Pigott, William (1860-1929)

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 4/08/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3177
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William Pigott founded two of Seattle's major industrial enterprises, Seattle Steel Co. (later Bethlehem Steel Co. and Birmingham Steel Co.) and Seattle Car Manufacturing Co. (later Pacific Car and Foundry Co. -- PACCAR). He was also active in a variety of other Northwest businesses, a strong proponent of foreign trade, and a persistent advocate in charitable and educational efforts.

Pigott was born in New York City in 1860 to Irish immigrant parents. They moved to Hubbard, Ohio, where William grew up surrounded by the steel business. Like most young men of his community, Pigott went to work for the local mill, but as a salesman rather than as a steelworker. After years of traveling and learning the business, Pigott partnered with William D. Hofius in purchasing a blast furnace in Syracuse, New York. That venture failed, but in 1892 another mill in Trinidad, Colorado, succeeded.

Steel for Seattle

Pigott's partner Hofius found opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. Hofius began selling steel rails and steel railway supplies to loggers in Seattle. Pigott joined him in 1895, but the business climate had cooled after the Panic of 1893. Hofius returned to the East and told his partner to sell off their inventory and join him. Pigott stayed in Seattle because one of his customers could not pay right away for his supplies.

Pigott stayed in business and he got Hofius to come back to Seattle. When the Seattle economy boomed after the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, Pigott and Hofius prospered. Pigott left the partnership in 1901 and formed his own firm, Railway and Steel Supply Co. In addition to railway hardware, Pigott dealt in steel, pig iron, and coke. An early specialty was a logging truck -- a set of wheels that could be placed under each end of a log to bring it out of the woods. Pigott's firm manufactured the devices with second-hand equipment in a warehouse at 810 1st Avenue S. He also marketed Climax logging locomotives on behalf of the manufacturer.

Pigott's background in the steel business kept him looking for ways to make steel in the Northwest. Most steel was manufactured in the East and had to be hauled by ship or rail, increasing its cost. His sales demonstrated a strong market for steel. Several enterprises in Oregon and Washington opened and closed, including one at Irondale that produced 10,000 tons in 1889 before shutting down.

In 1903, Pigott formed Seattle Steel Co. on 55 acres of tide flats in Humphrey (later Youngstown and West Seattle). Operations began on May 4, 1905. The Seattle Sunday Times proclaimed the plant as "Seattle's Little Pittsburgh." He also started North Coast Dry Kiln and Truck Company to build and supply kilns for the drying of shakes and lumber. Seattle Steel became Pacific Coast Steel Co. in 1913

Seattle Car and Foundry Co.

As the loggers harvested the Northwest's seemingly limitless supply of timber, they had to extend their logging railroads farther. To answer the need for rolling stock (and perhaps to run a business of his own), Pigott started the Seattle Car Co. on land leased from Seattle Steel. The company started by building horse-drawn logging trucks, then upgraded to logging railroad rolling stock. The business expanded until it could offer cars to mainline railroads such as the Northern Pacific. To do all this, Pigott concentrated on hiring capable people, "smart men, not sharp men" (Groner).  He built a sales staff around engineers who could design for customers' needs.

The business almost failed when the Youngstown plant burned to the ground on August 12, 1907. Pigott's skillful work as a receiver for his company brought it back from the brink of ruin. Pigott moved Seattle Car to larger quarters on Lake Washington near the coal mining community of Renton in 1908.

The move to Renton allowed Seattle Car to become Seattle Car and Foundry in 1911. It developed several innovations that improved both productivity and safety in the logging industry.


William Pigott was not all business. He was active in community affairs and served on the Seattle School Board beginning in 1908. He was elected president of the board in 1914. Pigott supported many Roman Catholic and secular charities including the Sacred Heart Orphanage and a program to assist newly released convicts. He contributed not just money, but leadership. Pigott said, "Don't talk about someone being worthy. None of us is worthy. If they need help, give it to them."

Pigott felt his highest calling was in providing jobs. He asserted, "The greatest contribution to humanity is the opportunity afforded another to become actively engaged in lucrative employment." He pushed a strong code of principles for business conduct, which he felt was the best defense against government regulation. His steel mill was the first in the country to offer workers an eight-hour day.

Pigott was a Democrat and was asked to run for office several times. When asked to run for U.S. Senator in 1914, he declined saying that he had already agreed to support Miles Poindexter.

Pacific Car and Foundry

Seattle Car and Foundry merged with its Portland competitor Twohy Brothers in 1917 to become Pacific Car and Foundry. The union was not an easy one. The Twohy Brothers favored paying out profits as dividends whereas Pigott was in favor of cash reserves for business expansion. The company built thousands of steel framed boxcar refrigerator cars. It also developed a logging trailer designed for use with motor trucks, which had begun to replace railroads for moving logs and lumber.

Pigott stepped down as president of Pacific Car and Foundry in January 1921. He pursued his interest in building up a steel industry in the Northwest and he participated in the Pacific and National Foreign Trade Councils. He arranged for Seattle to host the National Foreign Trade Council's annual meeting in Seattle in 1925.

Following World War I, the U.S. economy slumped, then picked up again in the early 1920s. Pigott predicted that the demand for railroad rolling stock would decline, partly because of the success of motor trucks. When American Car and Foundry offered to buy Pacific Car and Foundry, Pigott supported the deal, and it was concluded in 1924.

Pigott was a director in the new company, but he played a decreasing roll. His interest in foreign trade, in community activities, and in the steel business kept him busy. While in Vancouver, B.C., serving as chair of the Pacific Foreign Trade Council, he suffered a heart attack. He died a week later, on July 19, 1929.

Pigott left his fortune to his wife Ada (1903-1941) and to his sons Paul (1900-1961) and William Jr. (1895-1947). His will provided for cash for the female employees of Pacific Car and Foundry and Pacific Coast Steel.

Pope Pius XI made Pigott a Knight Commander of the Order of the Knights of St. Gregory, and he is remembered through the William Pigott Building at Seattle University, which houses the Albers School of Business and Economics, including administrative and faculty offices, classrooms, the Pigott Auditorium, and computer labs.


Alex Groner, PACCAR: The Pursuit of Quality (Bellevue: Documentary Book Publishing Co., 1981), 1-85; "Pigott Building," Seattle University website (www.seattleu.org).

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