The opening of Seattle's Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 spurred the development on Lake Union of a number of boat-building yards that for more than 40 years used traditional methods and materials to produce now-classic sailboats and motor cruisers. These companies provided well-paying jobs for generations of shipwrights, most of whom learned their trade through union apprenticeships and a boat-building school opened by the Seattle school system in 1936. Ready supplies of quality materials, a skilled workforce, and the growth of a middle class eager to take to the water sustained these builders for decades, but mass production of fiberglass boats and skyrocketing wood prices foretold the end for most. Another major factor in their demise was the withering of the close relationships that had existed between builders and customers of earlier generations. Few companies survived, but their exceptional vessels were built to last. Glorious examples of the shipwright's art, some nearly a century old, can still be seen in Northwest waters.
Messing About in Boats
Seattle in the late 1800s saw the opening of a bevy of boathouses, or liveries, often located where streetcar lines met lakeshores. As described by Lake Union historian Dick Wagner (1933-2017):
"The early boathouses were places to escape from the drudgery of mill and shop. The buildings of the 1880s and '90s were fanciful designs, with towers, turned posts, Victorian filigree and colorful pennants. The livery rowboats and canoes were the finest types available. They were the yachts of the workingmen" (Wagner, 50)
Many Seattleites got their first taste of boating this way, and by the time the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened in 1917, connecting the salt water of Puget Sound with Lake Washington via Lake Union, more than a few would have agreed with Ratty in the 1908 children's classic The Wind in the Willows: "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
All That Was Needed
Many believed and some hoped that the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal would make Lake Union an intensely commercialized harbor, with cargo-handling facilities and heavy industries lining its shores. However, that vision never came close to full fruition, and the lake's most legendary companies are the relatively small shipyards that built wooden pleasure boats for the public, including the city's growing middle class.
Several factors contributed to their success. A handful of local naval architects (self taught or formally educated) provided skillful designs that determined a boat's overall appearance, performance, and comfort, whether powered by engine or sail. Notable in the early days were Leigh Coolidge (1870-1959), Bill Garden (1918-2011), Ted Geary (1885-1960), and Ed Monk Sr. (1894-1973).
The forests of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia held seemingly inexhaustible supplies of ideal woods for boat building, including yellow, red, and Port Orford cedar; Douglas fir; Sitka spruce; and Oregon white oak. Honduran mahogany, teak from Asia, and ironbark from Australia also were readily available at reasonable cost.
The one indispensable ingredient was the availability of well-trained, highly skilled shipwrights. Seattle in the 1920s was a bastion of unionism, and it was the shipwrights union (under different names at different times) and its apprenticeship program that ensured a steady supply. In 1936 Seattle's Edison Technical School opened a boat-building program on Lake Union that fed into the union system. Although now located inland, in 2017 it remained in operation as part of the Wood Technology Center of Seattle Central College. It is unclear whether all the builders described below were union shops at all times, but at least into the 1960s most were.
Finally, there was the all-important relationship between builder and customer. The company that built a vessel often stayed involved in its upkeep and repair for decades. Ideally, a relationship based on trust developed, with the owner relying on the integrity and expertise of the builder, and the builder relying on the honesty and good credit of the buyer. Those who could afford it often had the same company build a number of boats over the course of years. Just as they had a family doctor and a family lawyer, a fortunate few also had their own boat builder in whose hands they placed their trust and their families' safety.
Between 1919 and 1927, six key boatyards opened on Lake Union that became famed for the quality of their wooden pleasure boats: Blanchard Boat Company, Grandy Boat Company, Jensen Motorboat, Lake Union Dry Dock (LUDD), Prothero Boat Company, and Vic Franck's Boat Company. A more full account would include at least Schertzer Brothers and Shain Manufacturing, but the six others lasted longer on the lake and are more closely identified with it. Only two (Jensen Motorboat and Lake Union Dry Dock) were still operating in 2017, and they no longer build boats the way they once did.
There were two "golden eras" of pleasure-boat building on Lake Union, the 1920s and from the end of World War II to the late 1950s. Although these companies suffered during the Great Depression, they pulled through and were revitalized by military spending during World War II. Generous government contracts enabled the builders to purchase new equipment, modernize their facilities, and employ full complements of shipwrights ready to meet pent-up postwar demand.
