The Skansie Shipbuilding Company, formerly located at 3207 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor, in western Pierce County, was a South Sound shipbuilding powerhouse in the 1910s and 1920s. Established in 1912 by two brothers -- Mitchell (1879-1939) and Joseph (ca. 1888-1944) Skansie -- the Skansie Shipbuilding Company built quality fishing boats and ferries. The company worked hand in hand with Mitchell Skansie's other business, the Washington Navigation Company ferry line, constructing and repairing the car ferries used on the company's four routes. The Skansie Shipbuilding Company built the notable Oceania, Defiance, Shenandoah, and Avalon, to name a few.
Gig Harbor -- Pretty Little Bay
The Skansie Shipbuilding Company was located in Gig Harbor, a community situated on an attractive bay in Pierce County on the west side of the Tacoma Narrows opposite Point Defiance, the northern tip of Tacoma. The bay, also called Gig Harbor, has long been a popular place for settlement. The Puyallup Tribe maintained a longhouse and permanent settlement at the head of the bay for many generations. Lt. George Sinclair of Charles Wilkes's U.S. Exploring Expedition found the "pretty little bay" in 1841 while paddling a gig, thus naming it Gig Harbor (Morgan, 51). A 750-foot sand spit extends along the entrance to the harbor, sheltering the inner harbor and leaving only 200 feet for boat traffic.
More than 25 years later in 1867, three immigrant fishermen arrived in the area -- Croatians Samuel Jerisch (1832-1905) and Peter Goldsmith (b. 1832) and Spaniard John Farrague (1825-1895). The small settlement created by these three men and their families grew and became a bustling fishing village with strong Croatian and Scandinavian roots. By the early 1950s, Gig Harbor was home to one of the largest commercial fishing fleets on the West Coast. The community remained small due to its relative isolation from the more heavily populated eastern shores of Puget Sound, and relied heavily on ferries and steamers for transportation of people and goods. The opening of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1950 opened up Gig Harbor to increased development and tourism.
The Skansie Family
The first member of the Skansie family to arrive in Washington Territory was Peter Skansie (ca. 1870-?), who emigrated from the town of Su Martin on Brac, an island off the coast of Dalmatia in present-day Croatia, and settled on Wollochet Bay, located at the southern end of the Gig Harbor peninsula a few miles southwest of the town of Gig Harbor, in 1889. A brick mason, Peter began working for a local brickyard. He eventually moved to Gig Harbor, where a small community of fellow Croatians had settled. Once established, he sent for his three brothers -- Mitchell, Joseph, and Andrew (ca. 1876-1950) -- to join him. One sister, Tomazina (who later married George Ursich) also made the voyage to the Pacific Northwest, in 1905, while two other sisters remained in Croatia. At this point, Peter Skansie had started working as a fisherman with the Jerisch brothers, John and Mike, members of the first Croatian family to settle in Gig Harbor. Peter's brothers arrived in Gig Harbor by 1900 and began fishing with him.
Peter and Andrew continued in the fishing industry together, traveling up and down Puget Sound as far as the San Juan Islands and through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Cape Flattery until their retirements in 1930 (Peter) and 1940 (Andrew). Peter married his wife Kattie around 1903 and they had three children: Clementina, Vincent, and Mary. Andrew sent for his wife Bertha (nee Boravich, ca. 1884-1970) in 1909 to join him in Gig Harbor; together they had five children: Clementina, Jeroma, Antone, Vincent, and Peter.
While their brothers fished for salmon, Mitchell and Joseph (Joe) moved into the shipbuilding business. Mitchell worked in Seattle at the Sunset Boat Company for a time after 1907, but returned to Gig Harbor by 1910. According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Mitchell briefly operated his own blacksmith shop. In 1912, Mitchell and Joe opened their own shipyard, the Skansie Shipbuilding Company, to build and repair vessels. All four brothers began building boats together, but Peter and Andrew returned to commercial fishing. Mitchell and Joe operated the boatbuilding business together until Joe left and worked primarily as a ferryboat captain.
