Tag Archives: Puget Sound


The first people who lived on Puget Sound lived lightly on the edge of the land, mostly on the coast. They didn’t travel far from the shore where mountains were piled like shards of flint and old growth forests layered the ground with the bones of trees once 200 feet tall, where narrow valleys carved by the sharp edge of ice through winters that lasted a thousand years were a succession of bogs and swamps and wet grass meadows, where streams were a clutter of sloughs and islands and beaver ponds and driftwood snags and rivers were blocked with driftwood dams so massively built they persisted for hundreds of years.

The first people lived lightly and within their means. Those who followed, the ones who ‘settled’ the land as if it were unruly and needed restraint, didn’t see the land as it was but as it might be. They saw the opportunity of shaping the land in their own image, optimizing it for their own use. It was their manifest destiny, their biblical imperative.

First were the loggers who felled the old growth forests moving inland from the water’s edge. They cleared the beaver ponds from streams and built splash dams to raise the water level, floating downed trees to the saw mills. Then came the men who sweated and sawed and dynamited the logjams to allow steamboats and rafts to navigate the rivers. South on the Willamette above Corvallis, Oregon more than 5,500 driftwood logs were pulled from a 50-mile length of river. The driftwood measured 5 to 9 feet in diameter, 90 to 120 feet in length, and maybe 500 to 700 pounds per foot dry weight.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined.

On the Skagit River in Washington driftwood was piled like windfall 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide. The Stillaguamish River was blocked by six logjams from the head of tidewater for 17 miles upriver. Dead trees were so large, so numerous, and so deeply embedded in the river bottom that a steam snag boat hammered and hauled and labored for 6 months to open a channel only 100 feet wide.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined. The wetlands were drained by the farmers that followed. Less than 10% of the historic wetlands and floodplains of Puget Sound remain. By most contemporary opinions it was a good thing. Fallow land was made productive. Forests were harvested like crops. Isolated communities were connected by river traffic. But all the wood removed from the water that seemed such a nuisance at the time had served a purpose that wasn’t recognized for another hundred years.

When water approaches an obstruction in the current like a driftwood dam it begins to well from hydraulic back pressure. The raised water tops the river banks and onto the floodplain, creating side channels and backwaters, habitat for fish. It spills over the obstruction forming a plunge pool. The deeper pool allows fish to remain cool in the heat of summer and protects them from predators. Numerous species of salmon and trout live in the same pool, each occupying different layers defined by water temperature and granularity of sediment, accommodating different species of fish or even the same species in different sages of its life-cycle. Where the current rushes around the edge of the driftwood a stream of vortexes form at the boundary of still water like pinwheels on parade, providing nutrients for the inhabitants of the pool. The driftwood dam raises the water level in the river, especially during times of low water when fish are stressed and struggle to survive.

…the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer.

None of this was known a hundred years ago. Even the wildlife managers responsible for the health of salmon and trout populations cleared deadwood from rivers and streams, genuinely convinced they were helping with upstream migrations and breeding, unaware that they were tampering with the deposition of sediment and the spawning grounds of the very species they were trying to promote.

On the Ozette River west of the Olympic Mountains the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer. After 26 large log jams were removed from the river the salmon populations crashed. Some will likely never recover.

Simplicity isn’t always a solution. Mirroring Einstein, a thing should be as complex as necessary, and no more.

Life is messy. Trying to clean it up, remove the clutter, straighten what’s crooked, smooth what’s rugged and irregular isn’t likely to make it better, even for ourselves. Optimizing the land for our own use above all others has reduced the land’s resilience and replaced it with a system that’s robust but fragile. We squeeze from the land every bit of efficiency possible, much like we do our companies and ourselves. The danger of such extreme efficiency is its proximity to disaster. It only takes a slight push from a highly optimized system to push it over the edge into chaos.


Someone whose house is firmly aground doesn’t know the experience of living afloat unless at some point they’ve abandoned the shore and sailed across oceans, day after day, weeks between landfall. Living afloat has an intimacy and an immediacy missing ashore, a contradictory sense of shelter and exposure much like a mollusk inhabiting its shell in the turbulent tidal zone.


A houseboat is alive in a way not possible for something fixed to concrete foundations. It dances in the rising wind and strains against its moorings in a storm. It feels the pull of the sun and moon and the centrifugal force of the turning earth. Life afloat is about life in motion—the isolated impact of the wake from a passing boat or the riotous force of a winter storm. A boat is a thing that moves even if it moves only in place. The floor of a houseboat may not be as lively as the pitching deck of a boat in a seaway but more than one resident has unexpectedly fallen ass over tea kettle because their assumption of immobility proved mistaken.