Blanchard Boat Company
The Blanchard Boat Company was one of the best-known and most prolific builders on Lake Union. Norman J. Blanchard (1885-1954), known as N. J., made rowboats before he was out of grade school, and he quit high school to work for a Lake Washington boat builder. By 1905 he had learned enough to partner in Johnson Brothers & Blanchard Boatyard on the Duwamish River.
Ted Geary (1885-1960), a legend in Northwest sailboat racing, graduated from MIT in 1910 with a degree in naval architecture. Back in Seattle, he steered work to the partners' Duwamish yard, including, in 1911, a 100-foot motor yacht, Helori, for O. O. Denny (1853-1916), son of a Seattle pioneer. It was then the largest such vessel built on the West Coast and was completed in an astounding 90 days. In 1914 the yard launched the Geary-designed R-class sloop Sir Tom, which would dominate the West Coast race circuit for three decades.
In 1915 the company failed when it badly underbid a contract for a large commercial vessel designed by Geary. Blanchard went to work for other yards, and in 1919 he was able to open the N. J. Blanchard Boat Company on the north shore of Lake Union. Geary continued to recommend Blanchard to build sailboats, motor yachts, and commercial vessels of Geary's design, including the 72-foot schooner Katedna, the new company's first major project, still sailing in 2017 under the name Red Jacket.
In 1922 Blanchard's yard burned to the ground as he was setting up to build a 115-foot motor yacht for a wealthy oilman. He was able to complete the project at an idle facility in Ballard, and in 1923 he established a new yard on Fairview Avenue on Lake Union's east shore. Blanchard and Geary had a falling out, and Geary started sending his projects to Lake Union Dry Dock. But a wealthy customer insisted he use Blanchard to build the magnificent 100-foot yacht Malibu, which was completed in 1926 and can still be seen cruising Northwest waters.
In 1924 Blanchard collaborated with marine architect Leigh Coolidge to become the first Lake Union yard to produce a stock pleasure boat, a standardized design sold at an advertised price, much like an automobile. Between 1924 and 1930 Blanchard launched 25 of these raised-deck cruisers, and soon Lake Union Dry Dock, using a very similar but older design, began producing larger versions, called "Lake Union Dreamboats." Other yards jumped in, and dozens were sold before the Great Depression brought things to near halt. "Dreamboat," although copyrighted by LUDD, became the popular name for the instantly recognizable cruisers, regardless of origin. During the Depression years after the Dreamboat phase had largely passed, Blanchard started producing two small, inexpensive, and popular sailboats, called Senior and Junior Knockabouts.
N. J.'s son, Norman C. Blanchard (1911-2009), had worked alongside his dad from childhood, and when N. J. died in 1954 he took over management of the company and maintained its reputation for high quality. But fiberglass started to dominate the industry in the 1960s, and the end was inevitable. Blanchard's survived on diminishing amounts of repair work until 1969, when the business was sold and became The Boat Yard. In the nearly 60 years since N. J. started on the Duwamish, the Blanchards had built nearly 2,000 boats, many among the finest ever seen on Northwest waters.
Grandy Boat Company
On August 25, 1967, fire razed the Grandy Boat Company at 2538 Westlake Avenue N, ending two generations of boat building. In 1903 Lewis Lee Grandy (1873-1952) opened a boatyard in Tacoma, then relocated to Vashon Island in 1910. In 1911 he built a 40-foot, raised-deck cruiser, Kingkole, designed by Otis Cutting (1874-1955), who eight years later would co-found Lake Union Dry Dock Company. Remarkably, the vessel, renamed Lawana, was still in use more than a century later.
In 1922 Lewis's son Earl (1897-1982) opened a floating repair shop off Westlake Avenue, joined shortly by his brother Bill (1898-1989). They soon purchased land at the site, and with partner Henry Bailey earned a reputation for efficiency and quality craftsmanship, often running two shifts to keep up with demand. Legions of union shipwrights served their apprenticeships with the Grandys.
