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McCurdy, H. W. (1899-1989)

HistoryLink.org Essay 7181 : Printer-Friendly Format

Horace Winslow ("H. W.") McCurdy was a shipbuilder, bridge builder, civic leader, native Washingtonian, and most enduringly a supporter of maritime research and maritime collecting in the Pacific Northwest.  The structures built by his firm, Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging, include the Lake Washington Floating Bridge (1940) and the Hood Canal Bridge (1961). He completely underwrote the expense of producing The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest and its subsequent volume The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1966-1976. He was a prime mover in the establishment and early development of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.  The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named H. W. McCurdy First Citizen of 1964.

McCurdy's Port Townsend Family

Horace Winslow McCurdy was born in Port Townsend on July 30, 1899, the son of one of that city’s best-known families.  His grandfather, William August McCurdy Jr. (1833-1890) arrived in Port Townsend on the bark Franklin Adams in 1857.  William McCurdy, who was trained as a ship's carpenter, was a cousin of Port Townsend pioneer F. W. Pettygrove. After establishing himself in Port Townsend, he traveled the Northwest coast building ships. He worked for the United States government at Mare Island Navy Yard in California, then for shipbuilder Hiram Doncaster’s yards in Seabeck, Tacoma, and Port Ludlow.  In 1868 he married 17-year-old Johanna Ebinger (1850-1880) of Portland, Oregon.  The couple moved from place to place as William McCurdy’s jobs required, but by 1871 they had returned to Port Townsend. Using his carpentry skills, William McCurdy set to building houses, and built many of the Victorian houses on the bluff overlooking Port Townsend Bay.  Their son, James Griffith McCurdy (1872-1942), H. W.’s  father, was born there.  The family was active in the First Presbyterian Church of Port Townsend. 

James McCurdy loved the sea but a childhood brush with what was most likely polio left him unable to pursue a maritime career. Instead he worked his way up the ladder of the Port Townsend National Bank, from errand boy to president. Late in life James G. McCurdy wrote By Juan de Fuca’s Strait, a history of Port Townsend and the surrounding area.  He also wrote an unfinished manuscript that was published after his death called Indian Days at Neah Bay.  The book chronicles several years of James McCurdy’s boyhood during which William McCurdy’s building work took the family to live at Neah Bay close to the 700 Makah for whom the area was home.  The book includes prints of remarkably poignant photographs of the tribe taken by young McCurdy on glass plate negatives. 

A Childhood by the Sea

In 1893 James McCurdy married Anna Tobena Laursen (1875-1962), a Danish immigrant.  The couple opened their home to the many ship captains (often accompanied by their wives, many of whom Anna McCurdy knew from Denmark) who made anchor in Port Townsend. Their son Horace Winslow (nicknamed "Mac") grew up listening to tales of adventure at sea, smelling the salt air, and watching the marine traffic on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “My earliest recollection," McCurdy reflected, "... is of my father waking me and taking me out onto the porch at dawn to see a full-rigged ship, all sails set and drawing to the early morning westerly, sailing into our bay without the aid of a tug” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. I, p.14). 

McCurdy attended Port Townsend schools and in his extra time he helped one of his uncles, William McCurdy (1868-1911). William McCurdy owned a local shipyard called the Madison Street Marine Ways. The company primarily built the small vessels that made up the so-called Mosquito Fleet: lightweight crafts that carried passengers from port to port on the marine waterways that were at the time the Puget Sound region’s most common thoroughfare.  McCurdy worked for his uncle from earliest childhood, sweeping, painting, caulking, and eventually building boats by hand -- the only power tool in the shop was a small gasoline-powered band saw.

William McCurdy died suddenly in 1911 at the age of 43. Mac McCurdy was 11.  He picked up odd jobs around town: he carried newspapers, cut lawns, and did janitorial work at the Port Townsend Public Library and at the First Presbyterian Church, where he was also paid to pump the organ during Sunday services. But he missed doing work connected to the sea.  At age 14, McCurdy and his good friend Wilfred Easterbrook convinced local businessman Fred Bailey to hire them to work on Bailey’s piledrivers. The work was often grueling but to McCurdy it was also exhilarating.  McCurdy worked for Bailey on school breaks until he graduated from college, except during World War I when he served in the U.S. Navy. 

One of McCurdy’s important early influences was shipbuilder Robert Moran (1857-1943). Moran had retired from shipbuilding by the time Mac McCurdy knew him, but his stories of the glory days of the Moran Brothers Company must have been compelling.  McCurdy later remembered, “My most vivid memory of a boyhood friendship was my relationship with Robert Moran.  I was fascinated with his account of building the first-class battleship Nebraska, and the problems involved, and I resolved that some day I, too, would build fine ships” (The Seattle Times, April 13, 1952).

