Fishermen's Terminal on Seattle's Salmon Bay has served as the home port for the Puget Sound-based fishing fleet since it opened in 1914. The Port of Seattle developed the site soon after King County voters approved the Port's comprehensive development plan. Originally intended as a mixed fishing and cargo facility, the terminal's piers have largely been filled with fishing vessels throughout its history. The Port expanded and improved the terminal several times to increase moorage capacity and upgrade onshore facilities. Over time tourism grew in importance and, in 2002, the Port changed the terminal's regulations to accommodate pleasure boats. While this was a contentious decision, the mix of vessels and uses appears to be successful. The terminal continues to serve several hundred vessels of the North Pacific fishing fleet, providing moorage space, storage facilities, and access to a broad range of related businesses located at the terminal and along the ship canal.
Planning a Home Port for the Fishing Fleet
When the Port of Seattle was formed in 1911, the commissioners set to work developing a comprehensive plan for port facilities, which had to be submitted to voters for approval. They identified a site for a cargo-handling pier on the south side of Salmon Bay, then a saltwater inlet of Puget Sound lying between Ballard on the north and Magnolia, Interbay, and Queen Anne on the south, and included that in their initial plan. The commissioners also saw the terminal as an opportunity to build support for the Lake Washington Ship Canal, then under construction from Salmon Bay to Lake Washington:
"Its early improvement is of especial importance as tending to allay misgivings on the part of lumber manufacturers on the bay as to the effect of the Lake Washington canal work upon their business. With the certainty of a deep-sea dock at their very doors and a commodious channel leading out to the Sound, it would seem that the most incredulous must be convinced of the great possibilities in store for this section of the city" (... Bulletin No. 1, 31).
The commissioners intended to build a wharf and cargo facilities for oceangoing ships on the west side of the planned terminal to serve trade and to supply the U.S. Army's Fort Lawton, located just west of the terminal in Magnolia.
As these plans developed, Miller Freeman (1875-1955), who published Pacific Fisherman magazine and was deeply involved in fisheries issues, suggested that the Port include a "snug harbor" for fishing vessels on Salmon Bay. Later accounts would also credit the Puget Sound Purse Seine Fishermen's Association as an early supporter of that idea.
At the time, fishing vessels did not have a home port on Puget Sound and they laid up for the off-season wherever they could find moorage. Some could only find space on beaches -- a less-than-ideal situation that made it difficult to ready the boats for the next season. The proposed site's proximity to the city offered access to transportation infrastructure, labor, and supplies, and its capacity for mooring a large number of vessels would also allow fishermen to share resources and reduce costs. In turn, Seattle would benefit because the vessel owners would spend money for repairs, maintenance, and supplies in town before heading out to fisheries in Puget Sound, along the West Coast, and in Alaska.
The fishing fleet brought big business to Seattle. A report from 1913 lists 600,000 cases of salmon and about $25 million worth of fish products among the cargo passing through Seattle's harbor. Those products included frozen and fresh halibut, dry-salted herring, salt cod, whale fertilizer and oil, bottom fish, shellfish, pickled herring, salted salmon, halibut fletches (cheeks), black cod, salmon bellies, smoked and deviled fish, candlefish, flounder, smelts, red fish, codfish tongues, roe, caviar, fish bait, and seaweed.
Port commissioners agreed with Freeman's suggestion and made plans for a fishing-vessel terminal, which they called Fishermen's Headquarters in the early years, on Salmon Bay. The location would offer extra benefits once the Lake Washington Ship Canal locks were completed at the outlet of the bay, because then the saltwater inlet would become a freshwater reservoir. This would eliminate tides in the terminal's boat basin, decrease maintenance costs, and help prolong the life of wooden fishing vessels. Once voters approved the Port's comprehensive plan in March 1912, work began immediately to bring it to fruition.
