Lake Washington Shipyards (Kirkland)

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 2/28/2018
  • Essay 20514

Located in Houghton (now part of Kirkland), the Lake Washington Shipyards began in the 1870s as a small boat landing owned by boat builder Frank Curtis, who launched his first steamship there in 1901. Shortly thereafter, Curtis sold the property to George Bartsch and Harry Tompkins, who later partnered with John Anderson to create the Anderson Shipbuilding Company. In 1923, the shipyard company was purchased by Charles Burckhardt, who renamed it the Lake Washington Shipyards. The yard received prominence in the 1930s with the construction of the streamlined ferry Kalakala, but soon mobilized to become a World War II defense plant that manufactured naval support vessels and repaired war-damaged ships. After the war, the site's shipbuilding days came to an end and the property was used as a storage and winter tie-up facility. In 1976, it was leased by the Seattle Seahawks football team for offices and a practice field. Ten years later, the Seahawks lease ended and the property was developed into the Carillon Point commercial/residential complex.

Early Days

In the 1870s, Frank Curtis purchased a small claim of land on the northeastern shore of Lake Washington, north of Yarrow Bay, in the small community of Houghton. The boat landing he operated there became a popular stop for travelers to and from Seattle, especially after Captain Jay C. O'Connor (1846-1910) and his wife built a home nearby, which they operated as a hotel. In 1884 Captain O'Connor built and launched the lake's first ferry, a flat-bottomed boat that he named the Squak.

In 1887 O'Connor commissioned a more traditional passenger ferry -- the Laura Maud -- and soon other boat builders were launching more vessels on the lake. By the turn of the twentieth century, a handful of ferries were traversing the lake and Frank Curtis -- who had skippered the Squak until it sank during a Christmas Day storm in 1890, and then went on to operate the Elfin -- decided to build his own boat. On May 21, 1901, he and his sons Walter and Alvin launched the steamer Peerless from their property in Houghton.

The Curtis family intended to operate the Peerless in salt water, but it took months for them to get the boat into Puget Sound. Before the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened to boat traffic in 1916 (the canal was dedicated the following year), boats from Lake Washington had to travel down the Black River from the lake's southern end to the Duwamish River before reaching salt water at Elliott Bay. But in the year that the Peerless was launched, a low spring runoff caused the boat to get stuck in the Black River until November, when the rains came.

The Anderson Shipyard

The Curtises eventually placed the Peerless on the run between Coupeville on Whidbey Island and Everett, and sold their Houghton property to Captain George Bartsch and Harry Tompkins, who formed the Bartsch-Tompkins Transportation Company in 1904. Two years later, the pair partnered with steamboat operator John Anderson, who invested $25,000 to enlarge the Houghton shipyard, add new machinery, and hire more workers. The newly renamed Anderson Shipbuilding Company then built the Fortuna and the Urania to operate on Anderson's Lake Washington ferry routes. By 1908, Anderson had cornered the market on all of the lake's privately operated routes, much to the dismay of the public ferry system, which got its start in 1900.

In preparation for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the shipyard busily produced even more boats for use as excursion vessels during the fair. These included the Atlanta, the Triton, and the Aquilo. By the time the fair began, the shipyard employed more than 100 workers and two new gantry cranes had been built to aid in ship construction. In addition to buildings larger boats, the shipyard made good money repairing smaller craft.

Business thrived at the Anderson Shipyard until 1916, when Lake Washington was lowered by 9 feet during construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Almost all the docks around the lake became high, dry, and useless, and every lake steamer was tied up at the yard until new docks could be built. But after the canal was completed, the direct route it provided to the waters of Puget Sound (replacing the Black River, which also dried up) meant that the yard could now go after contracts for larger, sea-going vessels.

The Move to Steel

In 1923, Anderson sold his shipyard property to Charles Burckhardt, owner of Alaska Consolidated Canneries, who changed the facility's name to the Lake Washington Shipyards. Besides using the yard to repair old vessels and build new ones, Burckhardt also used it to tie up his cannery vessels during the winter months. Although many of the vessels that the shipyard worked on in the 1920s were used in the salmon industry, the yard also converted the Great Lakes steamer Chippewa into a diesel car ferry for use on Puget Sound. This was the first time that the yard worked in steel, rather than the wood earlier vessels were constructed of.

