Harbor Island (Seattle): Hub of World War II Shipwork

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 1/04/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22852
See Additional Media

Harbor Island is a manmade feature of Seattle’s Elliott Bay. After its construction in 1909 it became a hub of ship-related work, including building or converting vessels for World War I. World War II created considerably more work. As fighting broke out in Europe in 1939 and especially after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Harbor Island’s shipyards became an important part of the nation’s war effort. They converted civilian ships for use in wartime, repaired damaged ships, and built many new ones. The pace of the work was unprecedented. Thousands of production workers were added, including women for the first time. The workforce surge created needs for housing in Seattle, transportation to the shipyards, and fast on-the-job training. By the end of the war in 1945, Washington shipyards had done a huge amount of shipwork for the military. Harbor Island’s yards set the pace in construction of vessels, particularly destroyers, contributing an impressive share of the national output.

History of Harbor Island

Harbor Island sits in the southwest corner of Elliott Bay, within the traditional territory of the Duwamish people. Non-Native settlers began developing the city of Seattle on the east side of the bay in 1852. In 1900 the Seattle General Construction Co. obtained a permit to fill the tide flats at the mouth of the Duwamish River, and the Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Co. landed a contract to build what became known as Harbor Island. Construction involved dumping into the bay some 24 million cubic yards of soil that was removed during grading of Seattle’s hills and dredging of the river’s tidal flats. When the job was completed in 1909, the result was the largest artificial island in the world. Harbor Island comprised approximately 350 acres and was ideally located for building and repairing ships. Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging created Associated Shipyards there, and in 1918, two-year-old Todd Shipyards added a repair yard operated by newly formed Todd Dry Docks. By then World War I-related activity was well underway. Seattle shipyards delivered 57 steel ships and 17 wood ones in that year alone.

After the war ended in November 1918, many military contracts were canceled and consequently some shipyards closed. The ones still operating shifted their emphasis from shipbuilding to maintenance and repair. Todd closed its shipbuilding yard in Tacoma in 1925, making the Harbor Island repair yard the company’s only such facility on the West Coast. It handled heavy repair and reconstruction jobs, along with cleaning, painting, and routine maintenance. Its large drydock was one of the few in the Pacific Northwest capable of lifting and working on standard combination liners, so-called 535’s. 

World War II Brings Massive Changes

With war threatening to break out again in Europe, it was clear that the U.S. needed to build new shipyards as well as expand existing ones to meet the needs of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. Harbor Island’s ship work rapidly expanded. The newly incorporated Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company landed a United States Marine Commission contract for more than $10 million in September 1939 to build five large cargo vessels. The deal meant that as many as 2,000 workers would be hired to reopen Todd Shipyards’ Tacoma facility, where the cargo vessel hulls would be built. To finish constructing the vessels, another 1,000 workers would be needed at Todd Seattle on Harbor Island, roughly doubling the size of that yard’s workforce. Todd Seattle Dry Docks also accepted a $2 million contract from the Navy to convert two former mail liners into transport ships. In 1940, Todd acquired additional property on Harbor Island in order to boost its construction capacity, especially to build destroyers. That new yard was built with $9 million from the Navy.

After the U.S. declared war on Japan, Italy, and Germany in December 1941, new shipyards sprang up across Western Washington to help meet military needs. The Lake Washington Shipyard at Houghton (now part of Kirkland) eventually employed 6,000 workers, making it one of the 15 largest shipbuilding plants on the West Coast. Another 15 smaller yards were operating around Seattle – in Tacoma and Olympia to the south; Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Gig Harbor, and Winslow to the west; and Anacortes, Friday Harbor, and Bellingham to the north.