Building Fishermen's Terminal
In June 1912 condemnation proceedings started on shoreline parcels owned by the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, the Farmers' Loan & Trust Company, the Seattle Cedar Lumber Manufacturing Company, the City of Seattle, and King County. In early 1913 the Port traded land it owned on Smith Cove for additional land on Salmon Bay owned by the Great Northern Railway, bringing the total terminal area to 45 acres.
Although at low tide the new terminal would only be accessible by a narrow, 3-foot-deep channel through the tideflats until construction of the locks at the outlet of Salmon Bay was completed in 1916, the Port began construction of the fishing and cargo terminal in February 1913. Much of the land to be used for onshore facilities needed to be filled to raise it above the level to which Salmon Bay would rise when the locks were closed. To that end, a bulkhead was constructed across the site and dredge spoils from the boat basin placed behind the wall. Unfortunately it turned out that the fill material "appears to be moderately firm and stable but after being churned up by the suction dredges and mixed with water, it resembles thin paste, and separates from the water with extreme reluctance" (Third Annual Report ..., 34). In addition the water-laden fill was pushing the bulkhead out of alignment. Work had to halt as the water drained out and better sources of fill material were found. The project was finished with dredge spoils from ship-canal excavation.
Meanwhile, construction of the overwater facilities proceeded. The commissioners planned to build one pier for fishing boats on the east side of the terminal and three for cargo on the west side. Adjacent to the fishing pier, they planned for a net warehouse with lockers for vessel owners to rent. Marine ways, the ramp-like structures used to move vessels between the water and the top of the pier, would be located between piers 2 and 3 to haul vessels out for maintenance and repairs. A large wharf on the west side with a large storage shed would provide space for handling cargo. The 1,000-foot slip alongside it would provide berthing space for oceangoing vessels once the bay was raised by the locks and those larger ships could access the terminal. Spur tracks reaching out to each of the cargo-handling piers from adjacent Great Northern and Northern Pacific main lines are shown on plans. A cold-storage building for fish also appears on early plans for the terminal, along with a "car ferry" slip intended for transporting rail cars across Salmon Bay to industrial sites on the north shore.
Fishermen's Terminal was dedicated on January 10, 1914. Actual construction differed from the plans laid out in 1913. The terminal as built offered moorings, a two-story warehouse for nets and fishermen's gear, 24 storage rooms, offices, a locker room, a fishermen's headquarters, and the marine ways. A large wharf on the west side of the terminal was built for cargo but only ever used as an overflow holding area for the Port's Smith Cove terminals south of Salmon Bay at the far end of Interbay. Railroad connections out to the piers do not appear to have been built, nor was a ferry slip. Instead, the Great Northern bridge west of the locks and the Northern Pacific bridge east of 14th Avenue NW provided options for carrying rail cars across the canal.
The opening of the terminal was greeted enthusiastically by Puget Sound fishing-vessel owners. A parade of about 200 boats formed in Puget Sound and included representatives from Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Anacortes, Olympia, other ports on the sound, and Alaska. The Oregonian led the way with a sign that said "Wake up, Tacoma! Give us shelter for our fishing fleet!" ("Fishermen Open ..."). The parade passed through the locks and arrived at the terminal for a day of festivities.
At the dedication ceremony, Frank J. Hemen (d. 1939) read a statement by Port Commission president Hiram Chittenden (1858-1917), who had earlier played a leading role in planning the ship canal. Chittenden acclaimed the ability of the terminal to "organize and solidify the scattered fishing industry of the Northwest, to provide a home for the extensive fishing fleet, to give such aid as the Port rightfully may in protecting the fisherman in marketing his hard-earned product" ("Fishermen Open ..."). Peter David (1874-1944), a former state legislator and businessman from Tacoma, spoke on "The Fishing Industry in the Northwest." Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919), Seattle Mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958), Port of Seattle commissioners, and others also shared their thoughts on the occasion. A banquet for about 2,000 people followed in a nearby warehouse with entertainment by the United Norwegian Singers.