The certainty of the unmoving earth is something we take for granted since childhood. Every motion we make, every step we take is dependent upon the simple premise that ground won’t rise or fall beneath our feet. In those moments when our expectations are undone and the earth moves we find even the simple act of walking impossible.

A sailor—or the resident of a houseboat—surrenders that assumption of stability. The deck beneath their feet is continuously moving, whether a barely perceptible tremor or energetic enough to create a tempest in a coffee cup. The perception of motion is always present, asleep or awake, a kinetic awareness that orientates them in space. It’s the reason sailors stagger ashore after a long ocean passage, lurching down the street from one handhold to the next. Their bodies have learned to live in constant, unpredictable motion.

The experience of fluidity has ramifications like ripples radiating from a stone dropped in still water. I suspect it removes some of the certainty so characteristic of the middle class. Maybe houseboats attract a bohemian type or maybe it makes them. The truth is all of us are walking on water, we just don’t know it.

Houseboats are wonderfully eccentric, neither one thing nor another, wholly belonging neither to the sea or the shore. Like a foreign embassy, they are sovereign soil transposed on another country. They are the shore afloat, an impossible transposition of land and water. Heart and soul, they are anomaly harboring communities of eccentrics.

They are floating shells, exteriors weathered and roughened but the inside worn smooth by intimacy and the passage of life through chambered cells. Unlike houses anchored to the soil, houseboats can’t afford the luxury of space, the extravagant waste of empty rooms piled one on top another like packing crates. Every inch must be economized, every corner rounded, everything secured. Even a well found house ashore isn’t built to be buffeted by waves, corroded by salt water, or encrusted by barnacles.

Houseboats by preference and construction are ephemeral creations. There are houses hundreds of years old but no houseboats. Nor are they built with the stubborn sturdiness of a wooden boat intended to survive the casual violence of the open ocean, passage after passage. They are vulnerable to hazards both common and uncommon to houses ashore—fire and flood, foundering, parting their moorings, grounding, collision, tsunamis, disdain, envy and bigotry. They are marginal creations that inhabit the edge, a characteristic that is both their strength and weakness.

There were once over 2,000 houseboats on the Seattle waterfront, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Now there are less than 500 sequestered in waterfront ghettos on Lake Union. Their vulnerabilities are less relevant to the decline than the rancor of homeowners who look down upon the ramshackle communities from the Seattle hills and complain about property values, sewage, lawlessness, tax evasion, and moral turpitude. The floating communities have always attracted both derision and envy, the envy of the bourgeois for the bohemian. There’s nothing more rancorous than success.

The houseboat ghettos have created a sense of embattled community. Nothing defines a community more clearly than the struggle to survive against land developers, city commissioners, zoning authorities and citizen committees. The community is further defined by narrow docks that thread together individual homes and anchor them to shore. Walking the dock each day, passing within a few feet of your neighbors’ kitchen or bedroom windows, living in such close proximity doesn’t allow the anonymity of a middle class suburb. When you know your neighbors’ name and the visible details of their lives it’s harder to ignore their distress when their house begins listing or breaks free of its moorings and drifts across the bay.

Battle of Elliott Bay

If the killing of a pig can be called a war then yachtsmen armed with shotguns can be called a battle.

The battle occurred on a Saturday morning in 1909 when members of the Elliott Bay Yacht Club landed in force at the foot of Charles Street, South Seattle. They were opposed by burly lumbermen.

With the substantial help of Hiram Gill, Seattle’s wondrously corrupt mayor, the yacht club had secured a long-term lease on the waterfront lot. The lease was contested by the Erickson Mill Company which actually had buildings on the lot. Possession might normally be nine tenths of the law but in Seattle, Hiram Gill was the law.

Adloph Rohlf’s new yawl Acquilla was pressed into service as a gunboat. Four shotguns were mounted on her gunnels to dissuade the yard employees. The Acquillla arrived on the sunlit morning with decks cleared for action, accompanying a pile driver. The lumbermen tactically withdrew and pile driving began.

The Post-Intelligencer reported that “a pitched battle between a pile-driving crew working for Elliot Bay Yacht Club and employees of the Erickson Mill Company…was narrowly averted yesterday at noon…” The paper failed to mention that the battle was narrowly averted by the threat of deadly force.