Finishing School and Finding Love

In 1912 McCurdy finished Lincoln Grammar School, and in 1915 graduated Port Townsend High School as salutatorian.  At 16 he enrolled in the University of Washington, where he rowed crew.  During a Thanksgiving vacation trip home during his freshman year he met 16-year-old Sarah Catherine McManus (1900-1992) at an officer’s taffy pull at Fort Worden.  Catherine’s father, George H. McManus (1867-1954), was a Colonel (later Brigadier General) newly attached to the fort.  McCurdy later remembered the meeting as love at first sight, for him at least.  He courted Catherine during summer vacation, still working on Fred Bailey’s pile driver. 

McCurdy returned to the University of Washington in the fall of 1916.  All attention on campus was focused on the war in Europe.  Unable to concentrate on his schoolwork, McCurdy (like many other young men at the time) left the University of Washington in April 1917 to volunteer for the Navy.

McCurdy's Great War

His first assignment was on the U.S. Anemone guarding the University of Washington campus in Portage Bay.  McCurdy considered himself shanghaied -- France was where he wanted most to be.  Eventually he was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and from there he shipped out on the Henry R. Mallory.  The Mallory, a transport ship, made numerous Atlantic crossings, dodging torpedoes and German U-boats. 

After the war McCurdy returned briefly to Seattle (where Catherine was a student at the University of Washington) and Port Townsend, then entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  With friends he established the school’s first crew team.  Catherine transferred to the New England Conservatory of Music, but told McCurdy she would never marry him until he finished his undergraduate degree.  The two were wed June 3, 1922, the afternoon of McCurdy’s graduation from MIT with a B.S. in Engineering.  The marriage was kept secret, and a formal ceremony was held five months later on October 16, 1922.

Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company

McCurdy immediately found work with the Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company.  His first posting was to Maybelle, Texas, where the firm was building a hydraulic fill dam using the dredging method.  The Texas climate McCurdy described as “rotten as Hell” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. I, p. 81).  In Maybelle temperatures of 117 degrees were not unusual. 

In April 1923 McCurdy was transferred to corporate headquarters in Seattle, and he and Catherine left the sturdy wooden shack that McCurdy had built to serve as their first home.  Their son James G. McCurdy II was born in September 1923.  One month later the young family moved to Raymond, and on to a series of small towns around Washington as McCurdy managed dredging jobs.  In 1927 McCurdy was made manager of the entire Dredging Department and the family established a permanent home in Seattle.  Their second son, Thomas Winslow (1928-1955), was born shortly thereafter. Following his father's advice, McCurdy promptly joined the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

McCurdy became vice-president and general manager of Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging in 1929, then president and general manager in 1931.  In spring 1937 he was diagnosed with severe nervous exhaustion and prescribed a year of rest.  Leaving their sons with grandparents in Port Townsend, McCurdy and Catherine sailed for Tahiti.

After his recovery McCurdy made a point of spending more time sailing Northwest waters for pleasure and relaxation.  The family boat, Moby Dick, became the center of family activity.  In December 1941, the Moby Dick was converted to military service.  Later the family sailed the Blue Peter, a 125-foot yacht.  McCurdy was Commodore of the Seattle Yacht Club in 1941.

Building Bridges

In 1939 the Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company, in association with Parker-Schram, Jack Pomeroy, and Clyde Wood, constructed the Lake Washington Floating Bridge.  The 6,000-foot floating concrete bridge connecting Seattle with Mercer Island was at the time the largest floating structure in the world.  Highly publicized, the Lake Washington Floating Bridge was essential to the Puget Sound region’s World War II war effort because it facilitated quick transport of goods.  The firm also worked on the Hood Canal Bridge and the Granville Street Bridge in Vancouver, B.C., among many other projects.

During World War II, the Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Company was vital to the war effort. The firm was half-owner of Associated Shipbuilders and received millions of dollars worth of government contracts for shipbuilding.  Its Harbor Island construction facility (originally used for pre-construction of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge) was used to repair and launch more than 2,000 vessels including 100 steel battleships.  The firm also built three naval bases in Alaska (at Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor).

After the war the firm built ships (in McCurdy's words) “ranging from the big diesel-electric Evergreen State class ferries of the Washington State Ferry fleet through the ocean-going ferry liners of the Alaska State system and Black Ball Transport to guided missile destroyers, frigate and specially designed rocket ships, reconditioning and conversion of the famed hospital ship Hope and the American Presidential liner President Roosevelt, giant logistic support ships, oil-drilling rigs and the world’s first large naval hydrofoil vessel” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. I, p.162). 

A Family Tragedy

McCurdy and Catherine’s younger son, Tom, died in 1955 of an illness he contracted during active duty service as a Navy officer during the Korean War.  He was 26.  McCurdy reflected, “The great tragedy that has affected our lives and those of Jim and his family is the loss of our son, Tom ... changes in the lives of all of us were occasioned by his death” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. II, p. 123).  Tom was buried in Port Townsend’s Laurel Grove Cemetery overlooking Port Townsend Bay. 