Already busy Harbor Island expanded facilities and stepped up the pace of production. General Construction Company completed a floating dry dock in April 1942 that was 410 feet long and could lift an 8,000-ton ship. In some cases the federal government and Harbor Island’s private shipyards essentially became partners, mostly under the direction of the Navy. The government sponsored an expansion of Todd Seattle Dry Docks, paying $97,950 for 11 adjacent acres, including seven owned by Standard Gypsum that included a pier. Three other businesses in the vicinity were forced to vacate: contractors James Griffin & Son; Signal Oil Company; and Ray’s Boathouse, a restaurant floating off the end of West Florida Street. Todd’s Harbor Island facilities expanded again to include the former Heffernan Engineering Works on Harbor Avenue Southwest in nearby West Seattle.

Opening the Door for Women

With so much war-related work, Harbor Island needed more workers. A November 18, 1942 profile of Associated Shipbuilders president H. W. McCurdy (1899-1989) in The Seattle Times included this interjection by the company’s general manager: "We’ve got to have a thousand more men right away. Three thousand pretty soon. Look at these charts. We’re desperately short-handed" (Bradford). Women were a big part of the solution. The national War Production Board predicted that 2 million new workers were needed in 1942 and most would be women. They gained access to production-line jobs previously held by men and became breadwinners:

"Women were a recognized and increasingly valued component of the national shipyard labor force by the end of 1942 … Earlier prejudice and mistrust on the part of older hands in both office and shop crumbled swiftly, and by June 1943 it was reported in a brochure on the company’s war program that 5,000 women, in both repair and building yards, were 'operating cranes, driving diesel locomotives, working in the mould loft and at bolt cutters, drill presses and lathes in the machine shops, all jobs once rated for men only.' Burning, welding, and riveting lay just ahead" (Mitchell, 143).

On May 20, 1942, Maxine Gleason was announced as the first woman to lead a crew in any of the Seattle shipyards. She was in charge of 10 men and women storing and providing valves and fittings to shipbuilders at the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company’s yard on Harbor Island. The Seattle Times story about her promotion describes her as the mother of two young daughters who is working for the first time outside the home and took the shipyard job to contribute to the war effort. "Mrs. Gleason prefers her comfortable home to working in the shipyards," the story said, "but wants to stay on the job until 'this mess is cleaned up'" ("Mother of 2 …").

In December 1942, Karen Falkenburg, a University of Washington graduate, became Associated Shipbuilders’ first woman production group leader. She had been hired by the company just four months earlier. Prior to that she designed women’s hats.

Seattle Adapts to Surge in Work Force

Workers from other cities and rural areas around the country flocked to Seattle to get shipyard or aviation jobs. They included thousands of Black workers and their families, significantly increasing the size of that minority in the city’s population. Many of the newcomers liked what they saw and stayed after the war. According to U.S. Census figures, Seattle’s population grew from 504,980 in 1940 to 733,000 in 1950. From 1935 to 1939, average employment at Todd’s Harbor Island yard had shrunk to an average of 375 and work was limited to ship repairs. By February 1944, those same repair yards had 5,535 workers, and Todd’s Harbor Island construction yard employed 17,000. Eventually there were 29 shipyards in and around Seattle with a total of about 150,000 workers.

For the companies, the challenge was to maintain rushed production schedules while training so many employees. Many of the newcomers had no experience in shipbuilding, conversion, or maintenance, so they had to learn on the job. Company schools were established with a training department at individual shipyards. The workers needed places to live and ways to get to their jobs. Public housing projects such as Yesler Terrace provided space for defense workers, military families, and veterans. Seattle Housing Authority’s High Point housing project, which opened in May 1942, was intended for low-income applicants, but pivoted to serve only employees of specific industries or companies, such as those at Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company and Todd Seattle Dry Docks.

Workers used water taxis and other small vessels to get to yards scattered throughout Puget Sound and the shores of Lake Washington. Bremerton and Seattle were connected by the streamlined ferry Kalakala. Harbor Island and its work force of thousands were served by a system of five ferries. A 1945 Seattle Times story describes the wharf at the foot of Washington Street as "one of the busiest spots on the waterfront" ("Harbor Island Ferries"). Between 1,200 and 1,400 ship workers caught ferries there to their jobs on the island and returned to the city after their shifts. The five ferries (Ronda, Mercer, Speeder, Xenial, and Skylark) made a total of 18 round trips a day. The schedule ran from 6:30 a.m. when the first boat left Washington Street, to midnight when the last boat departed from Todd Pacific Shipyards.

