1900-01 Railroad Avenue was still not completed to the width it has kept since about 1902. Here the open bay continues on its sun lighted flow further to the east.
The right side of this comparison - of two looks down on the waterfront at the foot of Madison Street taken from the roof (or back window) of the old Burke Building - was recorded on the Spring day in 1903 when Theodore Roosevelt first visited Seattle. The waterfront and business district roofs are jammed with spectators. In the right recording, the north shed to Pier 3/54 has been added. In the photograph to the left it has not. Both were taken by Army Corps officer Major John Millis during his early-century stationing to Ft. Lawton. assignment in Seattle. (Courtesy of Walter and Robert Millis.)
The Alki and behind it the Duwamish sharing the slip between Ivar's Pier 54 and Fire Station #5's dock.
The Alki and Chief Seattle sharing the slip with Ivar's beyond.
The Alki Alone on July 25, 1997.


The Kitsap was both trim and dauntless. In 20 years of rate wars, races, collisions and switching routes, the steamer energetically participated in the wildlife of Puget Sound waterways. At 127&1/2 feet and 195 tons, the Kitsap was an average-sized steamer about 12 feet longer than the Virginia V, which most readers will be familiar with as the last survivor of Puget Sound’s “Mosquito Fleet.”

The Kitsap was built in Portland for the Kitsap Transportation Co., one of the two strong arms of Puget Sound navigation. For a quarter century, the KTC competed with the Puget Sound Navigation Company. Oddly, at the Kitsap’s 1906 launching, the presidents for both companies, KTC’s  W.L. Gazzam and PSNC’s Joshua Green, were on board. Four years later Gazzam and Green traded abusive language when the Kitsap was sent to compete with Green’s much plusher and larger but significantly slower Chippewa on the Bellingham run. Green complained to Gazzam that the fleet Kitsap represented a general threat to business because it taught patrons to expect speed.

The comely Kitsap resting at the south side of Pier 3/54/circa 1910.

Green also responded by scheduling a steamer on Gazzam’s Bainbridge Island route. This route war featured at least two bumps between vessels, safety hearings, suspended captains and ruinous effects on Green’s Seattle-Vancouver route. In the rate war that ensued, both companies lowered the fare to Bellingham to a quarter. Smart customers would take either cheap trip to Bellingham and catch the train from there to Canada.

In this ca.1911 view of the Kitsap, the banner strapped to her starboard side reads, “Bellingham-Anacortes-Seattle 25 Cents.”

On Dec 14, 1910, Green inadvertently got even when three days after the Kitsap punched and sank the launch Columbia, the PSNC’s Great Lakes steamer Indianapolis rammed the Kitsap about 400 yards off Pier 3, and sent it to the bottom of Elliott Bay. The Kitsap was raised and towed to West Seattle where it was patched up and ready to compete by the following May.

In its remaining 15 years of service, the Kitsap steamed a variety of courses – her owners acting like coaches looking for winning match-ups with the opposition. Its packets included Poulsbo and Port Blakely, and a longer round trip from Seattle through Harper, Colby, Port Madison and back to the company’s depot at Pier 3 – now, as most readers will know, Ivar’s Acres of Clams.

In the 1920s, cars became a factor. In 1925, 40 minutes were cut from the car ferry Washington’s run between downtown Seattle and Vashon Island when the then-new Fauntleroy ferry dock allowed it to make the crossing in 17 minutes.

The Washington’s old route from the foot of Marion Street was picked up by the Kitsap, by then renamed the Bremerton. (This, its last passenger-only route, is being considered for revival or was when this feature first appeared Sept. 10, 1989.)  A year later, in November 1926, the Kitsap-Bellingham caught fire while laid up at the Houghton shipyards on Lake Washington, and was destroyed along with two other vessels.


What makes this steamer shot instructive in the methods of transportation safety is its revelation of the passengers’ random arrangement at the stern-wheeler’s bow. Many of these passengers are probably sightseers out for a weekend excursion to the Capitol City’s regular ports of call, Tacoma and Olympia.

