David Rodgers: The Crafting of Boats and Building of Seattle's Legacy

  • By Mark Hanson
  • Posted 7/29/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11093
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David Rodgers (1864-1923) was a master shipfitter who lived in the Puget Sound region from around 1900 until his death in 1923. He made significant contributions to the nation's war efforts during World War I and helped put Seattle on the map, yet little is left as a legacy other than a park on Queen Anne named in his honor. This People's History by Mark Hanson is based on his research online and at the MOHAI resource center in South Seattle.

Master Shipfitter

Before a single line of code was written, a wing spar crafted, or coffee bean roasted, Seattle built boats. Throughout the Puget Sound basin there was a small but burgeoning industry that built everything from barges and barkentines to sloops, freighters, and steamers. If a vessel could transport lumber from the region's numerous mills, which numbered close to 600 at one point, or ferry supplies to the Yukon, Seattle-area shipyards likely had a hand in the building or in keeping it afloat.

Among the early boat builders were Heath Shipyard, the Hall Brothers, and the Proctor Boat Company, but the biggest of its day was Moran Brothers, which made its mark supplying stern-wheel riverboats for the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1900, Moran Brothers won a contract from Congress to build the battleship S.S. Nebraska. Measuring 441 feet from stem to stern and outweighing any other ship in the naval fleet by no less than a thousand tons, it was the first battleship of its kind built in Seattle. And for Moran Brothers there was no man better qualified to lead the job than David Rodgers.

Born in Belfast in 1864, Rodgers started working in Irish shipyards at the tender age of 8. Two years later he began his apprenticeship, learning the boatbuilding craft from some of the finest shipwrights in the world. By the age of 21 Rodgers had acquired all the skills he needed to become a master craftsman and did what any industrious man would do: He set sail for the New World.

Rodgers wasted no time putting his skills to work in the shipyards of Duluth and Chicago before heading farther west. In San Francisco he oversaw shipfitting for Union Iron Works, which involved assembling, or "fitting" together, a ship's structural steel -- pieces such as the plates, bulkheads, and frames, typically by welding or riveting them together.

By the time he left San Francisco in 1900 for the Puget Sound, Rodgers had been put in charge of government construction, most notably for the building of the battleship S.S. Wisconsin, weighing in at 12,150 tons and measuring 374 feet. The quality, speed, and economy of his work earned Rodgers the position of master shipfitter at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, a position he held for six years.

An Illicit Trade

In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the First World War. United States neutrality made it illegal to support the war in any manner, so Rodgers traveled north to Vancouver, B.C., where he supervised a crew of 460 men in the top-secret building of submarines for the Russian Navy (Russia was allied with Britain and France against Germany in the conflict).

Meanwhile, Seattle entrepreneurs Ned Skinner and John W. Eddy had their sights set on building boats. In 1916 they leased a shipyard from Moran Brothers and hired Rodgers to help fulfill their dreams. Rodgers started readying the facilities on February 14 and by December his crew had rolled out its first ship.

A few months later, the United States declared war on Germany. Within two weeks Germany's stealthy fleet of U-boats had sunk 122 vessels, leading to a desperate need for new ships -- and that's when the Seattle ship trade, and David Rodgers in particular, came to shine.

In response to the government's increased demand Skinner & Eddy purchased additional property, becoming Seattle's largest shipyard. As General Manager of the Skinner & Eddy Shipyard, Rodgers oversaw a workforce of more than 13,000 people. It was a microcosm of the Great American Melting Pot, full of Italian, Russian, Belgian, and Scandinavian workers in a town that was heavy on organized labor.

Optimal Working conditions

All told, as many as 60,000 men worked in Seattle shipyards during the war, most of them working under a government-mandated wage cap of less than $8 a day. Yet Rodgers's steadfast commitment to his job earned the respect of his men, who affectionately called him Uncle Dave. He scheduled extra trains to make sure they had the necessary supplies and developed new tools that cut hours off the job.

Rodgers's care and attention to detail soon paid off: The Skinner & Eddy men built the West Lianga, a freighter measuring 423 feet in length, in a record time of 55 days. Until then, such a feat had required 12 to 18 months.

This pace of work became status quo. By the end of the war, Skinner & Eddy had racked up numerous records: building the first five ships for the war effort, maintaining an average of 70 days for completion of 10 consecutive ships, and delivering 10 percent of the tonnage for the whole country.

Rodgers's success caught the attention of shipyards around the world, and most certainly in his hometown of Belfast. For his personal contributions, Rodgers earned praise from all levels of society, including an invitation to the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, and received the Charles Schwab Medal, which was awarded by its namesake, the president of Bethlehem Steel and director general of the Emergency Fleet Corp.

All of this came at a heavy personal cost. The physical and mental strain of sustained 13-hour work days left Rodgers with heart and liver troubles that forced him to retire in 1919 at the age of 55. Rodgers and his wife Carrie moved from their home in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood to a farm in the village of Zenith, just south of Seattle on the shore of Puget Sound.

Even in retirement, the country's shipbuilding machine sought out Rodgers's expertise, forcing his wife and doctor to issue an official statement that would end further inquiries.

Yet for all his ability to beat the clock in building ships, Rodgers was unable to do the same for his health. After searching for a more suitable climate, and a brief stay at a sanatorium in San Francisco, Rodgers returned to the farm in Zenith, where he passed away in June of 1923.

A Lasting Legacy

After the war, the combination of inflationary prices, continued enforcement of federal wage caps, and a drop-off in orders for new ships led to the Seattle General Strike of 1919. For six days, 100,000 workers all across Seattle walked off their jobs to show solidarity in support of workers in the local shipyards.

With government orders all but dried up, many of Seattle's shipyards shut down for good. Skinner & Eddy continued operating until 1923, and the site later became a depression-era shanty town. Eddy left the company to pursue his fortune in the timber industry and Skinner stayed at the helm, continuing the firm's operation of the Port Blakely Mill Company and branching out into areas such as shipping and real estate.

While Skinner & Eddy's contributions to shipbuilding all but disappeared, the Skinner family's legacy lived on through investments in some of Seattle's most noteworthy establishments, including the 5th Avenue Theatre and the Space Needle, and as one of the original owners of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.

As for Rodgers, he had no children to carry on his name, leaving behind his wife and three sisters. In lieu of any offspring, you could say that Rodgers's legacy was in his craft and the men who worked under him. It would be up to them to carry on his name, and if you travel to the corner of Raye Street and 1st Avenue W in Seattle's North Queen Anne neighborhood, there you'll find it: 9 acres of playground, tennis courts, and a leafy expanse bearing the name of their esteemed uncle, Mr. Rodgers.

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