Interest in the fishing-fleet homeport on Salmon Bay grew quickly. In a 1913 report, the commission only expected about 50 boats to overwinter at the terminal. By 1915, in an open letter to the Federal Trade Commission, the Port Commission touted the possibility of accommodating 250 purse seiners, along with gillnetters, trollers, cannery tenders, and other vessels. That goal was nearly met, with 226 vessels moored at the terminal by 1917.
The development also attracted other tenants. The Queen City Yacht Club leased a clubhouse built by the Port for the club's use near the Ballard Bridge, although it would be pushed out of the space by encroaching industrial uses within a couple of years. Those new industries included the Meacham & Babcock Shipbuilding Corporation, which established a shipyard at the terminal to build Ferris-type wooden steamships for the Emergency Fleet Corporation during World War I. It could build six ships at a time and was a veritable beehive of activity.
On the east side of the terminal, Adrian Estep (1890-1979) and Fred Kimball leased space from the Port near the marine ways and established Estep & Kimball, a machine shop that employed five men in fishing-vessel maintenance and repair. It would be replaced by the Fishing Vessel Owners Marine Ways in 1919. Several members of the Fishing Vessel Owners' Association, which consisted of the smaller halibut-fishing vessels, frustrated by the lack of capacity at area shipyards, formed the company, which still operated in 2017. The Port almost leased land to a boilermaker company, but decided instead to retain the land and use it for a storage warehouse, hoping to attract an Asian shipping company that could take advantage of the railroad connections adjacent to the terminal.
In addition to the onsite marine businesses, nearby shoreline tracts filled with related businesses over the next few decades. Machine shops, engine-repair shops, shipyards, sailmakers, and others took advantage of the aggregation of several hundred vessels in the terminal's moorage to build their businesses.
The winter of 1917 saw the first full overwintering of the fishing fleet at Fishermen's Terminal. A Seattle Times reporter waxed lyrical about the harbor and the variety of vessels occupying the slips:
"Seaworn of hull, stained of sail, patched of rigging and gear, still drenched of deck from the wild sprays of the North Pacific, two more fishing vessels this morning crept into the forest of masts moored at the Port Commission's big Salmon Bay terminal
"The forest [of masts] rises from the deserted decks of Neah Bay trollers, venturesome halibut schooners, a black-hulled and ancient barge, Alaska steam whalers, an Arctic whaler famed in the Far North's annals, sturdy cannery tenders, idle passenger steamboats, spic and span yachts, dilapidated craft of all rigs and makes -- all colors and all ages"("Fishing Vessels Creep ...").
The article went on to note that the terminal was quickly becoming a tourist attraction, with more than 150 visitors viewing the vessels on a recent Sunday.
Abandoned Vessels and Sawtooth Piers
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the terminal struggled somewhat. The area once occupied by the Meacham & Babcock shipyard had been occupied by several tenants, the last of which was the Pacific Wood Products Company, but that firm went into receivership in 1930. The piers deteriorated and at least two ships, the Nehalem and the Gedney, sank while moored and were not removed by their owners. In 1934, the Port considered blowing them up underwater with dynamite, but they had not been formally abandoned, so they were left in place. In late 1934, the Port combined about $15,000 of its own funds with nearly $100,000 from the federal Works Progress Administration to make improvements at the terminal. Workers rebuilt the bulkhead, cleared out the large marine ways, and completed other minor improvements.
World War II limited improvements to public works nationwide as supplies and workers were diverted to the war effort, but one significant project was completed at the terminal. In 1944 George Treadwell (1902-1977), then assistant chief engineer and later longtime chief engineer for the Port, designed a new style of pier to replace four of the existing mooring piers. Called sawtooth piers, they featured angled slips with small sections jutting out from the main pier, like the teeth of a saw. Vessels overlapped each other for much of their length and the "tooth" provided access to each vessel at its bow. This allowed four times the number of vessels to be moored once work was completed around 1945. The Port also built two new net-and-gear-locker buildings to replace a shed that burned down in 1942.
