Plans to overwinter whaling vessels in the newly created freshwater harbor of Salmon Bay are announced on November 3, 1916.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 11/14/2016
  • Essay 20196

On November 3, 1916, The Seattle Times reports that the North Pacific Sea Products Company will overwinter its whaling vessels at the Port of Seattle's terminal in Seattle's Salmon Bay, which the construction of the Ballard Locks has converted from a saltwater tidal inlet to a freshwater harbor. The whaling fleet joins nearly 200 fishing vessels wintering at the Port's recently opened facility, which will soon become known as Fishermen's Terminal. The company (eventually under the name American Pacific Whaling Company) will remain in the bay for two years before moving in 1918 to Meydenbauer Bay on Lake Washington in Bellevue. The fleet of "killer ships," as they are dubbed, will use the Bellevue port until World War II, becoming one of the final whaling fleets based in the United States.

 Whaling in Washington  

The first commercial whaling station in Washington opened at Bay City, in Grays Harbor in 1910. It was initially owned by Hall and Company and later by the American Pacific Whaling Company. Four Norwegian whale catchers, known as killer ships -- Aberdeen, Westport, Moran, and Patterson -- operated out of Bay City between April and October. The whalers hunted from Cape Blanco, Oregon, to Vancouver Island. Humpback whales were by far the most common catch (1,933 caught between 1911 and 1923), followed by finback (602) and sperm (120). Whalers also caught a handful of blue, sei, and bottlenose whales. All were killed to produce oil, fertilizer, and other products.

Seattle’s main contribution to the early history of commercial whaling in the state was ship production. Both the Moran and Patterson were built here by the Seattle Construction and Drydock Company, formerly Moran Brothers Company. They were 96-foot-long, steam-driven boats with guns mounted on the bow and had a crew of 9 to 12 men. Other killer ships built in Seattle include the Star I, Star II, Star III, Kodiak, and Unimik, each a little over 100 feet long and designed specifically for whaling. The boats typically came back to Seattle, where they would be overhauled after the whaling season ended.

Secondarily, company ownership was based in Seattle, at least after 1914. That year, Knut B. Birkeland (1857-1925) purchased the Pacific Sea Products Company, also known as the North Pacific Sea Products Company. Birkeland soon attempted to introduce whale to Seattle as a popular food. "The whale is the cleanest of all animals ... There is no meat more excellent,” he said to a Seattle Times reporter. ("Do Have One More Bit of Whale Steak"). He appears to have met with little success.

Into Salmon Bay

It was under Birkeland's ownership that the company's fleet of killer ships -- the Kodiak, Unimak, and Tanginak (which had started life as a tug called the Tyee), along with the transport barge Fresno -- moved into Salmon Bay. On November 3, 1916, The Seattle Times reported that "at the middle of the month, the North Pacific Seaproducts Company's entire whaling fleet will pass through the huge government locks to lie up in the bay until spring" ("Big Schooners Tie Up ..."). The whaling fleet, along with several large Puget Sound codfishing schooners and nearly 200 smaller fishing vessels, would spend the winter at the Salmon Bay terminal that the Port of Seattle had opened two years earlier, and which soon would become known as Fishermen's Terminal. The Times noted that "the Salmon Bay terminal is now assured of one of the greatest fleets in winter quarters in the Sound" ("Big Schooners Tie Up ...") and, although the whaling fleet would not remain there long, Fishermen's Terminal would grow to become the primary port for the entire North Pacific Fishing Fleet.

Birkeland moved the whaling ships into Salmon Bay to take advantage of the changes in the bay resulting from construction of the Ballard Locks, as part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound. The locks, after they were first closed in July 1916, changed the inlet from a tidally influenced body of salt water where the water level fluctuated 10 to 12 feet daily to a freshwater reservoir that remained at about the same level year round. A freshwater port was better for the boats because it killed saltwater organisms that damaged the vessels.