Mitchell had arrived in Gig Harbor in 1899 and quickly connected with the local Croatian community. He married Amanda Dorotich (1886-1950) in Tacoma in January of 1904. Amanda was the daughter of another prominent Croatian fishing family, the Dorotiches, who were early settlers in Gig Harbor, arriving by the 1870s. Together, Mitchell and Amanda had two sons, William (1907-1976) and Mitchell (1909-1966), and two daughters, Clementine (McDonald) and Caroline (Pendergast).
Joseph, along with his brother Andrew, arrived in Gig Harbor in 1900. He married Anne (Annie) Dorotich (1887-1969), the sister of Mitchell's wife Amanda, in Tacoma in January of 1907. Joseph and Annie had five children: Caroline, Katherine, Anne, Antoinette, and Joseph Jr.
When the Skansies began fishing in Puget Sound, fishing boats were still largely powered by sail or oar. The brothers began experimenting with gas-powered engines for boats and started retrofitting older boats with engines. In 1902 they built their first motorized fishing boat, which featured a 7-horse power gasoline engine. In 1907, they worked with master carpenter John Martinolich (1877-1960) to build a 33-foot gasoline steamer, which they called Nightingale. Martinolich, also Croatian, started Martinolich Shipbuilding in Dockton on Maury Island, a business that his sons later expanded to Tacoma and California.
In 1910 the Skansies built the Navigator, a fishing vessel with a manually operated seine. The Skansie brothers are believed to be the first fishermen in the area to build a gasoline launch for purse-seine fishing. A seine (pronounced "sane") is a large net with floats on the top and weighted at the bottom. Seine fishing, a fishing method introduced to the Pacific Northwest by Croatian fishermen, utilizes this net to encircle and capture a school of fish. The net features a float line that floats on the water. Weighted at the bottom, the net hangs down in the water from the float. A lead line is run through purse rings at the bottom of the net. When a school of fish has swum into the net, the fishermen pull on the lead line and it closes the bottom of the net and forms a purse, trapping the fish. The net is then pulled alongside or hauled aboard the vessel. This method of catching fish is largely used to catch schools of fish near the surface, like salmon, Pacific Cod, pollock, and herring.
Following their success with the Navigator, the brothers established the Skansie Shipbuilding Company and hired Sam Kazulin (1875-1932) as the shipyard manager. Kazulin came from a family of master shipbuilders from the Skansie brothers' homeland in Dalmatia on the island of Brac. They established the boatyard right on Gig Harbor's bay, just east and across the street from Mitchell Skansie's home on Harborview Drive and next door to Andrew Skansie's house and the netshed used in the family's commercial fishing operation. The boatyard featured a large open-air boat shed with a sign emblazoned "Skansie's Ship Building Co" on the shed's gable end facing the water. The boatyard also included an engine-repair shop and a small office building.
During the company's infancy, the brothers continued to fish during the spring and summer season. Their experience as fishermen helped them modify the design of purse seiners (purse-seine fishing vessels), altering the flat-bed oval bow to a teardrop-shape to improve fuel efficiency. The first boat built in the Skansie Shipbuilding Company yard was the fishing vessel Oceania. The 65-foot craft featured a 50-horsepower gasoline engine and was designed for the Skansie fishing fleet. Joseph Skansie was the first captain of the boat. The company held a festive launch ceremony with Miss Mattie Dorterich christening the vessel with champagne.
In the company's first few years, it constructed more than a dozen fishing boats with gasoline engines, ranging in value from $4,000 to $4,500. The success of the Oceania was followed by the Mermaid in 1912; the President, Monarch, St. Joseph, and Oceana in 1913; and the Governor, Johnny E, Katherine, and President II in 1914. The shipyard experienced a particular boom in the first half of 1915, completing six boats in just six months as fishermen anticipated a big run of humpback (pink) salmon. Boats built in 1915 included the Louisiana and the Commander, equipped with 40-horsepower Frisco Standard engines. Over the next decade, the Skansie Shipbuilding Company built numerous fishing vessels, several of which were for family members involved in commercial fishing. These included the Spokane and Independence in 1917, the Detroit in 1919, and the Vernon in 1920. In 1919, the Skansies also built the 75-foot Buddie for the Alaska Pacific Fisheries company. She featured an 80-horsepower Union engine and would go on to work in conjunction with the Alaska Pacific Fishers packing plants.