A New Phase
These projects were just a prelude to a new phase in Fishermen's Terminal's operations that began in 1948 when King County voters approved a $1 million bond measure to expand the facility in response to growth in the North Pacific fisheries. The Port's vision was summed up in a Seattle Times article: "The terminal was designed, first as the finest commercial fishing installation in the nation, and second, as an outstanding tourist attraction playing up one of Seattle's largest industries" ("Salmon Bay Terminal ..."). The project included improved access, expanded facilities, and the addition of facilities for both fishermen and tourists. Numerous times in newspaper articles and other publications, Port officials referenced Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco as a model for their efforts.
The first part of the project to be completed made it far easier to access the terminal by automobile. The Port, the City of Seattle, and the Northern Pacific Railway all contributed to the construction of the Emerson Street viaduct from 15th Avenue NW to Fishermen's Terminal. The viaduct was dedicated in August 1950, during Seafair Week. Seafair Princess Carmella used a fishing knife to cut a section of fishing net (in place of the more traditional ribbon) and declared, "I give my blessing to all the fishermen in Ballard. I hope this viaduct brings them good luck" ("Ballard Dedicates New Viaduct").
To make room for storage facilities, the Port acquired 20 additional acres along the west side of the terminal. The West Wall was constructed to support solid ground along that side of the moorage basin, opening it up for use. Two new 625-foot sawtooth piers were added to the four completed in 1945. The Port also added two 60-by-100-foot net sheds, made minor infrastructure improvements, and dredged the slips to accommodate larger vessels.
The centerpiece of the project was the administration building added along the south side of the piers. It provided space for maritime businesses, Port offices, a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a taproom. The Wharf Restaurant featured marine-themed murals by local artist Jakk Corsaw (1920-1990) in its Valhalla Room, as did the Moby Dick taproom. A Marine Digest supplement about the terminal's grand reopening touted the murals' use of a new medium, "photographic transparency dyes combined with oil colors on glass" ("Grand Opening, Saturday").
All the eating establishments were operated by John Barrows, a well-known Seattle restaurateur who previously owned Barrow's Restaurant and served as the Bartell Drug Company's vice president for food operations. The restaurant and coffee shop overlooked the moorages, making them prime locations for vessel- and people-watching.
The additional piers brought the terminal's capacity to about 1,000 vessels and in 1952, when the project was completed, 568 boats were moored at the terminal in October and the Port expected the number to reach 600. Those vessels and their owners were served by a variety of businesses that took up residence in the new administration building, including Seattle Boat Exchange, Fisheries Supply Company, Flagler's Commercial Boat Sales, Wakefield Fisheries Company, and the Consolidated Net and Twine Company. They joined existing businesses including the Fishing Vessel Owners' Marine Ways, Harris Electric, and Seattle Ship Supply, that occupied space in other terminal buildings.
The terminal got a new tenant in 1954 when the state Department of Fisheries moved its headquarters to the newly acquired land on the west side, at about 20th Avenue and Thurman Street. The agency previously had an office in the Smith Tower in downtown Seattle, but decided it made sense to be closer to the vessels its staff used to patrol area waterways and to the fishermen they worked with. Its stay would be short, however, because the state Supreme Court soon ruled that all state agencies had to have their headquarters in Olympia. The Department of Fisheries vacated its small wood-frame building in 1963.
Changes in the Industry
The next significant changes to the terminal came in 1968, when the Port once again made improvements to make the terminal more appealing to visitors. A beautification project upgraded the entrance to the Wharf Restaurant, added a 120-space parking lot, and improved landscaping around the facility.
Not long after the beautification project was completed, changes in the fishing industry began that would eventually lead to further redevelopment of the terminal. As the salmon fisheries in the North Pacific and Puget Sound declined, fewer of the smaller vessels used in those fisheries moored at Fishermen's Terminal. Passage of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (also known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act) in 1976 extended American control of fisheries management over waters within 200 miles of the shoreline and encouraged development of much larger groundfish catcher-processor vessels to fish the deeper waters. At the same time, the booming king-crab fishery also led to larger boats coming into service. The new vessels ranged from 100 to 300 feet in length and could not fit into the slips on the sawtooth piers. At the same time, increased non-maritime development along the ship canal made it harder to find moorage outside the terminal.
