Ramwell, Henry "Harry" (1862-1935)

  • By Bob Mayer
  • Posted 5/18/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21232
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Captain Harry Ramwell (1862-1935) built construction and towboat businesses in Everett that created jobs and provided essential services for the lumber, fishing, and fruit-packing industries. Ramwell was a strong promoter of Everett and contributed his talents, energy, and money to a host of organizations. He was known for his generosity and humanitarianism. Few people in Everett now know his name, and there are very few reminders of his legacy, even though businesses that he founded were still vibrant more than 80 years after his death. 

Early Years

Henry "Harry" Ramwell was born on October 23, 1862, to Henry and Mary Ramwell of Nantucket, Massachusetts. According to a brief biography in the October 27, 1923, Everett Herald, Harry was born on a ship in the Indian Ocean near Bombay (Mumbai). He remained on the ship until he reached school age when he attended public schools in Virginia. Other sources stated that he was born in Massachusetts. As was often done in those days, Harry followed his father into the seafaring life "before the mast" at a young age as a common sailor. This eventually brought him to the West Coast of the U.S., where he was employed in fishing on the Columbia and Fraser Rivers. He arrived in Seattle in 1873 at the age of 11 and worked on Puget Sound steamers and fishing boats. In 1889 he married Estelle Andrus of New Jersey. Together they had one child, daughter Nell.

By 1900, Captain Ramwell was working steamers including the R. P. Elmore between Port Townsend and the Alaskan waters near Nome, carrying passengers, freight, and fish. When the Klondike Gold Rush boosted the demand for transportation, the boat was headquartered in Nome. During this time, he occasionally worked with Joshua Green (1869-1975), a sternwheeler captain, fleet owner, and eventually Seattle investment banker. In 1902 Ramwell and associates bought the R. P. Elmore and soon he moved back to Washington to operate the steamboat out of Port Townsend.

Growing the Everett Waterfront

Ramwell moved from Port Townsend to Everett in the spring of 1902. Partnering with Everett shingle mill owner David Clough (1846-1924), he purchased the Towle-Thurston Towing Company and founded American Tug Boat Company. Their company towed log rafts to the mills to keep the shingle and lumber industry constantly supplied with the logs that they needed for operation.

American Tug Boat Company eventually expanded its fleet to 22 tugboats and five sternwheel steamers to provide towing to ports all along Puget Sound. The tugboats were the Ann S., Argos, Arlyn Nelson, Boston, Condor, Elmore, Forester, Flat Wing, Gory, Gwylan, Irene, Janet W., Magdalene, Manila, Margaret S., Mary D. Hume, Orinda, Peter, Streamline, Sequoia, Tillicum, and Uncle Sam. The sternwheelers were the T. C. Reed, The Black Prince, The Harbor Bell, Forester, and Swinomish. The steamer R. P. Elmore was converted to the tug Elmore.

In 1903 he formed the American Pile Driving Company and Everett Sand and Gravel Company as part of the American Tug Boat Company. These companies did pile driving, dredging, and construction to prepare the shoreline for the mills, docks, and other structures that would be built on the Everett waterfront. The company built two large docks in Everett, the City Dock (Pier 2) in 1907, and Oriental Dock (Pier 3) in 1908.

Ramwell had a lifelong interest in fishing and in 1915 he started a fish cannery, American Packing Company. As berry growing expanded in the area, he added berry packing equipment and personnel to this company. To keep the fruit fresh before packing, he bought and expanded a cold-storage facility, which became American Ice and Cold Storage. These businesses employed between 300 and 500 people in season and shipped packed fruit and fish to all parts of the world.

Operation of his fleet of tow boats required an abundant local supply of petroleum products for fuel and machine maintenance. To meet this this need, Ramwell persuaded General Petroleum to provide a facility in Everett in 1921. In 1925, he established American Distributing Company to distribute the petroleum products to end users.

Ramwell felt it was important that Everett have close association with Whidbey Island and was an active proponent of ferry transportation between Everett and the island. Scheduled passenger service between Clinton and Everett began in 1911. Car service from Clinton to Mukilteo and Everett by Central Ferry Company was added in 1919. In June 1923, Whidby Island Navigation Company began a competing ferry service between Langley and a new terminal on the Everett waterfront that was built under Ramwell's guidance. This route was served by a new double-ender ferry, the 120-foot-long Whidby featuring an elevator for moving cars between the boat and the wharf to accommodate landing at locations that did not have a ferry slip for loading and unloading cars. The reduced travel time by ferry from the island was a benefit to trucks carrying fresh fruit from the island to Ramwell's cannery at American Packing Company. The Everett-to-Langley automobile ferry service lasted until December 1929. During this time there had been "Ferry Wars" between competing companies with routes between Everett, Langley, Clinton, and Mukilteo. In 1928 the Puget Sound Transportation Company (Black Ball Ferries) bought the competing companies and eventually consolidated routes.