In 1925 the shipyard built a 64-foot purse seiner, the Shenandoah, for Pasco Dorotich. The Dorotiches, first Pasco and then his son John, used the Shenandoah to fish mostly in the San Juan Islands but also in Alaska. By 1926, the Skansie Shipbuilding Company employed a crew of 26 workers. During 1926, the Skansies had another construction boom, building 12 boats in that year alone.
Between 1929 and 1930, the Skansie Shipbuilding Company built the Avalon, a purse seiner for Andrew Skansie's commercial fishing operation. The Avalon was operated by two generations of Skansie fishermen until it was sold in 1990.
Washington Navigation Company
In 1927 the Skansies launched a ferryboat, the Defiance, to operate on the ferry route between Point Defiance and Gig Harbor. Mitchell Skansie's wife, Amanda Skansie, along with I. C. Rowland, vice president of the Washington Navigation Company, and his daughter Vernetta Jean Rowland, helped christen the vessel on a chilly January afternoon. Powered by a 360-horsepower diesel engine, the 180-foot long Defiance had the capacity for 80 automobiles and could travel at speeds up to 16 knots per hour. The Skansies also christened another ferry that same afternoon, albeit a smaller one. The Narrows, a much smaller vessel, only had the capacity for 20 cars but would also serve the Point Defiance-Gig Harbor route. These vessels were just the first of many operated by the Washington Navigation Company to provide Pierce County ferry service.
Mitchell Skansie had formed the Washington Navigation Company in 1926 when Pierce County wanted to cease operating the ferry system. Mitchell incorporated the company with his brother Joseph, with a capitalization of $350,000. The company went on to operate seven car ferries, all built by the Skansies, on four routes between Gig Harbor and Tacoma, Vashon Island, and Fox Island. In order to better serve the ferry system and his new company, Mitchell had the Skansie Shipbuilding Company boatyard enlarged and began to build and repair ferry vessels in Gig Harbor. Key ferries built by the Skansie Shipbuilding Company include the Defiance, Skansonia, Fox Island, City of Steilacoom, and Vashonia.
The Washington Navigation Company operated the Skansie-built ferries on Gig Harbor routes until 1940, when the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge was completed. The ferry routes resumed months later after the new bridge collapsed during a windstorm and continued until the completion of the replacement Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1950. The following year, the state established Washington State Ferries and the agency then purchased the Skansonia, Defiance, Fox Island, and Vashonia ferries.
Dry Dock and Repair Work
Between 1912 and 1930, the Skansie Shipbuilding Company constructed more than 100 vessels, including 96 seiners in addition to ferries, cannery tenders, and yachts. During the mid-1930s and the economic difficulties of the Great Depression, the shipbuilding company shifted away from new construction and focused on dry-dock and repair work. When Mitchell passed away in 1939, his son William (Bill) took over the shipyard business, continuing the repair work.
During World War II, Bill Skansie leased the shipyard to the Harbor Shipbuilding Corporation, which was led by W. Leslie Comyn. Harbor Shipbuilding had a lease for three years and negotiated contracts with the federal government to build minesweepers and crash boats for the U.S. Army Air Corps. The company also used the Skansie shipyard, which had the capacity to take ships up to 175 feet in length, to repair both steel and wooden vessels. After World War II, Bill returned the shipyard to primarily repair work, for both pleasure and commercial vessels. However, the shipyard experienced a brief revitalization in the late 1940s, completing its first seiner since 1930 in April 1949. Bill and his brother Mitchell Jr., along with the shipyard's foreman John Cosulich, built a 59-foot seine-fishing vessel, christened the Number One. J. A. Martinolich, who had previously worked with the Skansie Shipbuilding Company but had since moved to San Francisco, designed the vessel.
In 1959, Bill sold the shipyard. It sold three times over the next several years and Walt Williamson purchased the site in 1967. Today, the boatyard operates as the Gig Harbor Marina.