In response to these changes, the Port began a new expansion project in 1986. A new pier was added at the north end of the West Wall, extending across the north side of the moorage basin. This pier could accommodate the large factory trawlers and catcher-processors. The Port also opened a facility for factory trawlers at Terminal 91, the former site of Piers 90 and 91 at Smith Cove.
The expansion and redevelopment included a new office building in place of the old administration building. Fishing-vessel owners and other users of the terminal feared that redevelopment would lead to "yuppification" of the terminal (Nogaki). To reduce the chances of that happening, the building design and signage referenced the industrial aesthetic of the surrounding structures. Chinook's, operated by Anthony's Restaurants, replaced the Wharf Restaurant. A new, 20,000-square-foot net shed was added in the southeast corner of the terminal.
Near the new office building, the Port installed a Fishermen's Memorial along the moorage basin's south side between docks 7 and 8. The Seattle Fishermen's Memorial Committee formed to raise funds and create the memorial. In 1986, the committee held a design competition to choose an artist. Ron Petty won with a design for a bronze sculpture of a fisherman hauling in a fish, placed on a column, with bronze fish and shellfish encircling the base. The names of fishers and crew members lost at sea since 1900 are listed on plaques mounted on concrete monuments. The memorial has provided a place for the community to come together and remember those who have died. The committee regularly adds newly discovered names and the names of recently lost crew members.
Changes Continue, but Fishing Vessels Remain
The new moorages for larger boats filled quickly and the new building folded into the daily life of the terminal. By 1991, 775 vessels of all sizes from 75 to 300 feet in length used the terminal. As successful as that adaptation was, changes continued in the fishing industry in the 1990s that affected how fishing-vessel owners used the terminal. As more vessels shifted to the groundfish fishery and salmon-fishing vessels consolidated in response to tighter limits on commercial fishing, fewer small fishing boats needed moorage and slip vacancies increased at the terminal.
By 2001, the vacancy rate was 31 percent, which led the Port Commission to consider allowing pleasure boats at the terminal. Although pleasure boats had moored there in the past, some fishing-vessel owners feared this policy change was part of the larger trend in Seattle that threatened industrial spaces. Changes in zoning and the creep of nonindustrial uses through variances and other exceptions to the rules drove up demand for shoreline space and the cost of the land increased. Further, the encroachment of nonindustrial users had often led, in other parts of the city, to complaints about noise and truck traffic that further constrained industrial uses.
Pete Knutson, captain of the gillnetter F/V Loki and an anthropology instructor at Seattle Central Community College, led the vehement anti-yachts contingent. He argued at public meetings for maintaining the industrial character of Fishermen's Terminal in order to prevent the eventual erosion of the economy of scale provided by the community of crews, vessel owners, and related industries that had grown up around the facility. Knutson took the strongest stand, while others made arguments about safeguards needed to protect the fishing industry if pleasure boats were allowed. Port officials responded that the vacancy rate was not tenable, regardless of whether or not pleasure craft would be allowed to moor at the terminal. In order to keep the facility self-supporting, moorage rates would have to increase to cover operational costs. That burden would fall on the vessel owners, possibly increasing the vacancy rate.
The new shared-moorage policy was implemented in 2002, allowing pleasure boats to fill slips alongside fishing boats, with the proviso that fishing vessels had priority and commercial uses were the primary purpose of the terminal. Despite predictions that this policy would lead to the displacement of small fishing vessels, 15 years later they remained the majority of vessels moored at the terminal.
An economic-impact study conducted in 2017 placed a value of $545 million on the seafood products harvested by vessels that fish the waters extending from Oregon to the North Pacific and return to the freshwater moorage provided by the Lake Washington Ship Canal system. About 500 of those vessels are moored at Fishermen's Terminal in their off-seasons. Tenants at the terminal also include several small cruise ships, tugs and workboats, and other commercial vessels.