By 1926 Ramwell's companies occupied more than a half mile of Everett waterfront and employed more than 700 people. During the Great Depression for most of the 1930s, Ramwell saw to it that the families of all of his employees had food and some salary. An Everett Daily Herald editorial on May 22, 1935, said of him: "The proper treatment of his personnel was the prime ambition of his life. His thoughts were always for their welfare" ("Captain Ramwell Taken ...").

Supporting Everett and Environs

Like John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), Charles Colby (1839-1896), and Henry Hewitt (1840-1918), Ramwell was a builder and promoter of Everett. But unlike those more familiar men -- who all have Everett streets named in their honor -- he did not start as a wealthy investor sitting in an East Coast office and sending money. Ramwell lived in Everett at 3031 Kromer Avenue, overlooking his businesses on the waterfront. In September 1934 he moved his family to 2230 Rucker Avenue, also with a commanding waterfront view. 

The Ramwells were active members of Trinity Episcopal Church at 2301 Hoyt Avenue. When a new church was built in 1921, Ramwell took active interest in the financing and supervised its construction. In recognition, his name appears on the bronze dedication plaque located inside the corner entry. Ramwell enjoyed golf, and for at least four years (1924-1927) he was elected president of Everett Golf and Country Club. When he first took office, he felt that the dining room was too small, so he had the room enlarged. Every year, he sponsored a Presidents Dinner for the members.

Meanwhile, he built businesses that created jobs and provided essential services for the lumber, fishing, and fruit-packing industries. He served on the State Fisheries Board under governors Hart and Hartley, and on various maritime trade associations and fraternal organizations including the Elks, Shriners, and Masons. He often traveled to Olympia and to Washington, D.C., to promote Everett and Puget Sound causes.

Ramwell was president of the Northwest Tow Boat Owners Association for many years. His duties included trips to Washington, D.C., to speak out against new regulations being considered that would adversely impact operations of boats in Puget Sound waters. These included requirements imposed in 1907 by the United States Steamboat Inspectors for additional crew members on small boats. Ramwell said that meeting these costly requirements that competing Canadian boats were not subject to would put the local boats out of business.

In March 1916 a Seaman's Act proposed in Congress, if followed to the letter, would have made local boats noncompetitive. One provision would have required a 35-foot tug with two crew members to carry 12 life rings. Tugs of this size were commonly used in Puget Sound. Captain Ramwell corresponded with President Woodrow Wilson for several months to explain the difference in needs between ocean-going vessels and small tugs operating on the Sound within a half mile of shore.

In May 1932, Ramwell was part of a delegation from Puget Sound to meet with President Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C. They told the president about the impact of unemployment on the local economy and brought to his attention the problem of foreign exchange and devalued foreign currency and its effect on business.

Life on the Water

With Piers 2 and 3 operational by 1908, Ramwell was appointed to be the first Everett Harbor Master. His job was to authorize and assign in writing appropriate mooring and anchorage locations to ships in Everett harbor. He was responsible for the enforcement of ordinances regarding hazardous or dangerous cargo and contagious diseases. These tasks made use of his expert knowledge of the harbor facilities and the needs of visiting ships to match them based on their size, cargo, and other requirements.

On Sunday November 5, 1916, the steamship Verona carrying 250 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, docked at Pier 2. The official IWW account written in 1917 by Walker C. Smith named the ensuing armed confrontation "The Everett Massacre." Like most other business owners of Everett, Ramwell was on the dock to defend city businesses. He provided eyewitness accounts to local newspapers and testimony in legal proceedings.

As befitting a man who went by Captain, Ramwell owned a yacht. He named it Nelsie in honor of his wife Essie (Estelle) and his daughter Nell. John E. (Jack) Vincent (1903-1996) was hired to skipper the boat during the cruising season and to chauffer Ramwell's car during the rest of the year. Ramwell was never interested in driving himself.

Ramwell felt it was important that ships and crew of the U. S. Navy Fleet visit Everett. He arranged for visits and organized moorage and safe access to Everett citizens to tour the vessels. The visits were frequently part of Everett's Fourth of July celebrations. One such was the visit of the USS Mississippi in July 1922, when the arriving ship was met by Ramwell's yacht, with the captain and other Everett citizens aboard. He often made the yacht available to the City of Everett and its citizens to entertain visiting business and government dignitaries.

