Port Townsend’s Marine Trades
By Ernie Baird with an introduction by Ross Anderson. Photos by Joel Rogers.
When Ernie Baird first found his way to Port Townsend, it was not really a port at all. It was a typical Northwest mill town, dominated visually by those towering pulp mill stacks and culturally by the people who worked under them.
“The mayor was a retired Army sergeant and long-haired kids were seen as interlopers,” Baird recalls. “I walked to work and stopped for a cup of coffee, but I didn’t know if I’d get served or not.”
The maritime community consisted of a few fishermen with aging wooden gillnetters or trollers, and a few people who could repair those boats.
Today the mill remains a crucial facet of the local landscape and economy. But, as the community celebrates an online version of the annual Wooden Boat Festival, we are focused on the marine trades – hundreds of shipwrights, diesel mechanics, riggers, fishermen, canvas workers and scores more who make their livings on the local waterfront.
Walk the boatyard virtually any day and savor the sights and sounds of that work – buzzing saws and sanders, sawdust and varnish fumes, shipwrights and boat owners in problem-solving mode. In a few short decades, those trades have become essential to the Port Townsend economy and ambience.
Below, Baird recounts the story of that transition in an essay he drafted for the Jefferson County Historical Society. And nobody is better equipped to tell that story. He didn’t just witness those events, he lived them as a self-taught boat builder and maritime advocate.
Baird is a lanky, jolly man of 73 years, usually found in a fleece jacket and a weathered R2AK cap atop his black-rimmed eyeglasses, dish-like ears and what remains of his hair. While he no longer builds boats, he is a familiar face around the boat yard or at the Maritime Center, where he’s welcome to use the shop bathroom.
He was raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood and started college at the prestigious University of Chicago. His first visit to Port Townsend was in 1968, where he encountered some friendly seafarers. He was hooked.
“I hitchhiked down to Seattle, and got a ride on a container boat to Alaska and back. I guess that did it.”
He dropped out of college, and gravitated westward, working several years as a carpenter in Idaho. In 1977, he was on his way to a carpentry job in British Columbia and stopped for a visit in Port Townsend.
“I had an epiphany,” he says. “Moving back to the waterfront seemed like a good idea. I had a few tools with me and found some work. Staying here turned out to be the best decision I’d had in a long time.”
In time, he found himself working at the new Port Townsend Boatworks with Mark Burn, his old friend whom he credits with being the “father of the marine trades.” In time, Baird started his own boatbuilding business.
“I worked on repairing a little, wooden troller, and it caught by heart. I loved the work. I loved the people. I loved the boats themselves, the compellingly beautiful shapes, the hulls that have proved to stand up to extreme conditions.”
“It matters what kind of wood goes where, so that it’s able to withstand all manner of insults. And I came to know the people who know how to do this stuff, and who understand that slower is better.”
Baird, Burns and friends were on the front edge of an emerging local industry. Fiberglass boats were new and still unproven, so most fishing boats were still wood-hulled. And there was a need for skilled workers to keep them working.
“Mark’s observation was that wooden fishing boats could be fixed and maintained in an economic way,” Baird recalls.
And Port Townsend, perched conveniently at the beginning of the route to the lucrative Alaska fishing grounds, was the place to do it.
The rest is local history, and Baird is its historian.
A Brief History of Port Townsend Marine Trades
By Ernie Baird
Marine Trades include commercial and recreational ship and boat building, maintenance and repair, marina and recreational boating, marine training and education, government and passenger activities, and every level of boat service from bottom paint to mega-yacht construction. Taken together, these activities generate both direct and indirect (from firms that depend on marine trades) revenue for Jefferson County. In addition, out of this dynamic marine trades sector has grown the Wooden Boat Foundation, the Wooden Boat Festival, the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building, and the Northwest Maritime Center.
Today the maritime trades in Jefferson County are a major economy, supporting 2,243 jobs. The US Census indicates a total employment in Jefferson County in 2016 of 11,797 jobs. Thus, 19 percent of the jobs in our County are from the maritime sector. Moreover, of these 2,243 jobs, 1,154 are directly created by marine trade activities, while another 1,089 jobs are induced, or indirect jobs.
Centered at Boat Haven and Point Hudson in the midst of downtown development, this vibrant industry was made possible by a remarkable combination of public money, private initiative and individual talent.
The stage was set for the development of the marine trades in Port Townsend following World War II. The Port spent public money to buy the harbor and buildings at Point Hudson. It also purchased land adjacent to the little harbor constructed at Boat Haven when the Port was first established in 1926. In 1964 the Army Corps of Engineers dramatically expanded the harbor at Boat Haven by building a breakwater and dredging the enclosed area. The spoils from the dredging were used to fill large sections of Kai Tai lagoon along the shore. Much of 17 acres of Port land adjacent to Boat Haven were created by that fill. By the mid-‘60s the Port had created the places that would eventually be occupied by the marine trades.