As a tribute to his son, McCurdy instituted a ritual for all vessels on which he was present: “As is customary on any McCurdy-built vessel when the ‘old man’ is aboard, a touching ceremony is re-enacted as the boat passes the point off Port Townsend.  There, even McCurdy-built warships doing 30 or more knots on trial runs slow down and pull in toward the nearby promontory while ‘Mac’ blows three sharp blasts on the ship’s whistle” (The Seattle Times, November 11, 1963). 

The McCurdy family also established the Thomas W. McCurdy Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Washington in honor of their son’s memory.  In 1977 this endowment was transferred to the University of Washington athletic department.  “There is a requirement that there will, at all time, be a modern shell in the boat house named for Thomas W. McCurdy.  The funds shall be disbursed by the Board of Rowing Stewards and used for equipment, travel or for the benefit of crew” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. II, p. 95). The Thomas McCurdy Gallery at the Museum of History and Industry also serves as a memorial to Tom McCurdy.

Accolades and Further Accomplishments

In 1958 the Museum of History and Industry and the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society petitioned the City of Seattle Parks and Recreation Department to name the city park in which the Museum is sited H. W. McCurdy Park.  The city agreed to do so, and the name memorializes McCurdy’s long association with and dedication to the Museum.  The Museum’s H. W. McCurdy Maritime Collection contains artifacts, photographs, and paintings from McCurdy’s personal collection.  McCurdy began donating maritime items in the early 1950s and continued to do so throughout his life.  The artifacts McCurdy donated make up the bulk of the museum’s maritime collection.

In 1959 McCurdy made the difficult decision to sell Puget Sound Bridge and Dry Dock to the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.  Lockheed installed McCurdy’s son James as president.  McCurdy was made chairman of the board and also joined the Lockheed board.  Puget Sound Dredging was spun off at the time of the sale and remained in the McCurdy family’s control.

H. W. McCurdy retired as chairman of the board in 1963, ending his 42-year association with the company.  At the time he reflected, "I’ve been around here a long time. … I’ve been pretty close to the Seattle waterfront and I’ve seen a lot of changes.  This [retirement] is a pretty emotional thing for me” (The Seattle Times, November 11, 1963). 

In December 1964 the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Horace W. McCurdy the 26th recipient of the annual First Citizen Award.  The First Citizen Award honors Seattle civic leaders who have demonstrated exemplary devotion to the community and creative leadership over and above the call of duty.  McCurdy received the award at a ceremony at The Olympic Hotel on January 19, 1965.  In accepting the award McCurdy said, “Since my early boyhood, Seattle has been the city of my dreams ... being designated Seattle’s First Citizen is doubly sweet to us, because I accept the honor on behalf of Catherine as well as myself” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. II, p. 195).

Making History

In the mid-1960s Horace McCurdy funded a Seattle Historical Society project to create an up-to-date marine history of the Pacific Northwest.  The region’s standard marine history up until this time had been E. W. Wright’s 1895 Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. As a boy, McCurdy had poured over his father's copy of this volume, and he had developed an enduring interest in the marine history of the Northwest. McCurdy’s grant was used to prepare a complementary volume that brought maritime history current as of 1966.  The book was called The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. 

A further volume, also funded by Horace McCurdy, was published in 1977.  The volumes were written by Gordon Newell and vetted by a panel of 17 northwest maritime experts.  Proceeds from the sale of these volumes benefited the Museum.  McCurdy was so generous to the Museum of History and Industry that The Seattle Times referred to him as the organization’s patron saint (April 19, 1985).

McCurdy’s civic involvement was widespread.  He was a director of Lockheed Aircraft from 1959 to 1970, and also served on the boards of the Pacific National Bank and the First Interstate Bank.  An active member of the Pioneers Association, McCurdy also served as president of the Seattle Historical Society from 1957 to 1959.  He was a longtime board member of the Museum of History and Industry.  He was a member of the Rainier Club and served as its president in 1949. 

Among his many honors and awards were 1955 Maritime Man of the Year, 1959 Civil Engineer of the Year, and 1964 University of Washington Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus -- the first recipient of the award who attended but did not graduate from the University of Washington.  He was also a Mason and the recipient of the Masonic Grand Court Cross of Honor.  The Seattle Post-Intelligencer explained this last honor, “To interpret the trappings of Masonry, McCurdy now is one of the five living members of this Grand Court Cross of Honor.  Election is based on service to the order and to the public.  The last two men previously elected to the Grand Cross Court of Honor were J. Edgar Hoover and former Treasury Secretary Robert B. Anderson” (October 8, 1967).