Probably the most famous naval visitor was the frigate USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," in July 1933. Ramwell chaired the executive committee for the event. This entailed ensuring safe public access, organizing public tours, and arranging social events for visiting officers and crew, including lunches and dinners held at the Everett Golf and Country Club, the Everett Elks, and the Ramwells' home.

Ramwell encouraged youth to learn seafaring skills through the Everett Sea Scouts and was instrumental in obtaining a 50-foot boat from the U.S. Navy in Bremerton for their use. It was originally a ship-to-shore vessel from the battleship USS Colorado. Ramwell had it converted to a sailing schooner at his American Tug Boat facilities. The boat was named the SS Captain Ramwell in his honor.

Ramwell also was a strong supporter of the Everett Yacht Club. The club's building was located at the shore between Pier 1 and Pier 2. In 1935 he sold the sternwheel steamboat, The Black Prince, to the club for a dollar. The vessel had been built in Everett in 1901 to haul logs on the Skagit River but was no longer needed. It was braced on shore next to the Everett Yacht Club building and converted to a meeting room. For 20 years it was the site for many meetings, parties, dinners, and dances. It was demolished in 1956.

In 1938, when the Everett Yacht Club was struggling and could not afford to pay a manager's salary, the Ramwell family assigned John Vincent, already on their payroll, to manage the club. Vincent continued in this position for four years. Three years earlier, in 1935, the club dedicated the second annual edition of its Year Book in Ramwell's honor, calling him "Everett's leading No. 1 Citizen and Friend" and writing, "Capt. Ramwell's unselfish interest in any movement that pertains to the advance of his chosen city is well known. His support of all waterfront activities is taken for granted" (Bill Vincent interview).

"Memories of an Individual and a Friend"

John Vincent was an employee of Captain Ramwell and the Ramwell family for 33 years. As his chauffer and the skipper of Ramwell's private yacht, Vincent worked with Ramwell daily and knew him well. Vincent also worked for the family as manager of the Everett Yacht Club and in other assignments at American Tow Boat Company and related companies.

Vincent's son William A. (Bill) Vincent (1928-2021) recalled one of his father's special assignments while working for Ramwell. It began when American Distributing Co. purchased two new 1940 Studebaker K-Series tanker trucks to carry heating oil to customers. These red trucks would be a common sight all around Everett in the 1940s and 1950s.

Vincent and Harry Logan from the American Distributing office traveled to the Studebaker factory in South Bend, Indiana, to take possession of the trucks and drive them to Everett. As built at the factory, they did not have tanks installed behind the cabs, but were in a flatbed configuration; the tanks would be purchased and installed in Everett. Rather than drive empty trucks to Everett, Vincent and Logan purchased brand new Studebaker automobiles from the factory and carried them home on the beds of the new trucks. Vincent brought home a 1941 Commander and Logan brought home a 1941 President. When they got back to Everett, both enjoyed their new Studebakers with zero miles on them. Bill Vincent said it was he who put the first scratch on his dad's car.

By all accounts, John Vincent respected Ramwell as an employer and a citizen. He recorded his thoughts about the captain in a short letter. Bill Vincent later shared the following excerpts:  

"I first met Capt. Harry Ramwell in 1923. He being owner of the American Tug Boat co. of Everett, Wash. and myself looking for a job. He agreed to my request and I was given a job as a deck hand aboard the Sternwheeler, the T. C. Reed ... 

"My service with the American Tug Boat Co. ran from 1923 to 1956 in which time I held a variety of positions, due to the generosity of one man, Capt. Harry Ramwell. This man was self-made and was a humanitarian. During the lean years of the depression 1928 to 1933, the Capt. saw that no one of the boat crews and their families went without food and some salaries for months.

Capt. Harry Ramwell was the leader in the Sea Scouts movement in Everett, providing them with a place to hold meetings and a ship to work with. He provided work for many people, the towing company, the fish packing plant, and the ice plant.

The Capt. was a busy man with many interests. In the year 1928 I was given the job as Skipper of the Yacht Nelsie. She was named after the Capt.'s wife and daughter, namely Essie and Nell. I ran the yacht in the summer time and in the winter I was the chauffeur for Capt. Ramwell and his family. This job is where the actual contact between myself and the Ramwell family began.