The Seattle Yacht Club officially merged with the Elliot Bay Yacht Club later that year, and the battle of Elliott Bay became part of its legacy.

Resources: The Centennial History of the Seattle Yacht Club 1892-1992

Smugglers on the Sound

Puget Sound has always been smugglers’ water–two thousand miles of crumpled shoreline sprawled across two countries often at political odds. It has been the haunt of sailors smuggling Chinese and opium, whiskey and wool, men like Blue Jay Jimmy and the infamous Smuggler Kelly who smelled badly and whose name was used by exasperated mothers to frighten their children into obedience.

Settlers on the Sound considered it onerous to pay duty on products more cheaply available in Canada, especially Canadian whiskey, and the citizens of Port Townsend were very fond of whiskey. It was said you could dig ten feet deep on Water Street and still smell the cheap whiskey saturating the soil.

Folklore has it that the term bootlegger was derived from the common practice of Port Townsend sailors tucking bottles of whiskey into their high sea boots when returning from Canada.

A brisk trade smuggling Chinese immigrants from Canada developed following passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Bigots may have resented the thrifty Chinese but their cheap labor was needed and men like Smuggler Kelly filled the need, usually landing their cargo on a remote shore in the dark of a moonless night. Where the Chinese labored, opium also became a commodity.

Prohibition was popular in Washington state until it became law. Most men found that having neither a job nor a drink was an insufferable burden. Supplying liquor illegally provided an income for many during the Great Depression. An entire economy was supported by bootlegging— an army of office workers, accountants, teamsters, lawyers, mechanics, salesmen, and boat crews—including at least one legitimate boatyard.

The Blanchard Boat Company of Ballard was struggling during the Depression. Commissions for new boats were non-existent; even repair work was rare. N.J. Blanchard, the man later responsible for building the famous Blanchard Knockabouts, kept his yard afloat building open launches. They were politely called fast commuters but were in fact rum-runners, all engine and cockpit, designed to carry a light load faster than the Coast Guard could follow.

Not only did N.J. build rum-runners, he ran liquor for Roy Olmstead, the Seattle police lieutenant who decided that being a bootlegger was more profitable than jailing one. Besides becoming Seattle’s largest employer, Olmstead pioneered Seattle radio. His wife broadcast a program of children’s nursery rhymes from their home in the Mount Baker district. All of Olmstead’s boats listened religiously to the broadcast which included encoded instructions. The station call signs were KFQX, later to become KOMO.

Olmstead loaded liquor onboard old schooners in Victoria, B.C., then offloaded them into small boats among the islands of Haro Strait. He preferred smuggling in foul weather to avoid interdiction by the authorities and hijacking by the competition. His boats drove at flank speed through squalls as dark as sin, their running lights doused, and landed crates of liquor on isolated wharves, at boatyards, and even yacht club floats.

In his autobiography Knee Deep in Shavings, Norm Blanchard wrote, "Every cabbie in town knew that for the right price, a customer could get a bottle of bootleg whiskey at the Seattle Yacht Club." Most of that whiskey was supplied by Roy Olmstead and likely delivered to the dock by his father, N.J. Blanchard.

I have a copy of The Centennial History of the Seattle Yacht Club 1892 – 1992. Oddly, I have yet to find a reference in it to smuggling or bootlegging.

The Dying of the Dix

On November 18, 2006, an excursion vessel departed the Seattle waterfront before mid-day and steamed to a position off Duwamish Head where, at 12:00 pm precisely, a wreath was cast adrift on Puget Sound to mark the grave of a vessel that sank a hundred years earlier.

On that day in 1906, the passenger vessel Dix departed Colman Dock, Seattle, at 7:00 pm, bound for Port Blakely, a 40 minute passage to the far side of Puget Sound. She was steaming at 10.5 knots on a clear, calm night. At 7:42 pm the Dix was struck amidships by the steam schooner Jeanie and sank. The captain’s pocket watch stopped at the moment he was thrown clear of the deck into the Sound.

Continue reading The Dying of the Dix

Wild Man

When they brought John Tornow’s body to the undertaker’s on April 20, 1913 he had already been dead three days. The streets of the small Washington town of Montesano were filled with jostling crowds. They had come to see the dead man’s face, to touch his burlap clothing, to breathe the scent of decay. They had come to reassure themselves that John Tornow was truly dead and, through some inexplicable communion, to share in the dead man’s power.

Continue reading Wild Man