The Grandys built in many sizes and for many purposes, including thousands of 12-foot lapstrake dinghies, fish boats, rum-running speedboats, various commercial vessels, and classic pleasure cruisers, some more than 50 feet in length. In 1934 the company debuted a 42-foot stock cruiser designed by Ed Monk Sr., who had been a shipwright at the Blanchard yard before being hired as a draftsman by Ted Geary. Monk became a prolific and popular designer, and before the decade was out he had moved his office into the Grandy yard.
Both Grandy brothers were still actively working in 1967 when the fire hit. N. J. Blanchard had been in his late 30s when his first Lake Union shop burned in 1922, but the Grandys were more than three decades older. While fire was the direct cause of company's demise, fiberglass played a role as well. The old ways were fast disappearing, and the Grandys made no attempt to reopen.
Jensen Motor Boat Company
Antonius "Tony" Jensen (1889-1963), who came from a longtime boat-building family in Denmark, immigrated to Canada in 1905 and came to Seattle the following year to work at the Moran Ship Yard. He moved to Victoria in 1912, where he met and married his wife, Bessie (1892-1968). In 1922, now with sons George (1915-1977) and Anchor (1918-2000), the couple returned to Seattle permanently, living in Portage Bay on a boat Jensen built.
A professional musician as well as a shipwright, Jensen became first-chair violinist for the Seattle Symphony and played piano at the Pantages Theatre. He began building boats near Green Lake in his spare time, trundling them overland to launch at Portage Bay, which until 1913 had no name of its own and was simply the easternmost section of Lake Union. In 1927 the family bought 100 feet of waterfront on the bay's north shore, built a boat shop with living quarters above, and started the Jensen Motor Boat Company.
Anchor Jensen grew up in the shop, first sweeping floors, then learning the shipwright's trade from a master. In the 1930s the Jensens built for their own use the 38-foot Meteor, designed by George Jensen, a somewhat futuristic cruiser, bulbous, pointed at both ends, and powered by two Chrysler engines. A true one-of-a-kind, it was later owned by glass artist Dale Chihuly and by musician Neil Young.
Anchor became foreman at the boatyard in 1937. He enlisted during World War II, graduated first in his class at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and served on the battleship USS Iowa. In 1950 he married Ann Katheryn Clark (1919-1997).
Anchor Jensen's ability to adapt traditional methods to modern uses was never more apparent than in 1950, when Seattle auto dealer Stan Sayres (1896-1956) hired him to build a hydroplane of revolutionary design. On June 26, 1950, Slo-Mo-Shun IV, driven by Sayres, was clocked at 160 m.p.h. on Lake Washington, smashing the previous world record. In 1952 it did even better, hitting more than 178 m.p.h., and won the Gold Cup three times before being largely destroyed in a crash on the Detroit River in 1956. Fully restored, it is on display at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.
Anchor Jensen was a consummate shipwright, and he built several hundred classic wooden boats and repaired or restored thousands of others. He was felled by a stroke at his boatyard on August 13, 2000, and died shortly thereafter. His son, DeWitt Jensen (b. 1952), took over ownership of the shop. By 2017 Jensen's and Lake Union Dry Dock were the only two survivors among the companies mentioned herein, and Jensen's would close two years later.
Lake Union Dry Dock Company
Lake Union Dry Dock Company opened in 1919 and was the first substantial boatyard on the lake after completion of the ship canal. Its founders were Otis Cutting, John L. McLean (1871-1942), and Harry B. Jones (1888-1968).
Located at the southeast corner of Lake Union, LUDD also was the largest of the early boat builders and by 1929 had five dry docks, including one that could lift up to 3,500 tons. This gave the company a competitive advantage, as it could accommodate either a single large vessel or several smaller ones simultaneously. The number of dry docks was later reduced to two, the largest of which accommodates vessels up to 420 feet and can be used at sea. When it returned to Lake Union after World War II, it was tilted 45 degrees to make it through the canal's Ballard Locks.
In 1925 or 1926 the success of N. J. Blanchard's standardized cruisers led LUDD to start building a similar-looking but larger version, based on the boat built by Lewis Grandy in 1911 to Cutting's design. Twenty-four were produced, and several still can be seen on local waters. Also built during the 1920s was the steam-powered W. T. Preston, an Army Corps of Engineers snag boat. It was the last sternwheeler to work in Puget Sound and is now on the National Historic register and on display at the Anacortes Maritime Heritage Center.