One must remember that Capt. Ramwell was interested in doing everything that would benefit the City of Everett, entertaining various groups and individuals from all over the globe, and Navy ships personnel when in Everett ...

"As the chauffer it was my job to take the Capt. to Seattle almost every day and bring home in the afternoon. The Capt. had a lot of things to do with people who could help the City of Everett. There are many things that I could speak about regarding the man Capt. H. Ramwell, but one morning I went to the Capt.'s office to inform him that we only had 45 minutes to get to the court house in Seattle.

The Capt.'s presence was required in the court room regarding a law suit due to some trouble that one of the Co.'s Tugs and a freighter had got into. His answer was, 'I do not want to go. I have never been in a court house before.' He never got there. As I was going out the office door I heard a noise behind me which I thought was the Capt. slamming down his roll top desk. It was not that, it was the Capt. falling to the floor. He was dead" (John Vincent letter).

Ramwell's Death and Legacy

Ramwell collapsed and died suddenly on May 22, 1935, in his American Tug Boat Company office on the Everett waterfront while preparing to go to a meeting in Seattle. He was survived by his wife Estelle, daughter Mrs. Nell Grant, and son-in-law Henry Grant, who was manager of American Distributing Company.

Ramwell's funeral was held on Saturday May 25, 1935, at Trinity Episcopal Church, where he and his family had been longtime members and supporters. Everett Sea Scouts in uniform stood as honor guard the day before and the day of his funeral in recognition of his contributions to the success of the scouts. The funeral drew an overflow crowd of hundreds of people. The grounds and entry were banked with flowers and surrounding streets were packed with cars. At the end, a long train of cars accompanied the funeral car to Acacia Memorial Park in Seattle for his burial.

Ramwell left an impressive legacy. He built enduring businesses including American Tug Boat Company, American Pile Driving Company, American Ice and Cold Storage, American Packing, American Distributing, Everett Stevedoring Company, and Everett Sand and Gravel. Bill Vincent explained that "If it has 'American' in the name, it was probably one of by Captain Ramwell's businesses" (Bill Vincent interview).

In 1960 a full-page advertisement appeared in the program of an Everett Shrine Football Game played at Everett Memorial Stadium. It included a photo of the Everett waterfront and listed below it were the names of waterfront companies that had been associated with Ramwell at one time and were still in business 25 years after his death.

American Tug Boat Company operated continuously until 1973, when it was purchased by Crowley Tugboat Company, which is still in business in 2021 as Crowley Maritime.

American Distributing Company is still delivering heating products to residents in Snohomish County as it has since 1924.

American Pile Driving (later renamed American Construction) was owned by Richard Brannon (1918 -2013) and his wife Mary Brannon (1920-2019) of Everett from the 1960s through 1990, and then by their son Steve Brannon and his wife Sandy until 2017. In 2006 changes to the Port of Everett master plan caused the company to move from Everett to Tacoma, where it is headquartered in 2021 and still doing construction work all over Puget Sound.

The mills, docks, and buildings from Ramwell's days are gone or have drastically changed as the Everett waterfront has evolved and grown. But if you drive along West Marine View Drive, formerly Norton Avenue, north of the 10th Street Boat Launch in 2021, you will see lines of log pilings jutting above the water surface. Most of these pilings once served as the foundation for mills such as the C-B Lumber and Shingle Company at 9th Street and Norton, which started operation in 1914. Operations at this site (as Summit Mill) ceased in the 1960s and the mill burned in September 1967. The long rows of taller pilings still visible were used to contain and secure the log rafts during log sorting and grading. Today seagulls and other sea birds rest on the tops of the charred and weathered pilings. Captain Ramwell's company drove those pilings and built the foundation for the Everett waterfront of today.