The first boat builders at Boat Haven targeted the market for fiberglass boats. The Arthur family brought Skookum Marine from Seattle to Port Townsend in 1968. They built the first large metal building in the Port. By the early ‘70s they were joined by Chinook Marine. In 1975, Gary Jonientz took over a small repair business and renamed it Fleet Marine. In 1973, Ron Radon bought the old Navy building at Point Hudson and moved his operation to Port Townsend from California. Radon specialized in the construction of fast fiberglass fish boats. Cecil Lange started Cape George Cutters outside of town producing sailing vessels that were a marriage of fiberglass hulls and wood decks. These were conventionally organized businesses; most had some capital in the bank.
In 1974 the Port bought its first Travel lift, making extensive out-of-water repair of large boats possible, including commercial fishing vessels. The publicly owned Travellift could move a boat to many locations within the Port. The wood boats that were hauled out didn’t have to be inside a building for major work. Money earned in the salmon fishery was available to pay for repair and refit work. Those things in combination (the Travellift, money from fishing, and big jobs on wood boats) were the basis for utilizing the Port uplands at Boat Haven. The first persons to really see the potential market were Mark Burn and Jim Peacock. They started Port Townsend Boatworks in 1977.
The marine trades industry depended in part on an effect of the cultural turbulence of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Talented young people who might otherwise have had careers in business or academia found employment in commercial fishing or construction or just went sailing. The result was an injection of brains and talent into the blue collar work force. A bunch of it showed up in Port Townsend. Mark Burn assembled a crew of people with skills acquired in Seattle, California and New England. By 1979 he was hiring and training inexperienced people to keep up with demand.
Work also came in to Point Hudson. A succession of young builders occupied the lower floor of the Armory building. Carol Hasse and Nora Petrich established Port Townsend Sails on the upper floor, a business that would achieve national and international acclaim.
The first Wooden Boat Festival was born out of this mix of young people, new ideas and the need to find work, and the first festival took place in 1977. In 2018 30,000 people attended the Festival.
The success of the first businesses created a burst of additional activity. In 1980 the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op was formed. In 1981 the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding was established to meet the need for trained shipwrights. The new 60 ton lift, purchased by the Port in 1982, gave the capacity to haul purse seiners as well as trollers. Pete Langley started Port Townsend Foundry in 1983. PT Foundry would grow to provide bronze and aluminum hardware both nationally and internationally. In 1984 the Boat Works launched the China Cove, a new 48’ troller. By 1985 the activity of “tailgaters” expanded dramatically, including charter members who left the Co-op, notably David Thompson. Charlie Moore and Jim Ferris, both graduates of the boat school, formed Edensaw Woods in 1984. Edensaw would grow into the region’s major supplier of imported and domestic hardwood.
In 1979 Seattle boat builder Earl Wakefield brought his family and his company, Admiral Marine, to Port Townsend. Initially they built several fiberglass yachts in Glen Cove. The early 80s were hard economic times. When the market for new construction dried up Admiral’s emphasis shifted to sub-contract work for larger regional yards. Later in the decade, as the national economy recovered, Admiral moved to the Port and brought with it yet another kind of business: the construction of very large motor yachts for very wealthy clients.
The size of the boats and the business at Admiral had multiple effects. Around 75 people were directly employed. A number of small firms profited from subcontract work producing parts and services Admiral required. A chandlery was started. But there was also some discomfort within the community regarding the allocation of a large part of their public facility to support one large private enterprise. During the resulting debate, Clallam County made an offer to Admiral to relocate to Port Angeles. Admiral accepted and left Port Townsend.
After Admiral left, and after the marine trades businesses agreed to pay a 3% surcharge on all the work invoiced to large vessels, the Port Commission authorized a 20 million dollar revenue bond to finance purchase of a 300 ton lift, reconfiguration of the harbor and an extensive re-grading of the Port to meet requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act. New work, made possible once the heavy haul out went into operation, brought favorable notice to the marine trades from the larger community.
Admiral Marine went into receivership after several years in Port Angeles. Five of its core operations people formed Townsend Bay Marine and returned to Port Townsend to occupy the buildings originally constructed by Admiral.
The City of Port Townsend passed a zoning ordinance that favored marine related businesses within the limits of its shoreline plan.
The Northwest Maritime Center was constructed at the site of the Thomas Oil property and opened its doors in 2012.
By 2005 the sense of common cause among the marine trades matured to the point that the Marine Trades Association began to meet on a regular basis. In 2006 it became a non-profit corporation in the State of Washington.
So many things had gone right on the waterfront that the marine trades cluster combined to make a large and conspicuous presence from one end of town to the other.
The Port property that was effectively empty in 1968 is now fully occupied. The marine trades, taken as a group, do over $275 million dollars’ worth of business and generate over $12 million dollars in tax revenue for the state and county. A new generation of business people and boat workers are making a living doing the work that was first imagined 40 years ago, and many of the original participants are still at work. Boat Haven and Point Hudson are now filled with young recruits. The marine trades industry has become a local institution and is going strong.
Martin Associates. The Economic Impact of the Jefferson County Marine Trades. 2018. www.martinassoc.net
Port Townsend Marine Trades Association www.ptmta.org