Because of its capacity, LUDD did more large commercial and military work than the other boat builders on the lake. During Prohibition the company had it both ways, building speedboats used by bootleggers and 15 fast Coast Guard cutters used to chase them. But over the years it also produced a bevy of beautiful wooden cruising yachts, including Geary's 96-foot Blue Peter and several designed by Otis Cutting.
In 1941 LUDD partnered with Puget Sound Bridge and Dredge, and under the temporary name Associated Shipbuilders produced 16 wooden mine-sweepers for the U.S. Navy at the Lake Union facility, employing as many as 1,000 workers. At war's end the company was reorganized, again as Lake Union Dry Dock, now owned by original partner Harry Jones and George Hobart Stebbins (1894-1991), who had managed the yard during the war. Building and repairing large commercial and government vessels has been its bread and butter, including, in 2002, major repairs and renovations to Virginia V, the last operating steamer of Puget Sound's Mosquito Fleet. But Lake Union Dry Dock, nearing its centennial, still welcomed the opportunity to work on the classic wooden pleasure boats of an earlier era, many of which it built.
Prothero Boat Company
Boat building was a competitive business and not lacking in healthy egos, but brothers Frank Prothero (1905-1996) and Bob Prothero Sr. (1907-1986) achieved near-legendary status among other shipwrights during their long careers in the Northwest. According to one source, the Prothero family started building ships in Wales in the late 1600s. The brothers' great-grandfather immigrated to America in 1870 and opened a boat and furniture shop on Lake Union. Their grandfather and father were also shipwrights and cabinet makers, and Frank started working at his father's Pacific Door and Manufacturing Company at age 10.
In 1927 Bob Prothero and Ernest McDonald opened the Prothero & McDonald Boat Company in a floating seaplane hangar, and Frank Prothero came aboard as shop foreman in 1930. In 1931 the brothers built for their own use the 42-foot schooner Allure, which they later sold to Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984), an Olympic swimming Gold Medalist and movie Tarzan. So well built was the Allure that more than 85 years later she was still listed as active on the Registry of American Schooners.
McDonald left in 1942 and the name was changed to Prothero Boat Company. On paper, at least, Bob was the owner and Frank the foreman, and it would remain ever so. The longtime location of the Prothero yard was on Westlake Avenue N, a block south of the Grandy Boat Company. According to an anecdote that seems too good to not be true, a rite of passage for new apprentices at Grandys was to be sent scurrying down to Protheros to borrow "a bucket of steam or a board stretcher" (Wagner, 139).
In about 30 years the Protheros built some 250 wooden boats, including fishing vessels, tugboats, and a number of beautifully crafted pleasure craft. They repaired thousands more, and were widely admired for their complete mastery of the shipwrights' art and the meticulous quality of their work. Like the others on Lake Union, the company spent much of its time during World War II building vessels for the military, including three 52-foot tugboats for the U.S. Army.
The Prothero brothers' last wooden sailboat, Peniel, a 42-foot pilothouse sloop designed by Bill Garden, was completed in 1956, and as of 2017 was being used for charter cruises in the San Juan Islands. Peniel was made in the traditional manner, with steam-bent oak frames, Alaska yellow cedar planking, ironbark in the keel, and a spruce mast and spars. In 1956 Frank Prothero also launched Alcyone, a 65-foot gaff-rigged schooner he built for his own use. Later owners would sail Alcyone across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and she has appeared regularly at Port Townsend's annual Wooden Boat Festival.
Bob Prothero sold the Westlake property to the Seattle Elks Club in 1959, but neither brother was ready for retirement. Frank worked as an independent shipwright for a few years and in 1965 started a labor of love, a 65-foot schooner, Glory of the Seas. This project was to incorporate the sum total of his skill, and he hand-crafted every detail. Nearly 30 years later he was still at it, but knew he probably would not live to complete the job. That didn't matter; in 1993 he told a reporter, "Every day I'm down here I get something done. How could I be happier than that?" ("Boat Builder's Craft ... ").
