Fiberglass: a New Material
Plastics of all sorts came into their own in the years after World War II, and quickly became commonplace in all manner of consumer items. During the 1950s boat builders across the country began to recognize the possibilities of fiberglass in small boat construction.
Fiberglass is a very, very fine spun (as a liquid) glass most folks recognize as an insulating material. The term fiberglass used in construction of boats is actually called glass-reinforced plastic, but the name fiberglass has generally been used as the generic term.
Fiberglass boats are made by creating a mold and then laying woven mats or strips of fine-spun glass fibers that are then sandwiched between layers of some sort of epoxy resin or plastic with a curing agent that causes the mixture to harden. Several layers are added depending on the need, resulting in a light but strong, resilient, and waterproof material that proved ideal for boat hulls. Another advantage was that color could be added in the process, making a permanent color for hulls, etc, allowing for reduced maintenance.
Durability, ease of maintenance, lower costs, and reduced weight made this new material an attractive alternative to the wood used in traditional boat construction.
Boats Built in Bellingham
One of the first builders in Washington, and perhaps in the United States, to engage in the widespread use of fiberglass was the Bellingham Shipyard, which began producing their line of Bell Boy boats in 1952 to meet the growing demand for recreational boats. These boats proved immensely popular, and by 1957 Bell Boy enjoyed sales of $3 million from their 200 dealerships.
The success of Bell Boy Boats did not go unnoticed by the owners of Dunlap Towing Company. Dunlap, which had been operating tow boats out of LaConner, Washington, since 1925, had decided to begin manufacturing their own line of fiberglass recreational boats under a subsidiary, Skagit Plastics. In 1954 Dunlap was able to entice one of Bell Boy's employees, Howard Roberts, to come to LaConner and set up the new company.
By the following year Roberts had production well underway with the introduction of a 20-foot cabin cruiser he himself had designed. Production quickly increased to include a number of models, ranging in size from an eight-foot dinghy to the popular 20-footer, which was available in several configurations. Later on, several larger boats were added to the line, produced in two buildings along the Swinomish Channel just south of LaConner.
Skagit Boats ceased production in 1961, after producing more than a thousand boats. Howard Roberts continued to operate one of the plants to produce custom designed boats. One of the two production facilities burned down ca. 1965; the other, known locally as the R. V. Moore building, still stands. Today a number of Skagit boats can still be found, many owned by an active group of Skagit boat owners.