Seattle Now & Then: Seattle Harbor Water Tours, 1952

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN 1: During shirtsleeve weather in late summer 1952. The Smith Tower barely peeks out above an Alaskan Way Viaduct nearing completion and free of traffic in this Boyd Ellis postcard. A one-hour Seattle Harbor Water Tours trip cost only $1. (courtesy Ron Edge)
NOW: A somewhat wider view looks southeast at Pier 54. The Bremerton Fast Ferry, seating 118 passengers, pauses at its temporary berth at Pier 54. At 75 feet long, it has a beam of 27 feet. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in The Seattle Times online on May 26, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on May 29, 2022)

Visitors aboard a 1950s waterfront tour had to walk the prank
By Jean Sherrard

During her first visit to Seattle, Gwendolyn Dixon wrote home to her parents in tiny Green City, Mo., that she having a whale of a time. On the backside of this Boyd Ellis postcard, postmarked Aug. 25, 1953, she mentioned plans to take a one-hour boat tour of the harbor.

THEN 2: The back of the postcard sent by Gwendolyn Dixon to her parents in Green City, Mo. The town’s population has remained in the mid-600s since the 1950s. (courtesy Ron Edge)

Would that we could scratch and sniff Ellis’ photo, snapped a year earlier in 1952! A pungent working waterfront would spring to life.

Add the sound of ferry whistles, harbor gulls and the booming voice of Seattle Harbor Water Tours’ barker Rudi Becker (lower left) for full effect. The skipper on the flying bridge is likely Lynn Campbell or Joe Boles, company co-owners.

Campbell and Boles were particularly proud of their recent acquisition, named for a freak swell that nearly capsized the vessel on its passage from San Diego. After a $21,000 repair and facelift, the owners claimed the Wave was unique on the waterfront. Though sporting a conventional, 50-foot-long hull with a 13-foot beam, the cabin featured large, stainless-steel-framed, shatterproof panes of glass, providing spectacular harbor views for its 68 passengers.

And business boomed. Tourists and locals alike took in waterfront highlights, from Coast Guard weather ships and Smith Cove to United Fruit Company’s banana terminal. Most impressive, Campbell said, were the Todd drydocks at Harbor Island, “where you get to see how big a ship really is … and wonder how anything so heavy can float.”

During evening tours, Becker, a self-described “wharf rat,” could be heard tickling eager passengers: “By special permission of the chamber of commerce, we are permitted to include on this trip the sight of the setting sun.”

In the postcard’s background, above Alaskan Way, looming are pale concrete ribs of the nearly completed viaduct, which opened in April 1953. At right, near an octopus mural at the northeast corner of Pier 54, a mounted sign supplies evidence of Ivar Haglund’s aquarium. It drew many visitors for 18 years, until it was shuttered in 1956.

THEN 3 (possible online only): Ivar Haglund with one of his aquarium superstars, Oscar the Octopus. (courtesy Ivar’s)

A coda:

Joe Boles (1904-1962) made a late-life career change, improbably becoming the Northwest’s leading recording engineer, famously mastering the Wailers’ cover of “Louie, Louie.”

His partner, Lynn Campbell (1912-2013), offered harbor tours until his retirement, evolving the business into what is known today as Argosy Cruises.

Rudi Becker (1913-1976) served as a tour barker, wag and jokester for more than a decade. Watching tourists fill souvenir bottles with Elliott Bay water, he advised caution. “You better pour some out,” Becker said, “Come high tide, that bottle will break.”

Most tourists took it as Sound advice.


For our narrated 360 degree video of this column, please head over in this general direction.

And for further life aquatic, here’s a few photos of Ivar Haglund’s waterfront aquarium, courtesy of Ivar’s:

Ivar’s Aquarium interior
The Aquarium flyer
Ivar with another favorite, the legendary Patsy the seal
Eddie, formally known as “Keeper of the Seal”
A view of the fish tank

A late addition – the Times article from July 24, 1949 concerning the United Fruit Company’s Banana Terminal.

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Seattle Harbor Water Tours, 1952”

  1. Nice to see the Argosy Tours origin story! $1 in 1953 is about $10 today. Today’s harbor cruise is $35, so it was a good deal in 1953.

  2. Do you have more information (and photos) about the history of the United Fruit Company’s banana terminal? I hadn’t heard about it before and can’t find much from googling. I’m interested to learn more about Seattle’s connection to this infamous corporation.

    1. Looks like United Fruit used the Banana Terminal from 1949 well into the 1970s. The Times ran an article about it on July 24, 1949 with an accompanying photo. I’ll append to the end of the column.

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