Shipyard Production Booms

Publication of industry production figures was not allowed during the war, but Seattle newspapers were able to report in December 1941 that Puget Sound shipyards had 161 vessels under construction with contracts worth $400 million. Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding was building 25 Navy destroyers worth $172 million. Because of censoring in the name of national security, which yards produced what was something of a mystery. In Every Kind of Shipwork: A History of Todd Shipyards Corporation, 1916-1981, copyrighted by the company, author C. Bradford Mitchell set the scene for early 1942:

"Todd now embarked on what seems in retrospect an incredibly vast output of construction, conversion, repair and outfitting work in the national interest ... The jobs performed were so multitudinous, and are to so large an extent permanently lost in the mists of wartime censorship, that they must be chiefly and dimly, reflected in the awesome statistics of the time" (Mitchell, 137).

Washington Secretary of State Belle Reeves (1871-1948) issued a report in January 1943 that put the state’s wartime role in perspective. The report contended that the value of 1941 military contracts compared to 1939 manufacturing products was about five times greater for Puget Sound than for the country as a whole. She wrote that no state had been more affected economically by the expansion of war industries. About shipbuilding, she wrote: "In 1939 this particular industry had shrunk from its World War I expansion to a value of less than $6,500,000. The present value of contracts for approximately 200 vessels of all kinds in the 16 private and one government plant in the Puget Sound Area is over $700,000,000 and represents an increase of more than 100 times the figure for shipbuilding" (Warren, xvi).

Information Carefully Controlled

Todd Shipyards Corporation at War was the title of a 1943 booklet produced by the company. Similar to an annual report, it covered the company’s nine shipyards on the East, West, and Gulf coasts. It reported that all of Todd’s yards had been expanded since Pearl Harbor and had repaired, converted, or built a total of 6,602 vessels for the U.S. Army, Navy, Maritime Commission, and allied nations. It noted that “before publication this report was reviewed by government officials responsible for censorship.” Consisting mostly of photos, it carefully avoided linking specific projects and specific shipyards.

The company’s next such report, Todd Shipyards Corp., Review of Operations 1943-44, had considerably more detail, including specifics on Harbor Island. Todd’s facilities there covered about 30 acres on the island’s northwest point. The company had seven piers, five cranes, and four dry docks with capacities ranging from 5,700 tons to 18,000 tons, biggest in the Pacific Northwest. Todd also had shops, utilities, and offices in 28 buildings and almost two miles of railroad tracks connected by siding to the Northern Pacific Railway.

Actual production is harder to pin down. By early 1943 the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation was building solely for the Navy and its divisions in Tacoma and on Harbor Island came under Navy jurisdiction. "Since their chief respective products were escort aircraft carriers, which were classified as a secret weapon until the spring of 1943, and destroyers, concerning which the Navy was never especially communicative, the public knew relatively less about production at the Sea-Tac yards than at those concentrating on Liberty Ships, at least until the latter part of the war" (Mitchell, 151).

Harbor Island Cranks Out Destroyers

Suffice to say that Todd Pacific Shipyards, located on Harbor Island, "was an extremely active place all during the war" (Warren, 141). On November 4, 1944, when a destroyer christened Stormes slid down one of the shipways, it marked a record for a Seattle shipyard – 35 destroyers produced in five years. Todd shipyards in Seattle reported that during 1944 it "repaired, overhauled or converted 576 ships for war service" (Warren, 166) and built 17 destroyers, five of which took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

Destroyers are fast, maneuverable warships intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy, or aircraft carrier battle group. The World War II variety was about 370 feet long and displaced about 2,500 tons when fully loaded. Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding produced at least 49 U.S. Navy destroyers on the island from 1942 to 1946. Working in partnership with Kaiser Shipyard, the company may have built many more – sources disagree on the total – and ranked among the nation’s top producers of that type of warship.