Moving to Meydenbauer Bay

A little more than a year after Birkeland moved the company, he sold it in February 1918 to William Schupp (1866-1948), who had grown up in Michigan and made his fortune in the insurance business. Schupp owned the American Pacific Whaling Company and the Victoria, British Columbia-based Consolidated Whaling Corporation, which operated the Victoria Whaling Company. Schupp then moved the killer ships from Fishermen's Terminal, along with his boats based in Bay City, to Meydenbauer Bay on Lake Washington, where he owned property.

As the whaling industry faded on the Washington coast, Schupp’s boats began to journey to southeast Alaska for the hunt. Whales were not processed on the ships but were towed to land-based processors. In 1928, Schupp’s fleet killed 160 whales, producing baleen, whale bone, and whale oil, which was used as a lubricant. Proctor and Gamble also purchased some of the oil to make soap.

Seven of Schupp’s boats, Aberdeen, Kodiak, Moran, Patterson, Tanginak, Unimak, and Westport, overwintered in Bellevue from October to April. "The ships were seaworn and rusty when they returned [from Alaska] in the fall, and in general, remained so during the winter. Great anticipation, excitement, and bustle arose in March every year when preparations were made for the following season. Chipping hammers would be busy; the boats would be chipped and painted, refurbished and repaired. I can still remember the smell of Stockholm tar [pine tar] as it was applied to rigging and the ratlines [rope ladders]," said William Schupp’s grandson, Bill Lagen (1923-2007) (Some Reminiscences of Lake Washington Between the Wars).

A Colorful Lot

According to Lagen, the crews were a colorful lot, mostly Norwegian men, some of whom had been whalers since the turn of the century. As Lagen recalled, most were solid citizens but others seemed to spend the winter in a less-than-sober state before the return trip to the north for the whaling season. "At the proper time in the spring my dad would ask the sheriff to round up the crew -- some of whom would be in the drunk tank of the jail. We'd go down with the car and pick them up and take them to the ship. We had to make sure they did not get drunk again and wander off ... They all wanted to go -- they were fine workers and fine friends," recalled Lagen (McDonald, 6).

Moving to Bellevue was significant for the local economy. For example, prior to World War II, Bellevue was small enough to merit only a sentence or two in the 1941 Works Progress Administration guide to the Evergreen State. In contrast, the book provided a long description of the whaling fleet and also included a song favored by the whalemen.

"Bad luck to the day,
I wandered away
And to the man who said I’d make a sailor.
He wrote my name out
To be tumbled about
Aboard an old-fashioned whaler" (The New Washington, 323-324).

Schupp also attempted to develop a market for whale meat, which was labeled as "sea-beef." During World War I, when other sources of meat were reduced, he provided one ton of whale to the Seattle market. It sold for $0.10 per pound; beefsteaks were selling for $0.15 per pound.

Bellevue’s whaling era came to end during World War II, when the Navy requisitioned the killer fleet for patrol use against a potential Japanese attack in Alaska. After the war, Schupp and his son-in-law Marc Lagen attempted to start whaling again but when Marc died, the idea faded. The company soon folded and in 1949, the Sealand Construction Company bought the killer boats. They took the boats to the Duwamish Shipyard where they were stripped and broken down to scrap. After the war, the Lagen family helped develop the marinas now found in Meydenbauer Bay.


"Do Have One More Bit of Whale Steak," The Seattle Times, November 11, 1915, p. 2; "Big Schooners Tie Up for Winter in Salmon Bay," Ibid., November 3, 1916, p. 25; Bill Lagen, Some Reminscences of Lake Washington Between the Wars, (Bellevue: Eastside Heritage Center, undated); The New Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State, ed. by Works Progress Administration (Portland: Oregon, Binfords & Mort.1941), 323-324; Lucile McDonald, "Whaling on the Washington Coast," Sea Chest 6, September 1972, p. 3-12.

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