Bob Prothero started a new career as a marine surveyor and consultant. In 1981 he co-founded the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Townsend, where he passed down his skills to a new generation of wood workers. His son, Robert Prothero Jr. (1929-2005), also a master shipwright, worked at his father's yard and for many years at Vic Franck's Boat Company.
Vic Franck's Boat Company
Vic Franck's Boat Company, long located at 1109 N Northlake Way, had the unique distinction among Lake Union boat builders of having been run by a woman for several years, and run extremely well.
Victor Arthur Franck (1894-1939) was a cabinet maker born on San Juan Island. In 1920 he married Ruth Elizabeth Russell (1898-1999), and the couple settled in Federal Way. Franck worked as a cabinet maker in Seattle, but in 1927 he sold the family car, bought a piece of land on Lake Union, and with a partner opened a boat-building company called Franck & McCrary.
Franck & McCrary started with a line of stock cruisers, called "Sea Queens," to compete with Blanchard's raised-deck cruiser and its imitators. The boat sold for $3,400, which included dishes, cutlery, and other necessities. Like its competitors, Franck & McCrary also built commercial vessels, including fishing boats and commuter boats.
Vic Franck took over sole ownership of the company in 1938, and on October 21 that year disaster struck. A fire that began in Edison Vocational's boat-building school at 1117 N Northlake Way destroyed both the school and Franck's building next door. Three boats under construction were consumed, as were 11 years of company records. Adding more heartbreak was the loss of the recently finished Silver Heels, the Franck family's personal boat. The 48-foot vessel was the first twin-screw, flybridge-operated cruiser on the West Coast. It was a terrible blow, and almost exactly one year later Vic Franck died, a death his family attributed to sorrow.
Franck's widow, Ruth, was determined to keep the company going, but in 1939 banks would not lend money to businesses run by women, and most suppliers were equally unenlightened. Ruth Franck needed a male partner, so she tapped one of her key shipwrights and reorganized as Lester & Franck. It is doubtful that Lester had any ownership interest, but in 1942 he was replaced by James Chambers, who did.
Although the company was now called Chambers & Franck, Ruth Franck ran things, and in her hands the firm prospered during World War II. It was a competitive business, and she was known to help her best workers buy their first homes to keep them from moving to other yards. Her son, Victor Russell Franck (1923-2005), who had learned his skills from his father, returned home after the war and assumed management of a company that was in excellent shape. Chambers left in 1955, and the name once more became simply Vic Franck's Boat Company.
A superb vessel from the company was the 80-foot ketch Tatoosh, built in 1961 for the Boeing family and later purchased by actor Peter Fonda with profits from the movie Easy Rider. A stunning boat in every respect, she was still sailing the world's oceans in 2017. But the company's most famous project was the 104-foot Kakki M., launched in 1967 as the second Garden-designed, Franck-built yacht for a wealthy Detroit industrialist. Later renamed Dorothea, she was considered by some to be the first "super yacht."
Vic retired in 1984 and his son, Daniel Victor Franck (b. 1951), took over. Challenging times lay ahead. A new generation of buyers wanted boats built with fiberglass, and as attrition took its toll on the old wooden yachts the demand for maintenance and repair work lessened. The earlier closure of other yards increased Vic Franck's share of repair work, and until late in the twentieth century, 70 percent of its income came from repair, 30 percent from new construction. By the early twenty-first century that ratio was reversed.
That was not all. As Dan Franck noted in 2005, "It's not the same business anymore. Dad would just shake his head at the hundreds of thousands that boat buyers are spending on satellite-TV receivers, computers, and electronic navigation systems" ("Boat Builder Vic Franck Prized Artistry").
With such features came far greater complexity and cost, and the traditional close relationship between builder and buyer gave way to one mediated by accountants and attorneys. Vic Franck's last build, the fiberglass, 86-foot Bella Rosa, a luxury yacht with granite countertops and a crystal chandelier, was completed in late 2004. A few months later the company closed its doors for good, leaving only Lake Union Dry Dock and Jensen's Motor Boat surviving. Sadly, yet another piece of the lake's boat-building legacy was lost in October 2007 when Vic Franck's iconic masterpiece, the Dorothea (née Kakki M.), burned and sank southwest of Costa Rica. All aboard were saved.