Operating on the west and east waterways of Harbor Island, Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock/Associated Shipbuilders also built transports, aircraft carriers, tankers, freighters, minesweepers, and other vessels. Including repairs and conversions, the company’s Harbor Island output was a reported 1,891 ships.

Shifting to Peacetime

Historian James R. Warren (1925-2012), a World War II veteran and educator who became president of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, put both the city’s and Harbor Island’s wartime roles into context. He wrote that Seattle ranked as one of the top three cities in the nation in war contracts per capita, and that Washington state ranked as one of the top two nationally for war contracts per capita. Puget-Sound-area shipyards produced what he called “an unbelievable number of war vessels” (“World War II Home Front …”).

The Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company had announced in 1944 that its shipyards in Tacoma and Seattle were being renamed as Todd Pacific Shipyards, Inc. By June 1946 Harbor Island’s workforce was down to 4,000 men and women. With the war’s extraordinary production needs met, Todd Pacific Shipyards was liquidated in November 1946 and Todd’s Puget Sound operations shifted back to ship repair. Work began to return in the form of private contracts, including one to build a 300-foot passenger ferry for Puget Sound Navigation Company. The ferry, named Chinook, was built on Harbor Island’s east waterway.

By 1950, Todd Seattle Dry Docks was using only its shipyard on the island’s west waterway and was down to about 500 workers. Abandoned metal sheds, piers, dry docks, train tracks, and a few cranes stood in what had been among the busiest areas, reminders of the boom times of World War II.


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Harbor Island, at the time the world's largest artificial island, is completed in 1909,” (by David Wilma), “World War II Home Front on Puget Sound,” (by James R. Warren), https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed October 30-November 2, 2023); C. Bradford Mitchell, Every Kind of Shipwork: A History of Todd Shipyards Corporation, 1916-1981 (New York: Todd Shipyards Corporation, 1981), 42-44, 133-141, 143, 151, 160, 164, 167, 199, 206; James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: HistoryLink and University of Washington Press, 2000), xvi, 3, 16-17, 34, 35, 87, 95, 141, 166; Quintard Taylor, “Swing the Door Wide: World War II Wrought a Profound Transformation in Seattle’s Black Community,” Columbia Magazine, Summer 1995: Vol. 9, No. 2; “New Todd Drydocks for City,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 25, 1918, P.1.; “Shipbuilding Has Paced History in Puget Sound Area,” The Seattle Times, November 15, 1953, p. B-9; “Ships Award to Give 3,000 Jobs; Tacoma and Seattle to Share Work on 5 Boats,” Ibid, September 17, 1939, p. 1; “New Ship Jobs Loom as Todd Lands $2,000,000 Contract,” Ibid., July 19, 1940, p. 22; “U.S. Expanding Todd Dry Dock,” Ibid., March 17, 1942, p. 13; H. E. Jamison, “Speed to Victory,” Ibid., April 29, 1942, p. 2; “Mother of 2 Named First Lead Woman,” Ibid., May 20, 1944, p. 4; “Todd Yards Tell of War Record,” Ibid., June 2, 1946, p. 15; “Reconversion Product,” Ibid., January 8, 1950, p. T-10; “Housing Project Open to Tenants,” Ibid., May 2, 1942, p. 3; Sax Bradford, “Shipbuilding Future is Certain Here, says McCurdy of Associated,” Ibid., November 18, 1942, p. 4; “Homes for 2,000 More Planned,” Ibid., January 19, 1943, p. 1; “200 Ready to Lease Houses,” Ibid., January 19, 1943, p. 2; “Heffernan dock bought by Todd,” Ibid., June 2, 1943, p. 11; “Harbor Island Ferries Carry Ship Workers,” Ibid., March 16, 1945, p. 22; “Puget Sound Shipyards Could Convert Rapidly,” The Seattle Times, July 16, 1950, p. 33.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You