The shipbuilding community fell on lean times once the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, but the Lake Washington Shipyards continued to get by on repair jobs and the construction of smaller craft. Then, in 1933, the yard received a contract to build a ship that would go on to receive worldwide fame.

That year, the San Francisco Bay ferry Peralta burned at the Oakland ferry terminal, leaving only its steel hull. Alexander Peabody (1895-1980), president of the Puget Sound Navigation Company, purchased the hull and had it towed north to Houghton for use in the construction of a futuristic, streamlined vessel, which he named Kalakala -- a Chinook Jargon word for "flying bird." The vessel entered service on July 4, 1935, and quickly became a Northwest icon after being featured in newsreels, newspapers, and magazine stories around the world.

Depression-Era Work

Other notable ships built at the Lake Washington Shipyards in the 1930s included the Paramount, the first all-weld tuna ship on the West Coast, and the Explorer, one of the first steel vessels in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey fleet. In 1940, the caissons for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge were towed to the yard to be sealed with timbers and planking.

During the 1930s, working conditions at the shipyard also improved after its workers organized into labor unions. Prior to unionization, the shipyard had no toilets, washrooms, or warm places to eat lunch, and much of the work was done out in the open, with little regard for safety. After union organization, improvements were made to the workplace, safety regulations were strictly followed, and wages rose.

Throughout the Depression, the shipyard proved to be a boon for Houghton and nearby Kirkland and Bellevue. Jobs were limited, but the yard became known for its highly skilled workers, many of whom lived nearby and had families who were very active in the community. Soon the yard would contribute to a population boom that the lake's Eastside had never seen before.

Going to War

In 1940, with World War II raging in Europe and Asia, the shipyard received a contract from the U.S. Navy for four submarine tenders, six seaplane tenders, seven artillery lighters, and 1,000 flotation tanks for submarine nets. More workers were hired, and the contracts were completed in records time. After the United States entered the war in 1941, the navy requested more seaplane tenders, and the shipyard's workforce -- which had only numbered a few hundred in 1939 -- grew to more than 8,000 men and women during peak wartime production.

Shipbuilders worked around the clock in three shifts. The shipyard expanded through the purchase of land to its north and south, and new facilities were constructed with government funding, including a new outfitting dock, a cafeteria and lunchroom, bathrooms, and first-aid facilities. The federal government also paid to blacktop the yard, and later to improve its water system. Wartime housing was quickly built on the Houghton hilltop to accommodate the enormous number of incoming workers and their families.

The effects of so many new residents in Kirkland and Houghton -- as well as in Bellevue and other nearby communities -- were profound. Before construction was complete on wartime housing, many longtime residents were urged to take in boarders. Traffic was a nightmare, especially during shift changes when thousands of cars made their way through downtown Kirkland. The ferry dock in Kirkland became a bottleneck, as each ferry trip was filled to capacity with cars and walk-on passengers, most of them headed to or from the shipyard.

A Changing Workforce

Along with building new vessels, much of the work at the shipyard involved the repair of naval ships damaged in battle. But as the war raged on, the shipyard, like many homefront industries, found itself short on labor. New, unskilled workers, many of them from the American South and Midwest, underwent training courses in welding and metalwork.

Many of the workers were glad to have a job and help in the war effort. But in some instances there were those who took a shipyard job in order to receive a draft deferment. One young man, who gained a reputation for slacking off, decided to take a nap in one of the fuel tanks, unbeknown to the other workers. It wasn't until the tank was welded shut that his crew noticed him missing, and had to burn off the cover. He was led to the main offices to be fired.

At the start of the war, most women at the shipyard were clerical workers or first-aid nurses, but within months a few women began training to become boilermakers. By the end of 1942, 60 women -- including a few grandmothers -- were working in the sheet-metal shop, and by the height of the war women at the yard could be found in every trade that was once considered "a man's job." Some oldtimers at the yard had issues with women being in their midst, and a few even refused to work with them. But the women soldered on, and were proud of their work.