For sightseers and commuters, the Mosquito Fleet of small steamers was still the way to get around Puget Sound in the early part of this century. Most of the areas with the smaller ports had no rail connection and only very rough roads reaching them – if any. And although the Northern Pacific could get you to Olympia quicker than the Capitol City, the ride was neither as smooth nor as exhilarating.

There was at least one occasion when the Capitol City was in a greater hurry. Late October 1902, off Dash Point near Tacoma, a Canadian freighter struck the steamer and put a large hole in its port side.  It started to go down. The steamer’s engineer answered Capt. James Edward’s call for full steam ahead and dashed for shore, arriving out of steam but safely beached.

The glass negative for this rare view was discovered by a carpenter while remodeling a Capitol Hill home. The amateur photographer, Lewis Whittelsey, was a bookkeeper for the Seattle Water Department. His identity was traced through the coincidental discovery of two more sources of Whittelsey’s work. A friend, Harold Smith, belonged to the same church, Plymouth Congregational, as Whittelsey and had been given two albums of his photographs.  Another friend – and one often credited here – Lawton Gowey, a latter-day accountant at the city’s Water Department, was introduced to three more albums of Whittelsey’s work uncovered in City Hall years after his death in 1941.

The second look (below) at the Capitol City comes from MOHAI and its collection of glass negatives from the professional Webster and Steven Studio.

It's home port Pier 3 looks over the Capitol City on its approach. The old King County Court House stands on First Hill, upper-right.
Pier 3 in the summer of 1989.


In the summer of 1929 the south skirt to Pier 3 (now Ivars Pier 54) was cut into for a gangway which passengers could walk to Verne Gorst’s new Air Ferry to Bremerton. The historical view was photographed by Asahel Curtis from the long since destroyed Grand Trunk Pacific Dock. (Courtesy, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, WA.)

Verne Gorst got started transporting mail by dog team in Alaska, and he kept his memories of that adventure alive by staying a Sourdough Association member in good standing until his death in 1953.  After the dogs Gorst gave a half-century to hauling freight — including the U.S. Mail — and passengers by bus, truck and plane to various destinations between Los Angeles and the Aleutians.  Here he was, perhaps, best know for, he claimed, “the first air ferry in world” running hourly trips between Seattle and the “navy yard city” Bremerton.

Gorst’s June 14, 1929 advertisement in The Times announced that the new line’s eight-passenger closed-cabin Loening Amphibian would leave its berth at the foot of Madison Street the following morning at 9 A.M. for its first service.  If he kept to schedule than this view of the Loening at the foot of the old Gailbraith Dock, Pier 3 (now Ivars Acres of Clams Pier 54) and the line of sportily dressed witnesses on the Pier’s skirt above it have not come together for the inaugural ceremonies. The sun is nearly overhead so its closer to noontime.

Still this is surely a record of some moment in the first year of Gorst’s air taxi enterprise, for by its first anniversary the air ferry was operating not from this improvised float but from a covered hangar tied to the end of Pier 3 (54). (see below) That floating depot was, the Times reported, big enough to house “five planes, a passenger waiting room, two repair shops, a stock room and a five-room modern apartment.”

The careful eye will find the Gorst air ferry's floating terminal at the water end of Pier 3/54 showing above the bow of the passenger steamer heading out to the straits.

Even though his first year ran into the Great Depression Gorst could afford his floating depot for from June to June he had carried more than 25,000 passengers on 2,700 round trips across the Sound.  The one-way hops ran an average of 51 minutes less than the water ferries hour-long ride and if the winds were right the flight could be done in seven minutes.  The Navy Yard was then one of the region’s great tourist lures and, of course, most of those flying there had never flown before. Gorst assured them of the line’s safety with the comforting point that the amphibians could land anywhere along the route.

In 1929 the fare was $2.50 one way.  But in June of 1933, beginning his fifth year, Gorst dropped his round-trip depression-time charge to $1.50.  And in 1934 after a fall storm battered his Elliott Bay Depot he towed it to new quarters at the south end of Lake Union.  There Verne Gorst’s Bremerton taxi service petered out as the Great Depression dragged on.

[Time now to climb the steps to the comforts of slumber, but will continue with an addendum tomorrow including other features and subjects that relate to this busy spot on the waterfront.)

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