"The Little Steamer Elmore Sailed From Nome," Seattle Daily Times, June 20, 1900, p. 5; "Little Rosalie Is Big Hit on Front," Ibid., March 29, 1916, p. 21; "Twelve Life Rings for Two Men Required by New Statute," Ibid., March 29, 1916, p. 21; "I.W.W.'s Outnumbered Everett Men and Shot First, Committee Says," Ibid., November 12, 1916, p. 36; "To Build Ferryboat," Ibid., December 16, 1922, p. 13; "Whidby Ferry To Be Launched Tomorrow," Ibid., May 15, 1923, p. 23; "Preparing for Ferry," Ibid., May 26, 1923, p. 14; "New Ferryboat Added," Ibid., May 28, 1924, p. 19; "Black Ball Ferry Lines Summer Ferry Schedule (ad)" Seattle Daily Times, May 28, 1928, p. 20; "Declares Against Senate Bill No 4426 – Measure Puts Small Vessels Under U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service" Ibid., January 12, 1925, p. 23; "Ramwell Again Named Everett Golf Leader" Ibid., February 22, 1926, p. 20; "Boy Sailor Reached Puget Sound When 11 – Now He Controls Most of Everett Harbor" Ibid., January 6, 1927, p. 13; "Towboat Owners Meet on Yacht" Ibid., January 20, 1929, p. 14; "President Hears Puget Sound Men on Relief Needs" Ibid., May 15, 1933, p. 5; "Many Affairs to Compliment Officers" Ibid., June 25, 1933, p. 14; "Navy Officers are Guests at Everett Clubs" Ibid., July 9, 1933, p. 14; "Removals – Captain and Mrs. Harry Ramwell are moving…" Ibid., September 23, 1934, p. 19; "Birthday Fete Given in Honor of Mr. Ramwell" Ibid., October 28, 1934, p. 18; "Captain Ramwell Taken by Death" Ibid., May 22, 1935, p. 18; "Elmore Gets a Charter," Seattle Post Intelligencer, January, 23,1902, p. 7; "Sale of the R. P. Elmore," Ibid., May 4,1902, p. 13; "Tug Owners To Resist Rules," Ibid., July 25,1907, p. 14; "Capt. Ramwell Presents Protest," Ibid., January 17,1908, p. 14; "Mississippi Drops Anchor at Everett," Ibid., July 2, 1922, p. 7; "Leap Year Event To Open Everett Season - Club Members Will Be Guests of President Ramwell at Dinner,"Ibid., March 30, 1924, p. 67; "Some Community Workers and Businessmen of Everett - Captain Harry Ramwell" Everett Daily Herald, October 27, 1923, p. 16; "Captain Ramwell - Everett Pioneer Was About To Go on Seattle Trip," Ibid., May 22, 1935, p. 1,7; "Sea Scouts Stand Guard For Ramwell" Ibid., May 24, 1935, p. 7; "Pallbearers Named For Ramwell Rites At Trinity Church" Ibid., May 24, 1935, p. 11; "Final Rites Held For Captain Ramwell Saturday" Ibid., May 25, 1935, p. 5; "Hundreds See City Pioneer Laid To Rest" Ibid., May 26, 1935, p. 2; Bob Mayer, "Remembering Capt. Harry Ramwell, the man who built the Everett Waterfront," Everett Herald, July 17, 2019, Homage Section 6-7, https://issuu.com/pnwmarketplace/docs/i20190806082006490/6 (accessed April 20, 2020); Bob Mayer interview with Bill Vincent, December 9, 2018, notes in possession of Bob Mayer, Everett; Bob Mayer telephone interview with Bill Vincent, September 20, 2020, notes in possession of Bob Mayer, Everett; John Vincent letter, "Memories of an Individual and a Friend," date unknown, copy received from Bill Vincent on December 9, 2018, in possession of Bob Mayer, Everett; William Whitfield, The History of Snohomish County, Washington, Vol. II (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 756; U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, United States coast pilot. Pacific Coast. California, Oregon, and Washington (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909), 204-205; Lawrence O'Donnell and Jack O'Donnell, The Evolution of a Vibrant Everett Waterfront (Everett, WA: Port of Everett, 2010), 14, 53; Karalynn Ott, Port of Everett The First Hundred Years (Danville, VA: Pediment Publishing, 2018), 18, 49, 50; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Island County — Thumbnail History" (by Daryl C. McClary), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 21, 2021); "American Construction Company – About – Our History," American Construction website accessed April 20, 2021 (https://www.americanconstco.com/about#toggleDiv2); "South Whidbey History – Langley," South Whidbey History website accessed April 20, 2021 (https://southwhidbeyhistory.org/communities/langley/); "Anacortes Museum & Marine Heritage Center – Ferry Rosario," Anacortes Museum & Marine Heritage Center website accessed April 20, 2021 (https://anacortes.pastperfectonline.com/photo/12DCF831-6441-4774-B472-248559866435); "Mackie-Hawley Story – Photo Album – Transportation to Whidbey Island" Mackie – Hawley Story website accessed April 20, 2021 (http://mackiehawleystory.com/photo-album/mhstory/galleries/Puget-Sound-Boats); C. Smith, Everett Massacre: A History of Class Struggle in the Lumber Industry (Chicago: I.W.W. Publishing Bureau, 1917).

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