While women found it hard to gain acceptance at the yard, black workers had an even tougher time. Before the war, racial exclusion was common in craft unions, and when trainloads of African Americans began arriving in Seattle to work at Boeing and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard near Bremerton, very few were able to get jobs at private shipyards like the one in Houghton. Adding to this, no blacks were allowed to live in the nearby federal housing projects, and the few who did work at the yard had to commute from Seattle. Throughout the war, the shipyard remained very white, and predominantly male.


To boost morale and keep its workers informed, the Lake Washington Shipyards published its own newspaper, On the Ways, which was financed by the navy, but staffed by the yard. The weekly paper showcased some of the work being done at the yard, the latest war news from Europe and the Pacific, and the usual boosterism seen in wartime publications. On the Ways also provided a folksy account of the day-to-day lives of some of the shipyard workers.

But it took another newspaper -- the East Side Journal, published two miles away in Kirkland -- to expose problems at the shipyard that were ongoing. In the early years of the war, Robert Frank, the Journal's editor, published many positive stories about ship launches and changes to the yard but, in August 1943, he wrote an editorial criticizing the shipyard for cost overruns, inefficiency, and the hiring of second-rate management and personnel.

The editorial was republished the next day in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, along with a story about a secret undercover operation that was conducted at the shipyard by the War Manpower Commission. A preliminary finding by the commission came to the same conclusions that Frank did. Shipyard management and local labor unions initially denied the charges, but the scandal festered. While navy officials at first remained silent, they later claimed that any problems were due to the yard being overmanned. Manpower was reduced and, in the end, the yard's reputation was tarnished.

End of an Era

With manpower reduced, production dipped slightly, but there was still work to be done. With the war at its peak, damaged ships were coming in all the time. Repairs needed to be made quickly so the ships could sail back into battle. By war's end, the Lake Washington Shipyards built 29 new ships for the navy, and repaired nearly 500 other vessels.

Of all the ships produced at the yard, the workers were most proud of the USS Chincoteague, the second tender built there. The "Chinc," as she was known by her crew, was heavily bombed early in the war, but remained afloat. The shipyard received a commendation for its efforts.

There were those who hoped that the yard would remain viable after the war, but it was not to be. One week after victory was declared against Japan in August 1945, almost all of the swing-shift workers were laid off. By the end of the year, almost all the women welders were sent home. Repairs continued on the few ships that were still tied up, but the navy did not extend a contract to outfit other vessels. The shipyard became a boneyard.

The Bells Toll

After the war, Houghton residents expressed little desire to keep the shipyard around. The ragtag fleet of schooners and rusty hulls that were tied up at the yard were a blight on their shoreline, and navy officials suggested mooring hundreds more there. Nearby Kirkland, meanwhile, rallied to keep the yard in operation, even going so far as trying to annex Houghton, but this only created animosity between the two communities. The towns wouldn't merge until 1968.

On December 31, 1947, the shipyard was purchased for $85,000 by Alaska Terminal and Stevedoring of Seattle, a subsidiary of the Skinner Corporation. The new owner used the yard to tie up its own vessels, which were unsightly, but far less than the number proposed by the navy. But as Houghton experienced postwar suburban growth its residents continued to balk at the industrial eyesore on the shoreline.

In the 1960s, the Skinner Corporation proposed various development plans for the site, none of which came to fruition. In 1976, the company leased the southern portion of the site to the newly-formed Seattle Seahawks football team, which converted some of the buildings into offices, training facilities, and dressing rooms. A practice field was put in.

Ten years later, the Seahawks lease ended, and the Skinner Corporation began work on a residential/business park, initially called the Shipyard. The development, which included a hotel, a public marina, restaurants, and retail stores, eventually became known as Carillon Point.


Arline Ely, Our Foundering Fathers (Kirkland: The Kirkland Library, 1975); Lorraine McConaghy, "The Lake Washington Shipyards: For the Duration" (master's thesis, University of Washington, 1987); M. S. Kline and G. A. Bayless, Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1903); "First Ship Built at Houghton in 1901," On the Ways, April 15, 1942, p. 1; "Frankly Speaking," East Side Journal, August 12, 1943, p. 1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lake Washington Ship Canal (Seattle)" (by David B. Williams), (accessed February 27, 2018).

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