On September 2, 1938, Ivar Haglund (1905-1985) opens an aquarium showcasing local marine life on Pier 3, later renamed Pier 54, in Seattle. Though it is not the first aquarium in the city, it gets plenty of attention from an interested press and from Haglund's promotional stunts. Said stunts include taking a seal to see a department store Santa Claus and carrying an octopus on his shoulders on a stroll along the waterfront. Eventually the novelty will wear off, and Haglund will have less time for the aquarium after he opens his restaurant, Acres of Clams, in 1946. The aquarium will close in 1956.
In 1938, Haglund was an aspiring folk singer when he happened upon the idea of opening an aquarium. He had cousins who operated one in Seaside, Oregon, and after a trip to scope their operation out, Haglund decided to try his hand at the same. "My [first] reason was to make a living," he explained to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter when he closed the aquarium 18 years later. "But I did hope to have the odd educational angle too, if you know what I mean" ("A New Ivar ..."). He rented space in the northeast corner of Pier 3 (renamed Pier 54 in 1944) and built his aquarium, which consisted of three large tanks for fish and a fourth tank for what would become the resident seal, Pat. Pumps circulated 5,000 gallons of water per hour from Elliott Bay into the tanks and back into the bay.
Haglund hoped to open to the public around the first of August, but problems with finding marine life and other issues (in one incident, a tank – mercifully loaded with nothing but 400 gallons of water – shattered during testing) delayed opening day until September 2, 1938. Haglund worked with his wife, Maggie; Erma Butler, her mother; and Bud Likins, a 17-year-old Tacoma youth who had worked at the Point Defiance Aquarium in Tacoma. Likins was an illustrator, and painted a large octopus above the ticket booth at the entrance to the aquarium. It featured an array of local marine life – ratfish, mud sharks, sea cucumbers, a 175-pound, four-and-a-half foot-wide skate fish, and more. The aquarium displays were arranged to look as natural as possible, with barnacles, sand, and gravel bottoms lining the tanks.
Some of this marine life was vividly described in an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer a week after the opening. Though the byline says "Captain Barnacle," one suspects Haglund may have written it himself or had a hand in it:
"Brilliant sea anemones of royal purple, blue, pink, flame red and brown, looking for all the world like dahlias except for the heavy disproportionate stems; star fish of nearly every conceivable color combination; sea urchins, striped in many hues; scallops, tinted from the base of ivory white to vivid red ... they dash through the clear water like butterflies ..." ("Down the Hatch").
Pat the Seal(s)
The aquarium also was home to Pat the Seal. It's more accurate to say Pat the Seals, because there were many of them over the years the aquarium was open – in 1939 alone, Haglund had five Pats. (The first swam off when Haglund let it take a dip in the sound, the next three each died shortly after they arrived, while the final Pat proved to be a keeper.) He also had a resident octopus, another crowd-pleaser. And if attention waned during the winter months, Haglund would take the animals out for a ramble. During the 1940 Christmas holidays he took Pat, dressed in a pinafore and lace baby cap, through Pike Place Market in a wicker baby carriage enroute to a visit to Santa Claus at a local department store. Two months later, he hoisted the aquarium's octopus, Marmaduke, onto his shoulders and took him on a stroll along Alaskan Way on a rare sunny February day.
He enjoyed telling tales to schoolchildren who visited the aquarium, he was generous giving interviews to the press, and he composed songs about some of the creatures in his tanks, which included Terrence the wood-boring Teredo (a constant bane of the waterfront), Herman the Hermit Crab, and Barney Barnacle. He even made music for some of his fish, as portrayed in the P-I in a 1941 write-up about a tuneful encounter with Pat the Seal:
"Pat's appreciation of 'Swanee River,' 'Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,' 'Old Black Joe' and many others ... was discovered after a young Bainbridge Island couple told Ivar Haglund, aquarium manager, of their [musical] experience with seals ... Haglund listened to the account, a bit skeptically, he said, and then decided to try an experiment. He got out his zither [a stringed instrument, analogous to a guitar but flat] and began strumming.
"Pat stopped swimming around in his tank and went over to listen attentively. When 'Swanee River' ended, Pat barked approval and began swimming again. Then when Haglund started in on 'Old Black Joe,' Pat stopped again to listen" ("Strolling Around the Town").
There was plenty of drama at the aquarium. Just after it opened, there was a battle between two octopuses that Haglund had placed together in a tank. After one sprayed the other with ink, the victim climbed out into the aquarium itself, giving visitors quite a surprise. Two years later a 20-inch-long dogfish shark swam into a flower-like anemone and was promptly stung to death; the creature then slowly devoured the fish. The edible affair was sufficient theater for a P-I reporter to come out to write a short article, complete with a picture, of the natural world in action.
Another drama was almost humorous. Haglund had kept a six-foot wolffish in one of his tanks for nearly a year when he added a large, 24-leg sun starfish to the tank. After sizing the newcomer up, the wolffish began eating it one leg at a time. "After each 'petal' was swallowed, [the wolffish] did an eccentric dance around, over and about the starfish even to the point of standing on his head," recounted the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ("Tale of a Fish"). The wolffish munched 18 legs before passing out and away a short time later; Haglund told the P-I that he planned to have him cremated at the Humane Society but was going to opt for the cheaper version of the options offered.
The thalassic novelty wore off after a few years, and Haglund had less time for the aquarium after he opened his Acres of Clams restaurant on the pier across from it in 1946. It was hard to keep the fish alive in captivity, and as the Seattle area grew, it became harder to catch them. There also was the occasional weird surprise, such as the time the pumps brought in polluted water from the bay: "One day I was standing in the aquarium and every fish in several tanks simply gasped and died and floated to the surface in a matter of minutes" Haglund later explained ("A New Ivar ..."). He quietly closed the aquarium in early 1956, unceremoniously dumped the last fish back into Puget Sound, and went back to his restaurant.