PAF fleet among the last of the coast’s wooden trawlers
Photo by Bert Huntoon, Whatcom Museum #1995.1.10007
In 1916, Pacific American Fisheries (PAF), the largest salmon-canning company in the world, was in need of a few good ships to supplement its fleet.
For a decade, PAF had been expanding its operations throughout southern Alaska and was in need of extra freighters to carry supplies and personnel between its northern canneries and its Fairhaven headquarters. Compounding the situation, the war in Europe had created a worldwide shortage of commercial vessels.
That spring, PAF established the Commercial Point Shipyard at the foot of Harris Avenue in South Bellingham. During the next three years, the yard would specialize in “wooden ships built as wooden ships should be built — honestly and scientifically.”
PAF had been building boats for years at its yard on Eliza Island. Located a few miles south of Bellingham, Eliza Island was home to PAF’s marine ways, sprawling net field and fish by-products plant.
Martin E. Hanson had been the shipyard foreman on Eliza Island since 1907 and supervised construction of tugs, tenders, scows and pile drivers. To his crew, the stalwart Norwegian was affectionately known as “The Boss.” Many of the shipwrights that would work at the Commercial Point yard apprenticed under Hanson at Eliza.
To design the new ships, PAF hired George H. Hitchings, a renowned naval architect from Grays Harbor. Hitchings designed the first vessel to be built at the new yard, the S.S. Redwood, and the ship’s keel was laid on June 20, 1916. But, early in 1917, Hitchings fell seriously ill and his assistant, Christopher Nottley, took charge of the yard.
Christened by Miss Marion Wheaton on Jan. 22, 1917, the Redwood was the first ship down the ways at Commercial Point. More than 7,000 well-wishers came to see the Redwood “glide into Neptune’s arms.”
The S.S. Firwood came next, launched on April 4, 1917, as the Redwood’s sister ship. Built using the same Hitchings’ design, both were 242-foot-long oil-burning steamships, 1,800 gross tons, that could carry 120 passengers in first class as well as 66,000 cases of canned salmon.
The Redwood made such a stunning impression on the French government’s West Coast agent, Frank Walker, that he ordered three “PAF type” vessels for France. The first of these was the S.S. Rosewood, launched on Aug. 27, 1917. She was 265 feet long with a beam of 42 feet.
By 1917, Commercial Point Shipyard had more than doubled in capacity as orders were anticipated from the U.S. Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet Corporation. The expansion allowed the yard to have five ships under construction simultaneously.
Each ship required more than a million feet of lumber, all of which came from the Bellingham mills of E.K. Wood and Bloedel Donovan, with PAF placing orders for 3.5 million board feet of lumber at a time.
With Prohibition in effect, the traditional use of champagne to christen a ship created some worry and innovation at the PAF yard. For the Redwood, a bottle of loganberry juice was smashed across her bow. A bottle of apple juice was used on the Firwood.
For the Rosewood, however, a bottle of real bubbly was “commandeered” for the christening. She was built for the French, after all. This raised enough eyebrows that, to avoid any scandal involving alcohol, PAF president E.B. Deming made sure that the next ship, the S.S. Hollywood, was christened with “a bottle of Lake Padden water.”
Launched on Oct. 29, 1917, the Hollywood was the second ship constructed for the French. The Oakwood, launched in 1918, completed the three-ship order.
The “roomiest, best arranged and sightliest” ship built at Commercial Point was the S.S. Catherine D., named in honor of E.B. Deming’s 3-year old granddaughter. Christened by her young namesake on Feb. 27, 1918, the Catherine D. was 242 feet long, 2,224 gross tons and able to accommodate 180 passengers in first class and 84,000 cases of salmon. She was the pride and flagship of the PAF fleet.
The first contract with the U.S. government wasn’t signed until Feb. 6, 1918. The delay was caused by the Shipping Board’s insistence that the PAF build the same Ferris-type vessel commissioned in other yards. PAF was just as adamant that its own plans be used because it was already building “the best wooden ships on the entire coast.”
Admiral Benson of the Shipping Board threatened that if PAF did not agree to build the ships according to the standard blueprints, then the government would seize the Commercial Point shipyard. The company’s negotiating team was led by Samuel C. Scotten, PAF treasurer, who had a reputation as “a fighting Irishman.” Scotten responded that the government was welcome to take the yard, but that the property didn’t include PAF’s shipwrights.
The Shipping Board relented to a modified Ferris version that Nottley designed. PAF’s specifications created a more seaworthy ship, but the heavier construction meant that they cost more to produce. Yet the government certainly couldn’t complain when PAF agreed to build seven ships for only $50,000 each, which was the same price paid to other yards for vessels that didn’t match PAF’s quality.
By Oct. 1, 1918, the Commercial Point Shipyard had launched three ships for the Shipping Board: the S.S. Cruso, Bobring and Bockonoff. The S.S. Bonneterre and Bon Secour soon followed, yet World War I was over before the last two contracted vessels, the S.S. Clio and Clodia, were completed in 1919.
When the last government ship was finished, PAF built itself a new 66 foot tugboat, the Hoonah, named for one of the company’s Alaskan cannery sites.
In May 1920, PAF sold its ship-building machinery and equipment to David Schumann’s Bellingham Junk Co. PAF’s ship building era was over, though the yard would still be used for repairs and winter boat storage.
The Redwood would spend 20 years in PAF’s northern cannery service. In 1937, she was sold and during World War II became a U.S. Army transport, renamed the U.S.S. Hoyle. The Firwood had a brief career. She burned off the coast of Peru in December 1919 after a South American lumber run.
In 1941, the Catherine D. was sold to the U.S. Navy, renamed the U.S.S. Tatoosh, and used during WW II as a floating machine shop and relief ship in Alaskan waters.
Photo by Steen’s Studio, Whatcom Museum #1941.74.3
The Rosewood, Hollywood and Oakwood all served long careers as commercial vessels in the Mediterranean.
Of the Emergency Fleet ships, the Clio has the most interesting story. In 1925, she was acquired by the New York Zoological Society as a research vessel. Renamed the Arcturus, Dr. William Beebe used the ship for his exploratory expeditions in the Sargasso Sea.
In 1937, PAF dredged and backfilled the area around Commercial Point in order to expand the boat yard. Equipment and the marine ways were brought over from Eliza Island. Though these ways wouldn’t launch big steamships, they could haul out boats for repair the size of the 110-foot cannery tender Minnehaha.
During World War II, Commercial Point was used for the construction of U.S. Army tugs and Freighter Passenger vessels by Northwestern Shipyard Co., a Seattle firm that leased the shipyard from PAF.
The Port of Bellingham acquired the shipyard in 1966 following the PAF’s closure the previous year. Since then, the 90-plus year tradition of ship building and repair at Commercial Point has been kept alive by numerous maritime firms, including today’s Fairhaven Shipyard.
Editor’s note: Due to workload constraints, Jeff Jewell will no longer be able to write our Looking Back feature. He has done this job for more than 12 years. Both our readers and the BBJ staff have enjoyed his work and appreciate all he has given. He will be missed.