Horace McCurdy died in Seattle on November 13, 1989.  He had devoted the last years of his life almost exclusively to his family and to the study and funding of Northwest maritime history.  Through his auspices the graves of mariners George Vancouver in Petersham, England, and Peter Puget, in Woolley, England (a suburb of Bath), were restored and marked with plaques honoring these mariners’ accomplishments. 

A Life Spent Close to Salt Water

Late in his life McCurdy told his friend and biographer Gordon Newell, “I am grateful that my entire boyhood and business life has been spent close to salt water.  I have built, repaired, operated, scrapped and owned all types of vessels and I am convinced and repeat that Conrad’s statement -- ‘The love that is given to ships is profoundly different from the love men feel for any other work of their hands’ -- is true” (McCurdy with Newell, Vol. II, p. 127).  McCurdy was memorialized at Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church and at the Scottish Rite Temple, and laid to rest in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Port Townsend.

  As Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson remembered Mac McCurdy, “He was the prototypical pioneer.  He started as a laborer and before he retired he had built many bridges, three ferries, and the 800-mile-long Distant Early Warning radar line in Alaska.  He built air bases during World War II.  He built more than 100 ships and his buildings and dams are still to be seen throughout the world.  He was a maritime historian who became a legend on the Seattle waterfront, but probably the best thing I ever heard about McCurdy was from Gordon Newell, a northwest historian.  ‘He was the last of the breed of independent entrepreneurs,’ Newell said.  ‘He made it to the top without lying, cheating, or stealing.  His handshake was as good as a 10-page lawyer-prepared contract’” (The Seattle Times, November 21, 1989).

In February 2004 the McCurdy family donated $150,000 to Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center to fund the H. W. McCurdy Maritime Resource Library.  The Northwest Maritime Center’s property is on Port Townsend Bay adjacent to the waterfront land on which McCurdy’s uncle’s boatyard was located -- where H. W. McCurdy’s lifelong attachment to northwest maritime history first took root.

Sources:
H. W. McCurdy with Gordon Newell, Don’t Leave Any Holidays, Vol. 1 (Portland: Graphic Arts Center, 1967); H. W. McCurdy with Gordon Newell, Don’t Leave Any Holidays, Vol. 2 (Portland: Graphic Arts Center, 1981); Who’s Who In Washington 1963 Century 21 Edition ed. by Bernice White (Olympia: Hugh L. White, 1963), 283; The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1966); The H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1966-1976 ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1977); E. W. Wright, Lewis and Dryden’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Portland: Lewis & Dryden Printing Co., 1895); James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: History Ink, 2000), 116; "McCurdy Park" Sherwood Park Files, Seattle Parks and Recreation Website accessed September 16, 2004 (http://www.cityofseattle.net/parks/history/sherwood.htm#r);“McCurdys Name NWMC Library in Honor of Their Ancestor,” February 11, 2004, Northwest Maritime Center website accessed September 16, 2004 (http://www.nwmaritime.org/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) -- a Snapshot History" (by Alan J. Stein) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed September 14, 2004); “Horace McCurdy, Civic Leader, Dies,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 16, 1989; “McCurdy Shipbuilding Era Closing,” Ibid., November 11, 1972; “McCurdy to Publish New Marine History,” Ibid., October 20, 1974; “Our History -- A Salty Epic,” Ibid., October 21, 1976; “Sentimental, Hardy McCurdys,” The Seattle Times, November 11, 1963; “Horace W. McCurdy Retires From Shipyard,” Ibid., November 11, 1963; The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1966-1976 ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co, 1977); “Thomas W. McCurdy, 26, Retired Navy Officer, Dies,” The Seattle Times, July 29, 1955; “Just Cogitating: How McCurdy Influenced His Son,” Ibid., April 13, 1952; “H. W. McCurdy Realty Board Man of Year,” Ibid., December 13, 1964; “Museum Honors A Patron Saint: Mac McCurdy, 86,” Ibid., April 19, 1985; Emmett Watson, “ ‘Mac’ McCurdy Built Bridges, Ferries and a Whole Lot More,” Ibid., November 21, 1989; “The Salt Water Millionaire,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 8, 1967; H. W. McCurdy, Genealogical History of James Winslow McCurdy and Neil Barclay McCurdy, Genealogical Research by Brian Young ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1963); Christopher M. Peacock, Rosario Yesterdays (Eastsound, Washington: Rosario Productions, 1985).
Note: This essay was corrected on May 12, 2009, to state that it was the Seattle Chamber of Commerce that McCurdy joined.


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Horace W. McCurdy (1899-1989)
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Horace McCurdy (1899-1989) in front of a model of his yacht Blue Peter, ca. 1967
Photo by Stuart B. Hertz, Courtesy MOHAI (Image No. 1986.5.35029)


 
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