Seattle Now & Then: Waterfront Fiction, 1936

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN 1: Vessels representing several classes populate this postcard: (from left) the steamer Iroquois, the ferry Kalakala, the tug Goliah, a pair of mystery craft that stumped even our experts, the Coast Guard cutter Tallapoosa and the Army Corps of Engineers dredger Michie. Also note the painted-on (and super-sized) Mount Baker. This historical postcard is still quite popular on eBay. (Courtesy Ron Edge)
THEN 2: Charles F. Laidlaw’s unretouched 1936 original bears a handful of docked ships: (from left) at Pier 6 (now Pier 57 with the Great Wheel), the British freighter M.S. Devon City; at Pier 3 (now Pier 54, home to Ivar’s), the Bureau of Indian Affairs cutter North Star; and at Pier 1 (now Ferry Piers 50-52), the freighter SS Susan V. Luckenbach. Mid-World War II, on May 1, 1944, the military renumbered all the piers. (Courtesy Ron Edge)
NOW: This aerial photo was taken on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. The Washington State ferry arriving at Colman Dock is the genuine article. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Aug. 19, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Aug. 22, 2021)

An aerial depiction of Seattle’s too-busy bay feels right for its time
By Jean Sherrard

The camera never lies, so goes the maxim. Yet photographers have stretched the truth on occasion, long before Photoshop made fakery a breeze.

Last Feb. 27, Clay Eals and I chartered a helicopter, the left door removed for photography. This week’s “Now” photo, from 800 feet above the waterfront, illustrates the potential for spectacle and perspective.

Seeing this elevated view, photo historian Ron Edge responded by sending me our serendipitous first “Then” photo — a shot I’d never seen. “Pretty close!” Ron marveled.

It was a prevalent postcard of a vibrant Elliott Bay, taken Sept. 15, 1936, by pilot/aerial photographer Charles F. Laidlaw, who apparently captured a miracle of near-misses. In it, various crisscrossing vessels provide visual bon-bons for today’s maritime historians.

Most recognizable at lower left is the beloved, streamlined ferry Kalakala, placed into service in 1935 and departing Colman Dock on the Bremerton run that she would make for 30 years. Above left, the night steamer Iroquois arrives from Victoria via Port Angeles. Puffing from Pier 3 (now Pier 54) is the sturdy oceangoing tug Goliah, built in 1882 and later converted from steam to diesel. Barreling south is the Coast Guard cutter Tallapoosa, fresh from fleet duties with the Bering Sea Patrol. At lower right, the Army Corps of Engineers dredger Michie heads due west.

Whew! Such a spectacular view of Seattle’s busy port.

Trouble is, it’s mostly fiction. Skillfully inserted, complete with brushed-in wakes and waves, none of these vessels (identified by veteran ship historians Michael Mjelke and Paul Marlow) were present in Laidlaw’s original photo, our second “Then.”

One explanation for the empty bay lies in the widening ripples of the Great Depression. Imports and exports had plummeted since the 1929 crash, threatening maritime commerce with ruin.

By the mid-1930s, widespread labor unrest sporadically shuttered ports along the West Coast. Under sympathetic President Franklin Roosevelt, unions flourished. William Randolph Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer even paused publication for the first time since its 1863 founding due to striking writers and editors.

What’s more, Puget Sound’s Mosquito Fleet, dozens of lively craft ferrying passengers and cargo bowed to grander but fewer vessels. “Suddenly, in the mid-(19)30s, people found that their Fleet was gone,” wrote marine historian Gordon Newell. “(Seeing) the quiet reaches of the Sound, they began to feel that something fine and exciting was missing.”

In that context, Laidlaw’s marine manipulations feel right for the time, a quiescent harbor being no subject for a popular postcard. With no end in sight to the Depression, maybe Seattle was ready for a boost, even one fabricated with a photographer’s fib.


In place of Jean Sherrard‘s usual 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect, below we have aerial video of downtown by Clay Eals.

Here is a two-and-a-half-minute video tour of downtown Seattle from the air on Feb. 27, 2021. Jean Sherrard takes stills while Clay Eals takes video.

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Waterfront Fiction, 1936”

  1. The two “unidentifiable” passenger boats in the middle of the improvised harborview is the steel steamer Winslow (former Bainbridge) from the stern, still wearing it’s K stack white back for Kitsap County Transportation Co even tho by then secretly owned by PSNC and probably the Speeder (also former Bainbridge) which was a motor launch that Joe Williamson cut down to be a shipyard ferry several years later. More via separate correspondence. Laidlaw would overfly the boats (like the trained USMC observation pilot he was) not all of which snaps have been published by MOHAI. Also, the docks were renamed by Army in 1944, said Paul in his waterfront history, during not at the outset of the war. June 1 I think. Best regards to you all!

  2. I have a Joe Williamson “colorized” portrait of my grandfather Captain Oscar in the wheelhouse of his Kehloken. Joe had a light tough with the pastels. Prized possession.

  3. Well, further possibilities rise to the surface. The steamers Virginia V and the Vashona (rebuilt and renamed the Sightseer in 1935), also had similar cabins and decks and were both active in middle Puget Sound/Elliott bay in 1935-1936. See photograph of their famous Elliott Bay race on May 22 1948. I once looked at most of the MOHAI Laidlaw prints and they have only a fraction of his work online.

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