Ballard Boat Works and Sagstad Shipyard (Seattle)

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 5/03/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20771

The Ballard Boat Works was started as one of 20 maritime shipyards operating in the Ballard area of Seattle in the early 20th century. Sivert Sagstad, the shipyard's founder, built a variety of fishing boats, military ships, and pleasure boats up until his death in 1946. The shipyard business continued for several decades under the direction of other Sagstad family members, with the operation transitioning gradually to a full-time marina, a process that culminated with its sale to new owners in 1994.

Boatbuilder From Across the Atlantic

Sivert Engelsen Sagstad (1880-1946) was a Norwegian boatbuilder who learned the art and craft of building fishing boats from his father, who operated a boat shop just outside of Bergen, Norway. By the age of 12, Sivert's knowledge of this trade was such that "he could build a boat as well as anyone else" (Washington Posten, 4). As a young man, Sagstad further refined his skills with a Boat Master, J. Johnsen, in Bergen, Norway. At the age of 25, Sagstad emigrated to the United States, and settled in Ballard, an as-yet unincorporated Scandinavian enclave of Seattle.

Within six months of his arrival, Sagstad had set up a small yard operation for the building of wooden-hulled, commercial fishing boats at the head of Shilshole Bay. He appropriately named it the Ballard Boat Works. Within a year of starting his business, Sagstad was building other boats as well: a July 1906 advertisement in the local newspaper offered a "sailboat for sale" available at the yard located "eight blocks west of Ballard on railroad-Ballard ferry" ("For Sale: Miscellaneous").

Like many Scandinavian immigrants to Ballard, Sagstad, the family patriarch, endorsed his cultural heritage ties to Norway as important shared values with like-minded others in the community. His shipbulding career was balanced by a desire to raise a family in his adopted homeland. He married another recent arrival from Norway, Louise N. Klock (1889-1955), on February 26, 1910. The couple had two sons: Stanley (1918-1988), and Howard (1921-1990), both of whom later helped manage the shipyard.

In April 1909, Sagstad's boatbuilding assistance was enlisted by a committee of Norwegians led by merchant Gerhard Ericksen, millwright Jacob E. Mohn, and Albert Ness from the fishing industry. They proposed that Sagstad build a 70-foot Viking longship in time for the upcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Sagstad successfully built a wooden-hulled replica based upon a design from another vessel, the Raven, previously made for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Sagstad's boat, christened the Viking, was constructed over a four-month period on the Lake Washington lakefront in Bothell. It sailed across the lake from Kirkland on August 30, 1909, landing on the opposite shore to a welcoming audience of 5,000 attendees celebrating Norway Day.

Over the first decade of his operations, Sagstad constructed many new halibut schooners for the Northwest fishing fleet. Among the first of these vessels were the 42-foot Salish Star and 43-foot Albion, both wooden-hulled cod-fishing schooners launched from the yard in 1912. The sturdy construction of these vessels used clear-grained Douglas fir, oak, teak, and iron bark to make them seaworthy in all kinds of weather. One of these boats, the Dorothy, found later use after its fishing career as an Arctic research vessel for the Field Museum of Chicago and the International Pacific Halibut Commission.  

New Canal, New Location, New Boats

In 1916, as work was being completed on the new Ballard Locks and Lake Washington Ship Canal, Sagstad was forced to relocate his shipyard operations. He moved the business to the foot of 20th Avenue NW on Salmon Bay and renamed it Sagstad Shipyard (The Saga of Sagstad Shipyard, 1). According to daughter-in-law Alice Svenslid Sagstad (1923-2017), the site of the new yard was leased by Sagstad for many years, because the property was too expensive to purchase outright. He finally bought the land in 1936.

Sagstad’s yard continued using traditional boatbuilding methods and laborers to meet the demands of the local fishing industry. Many of those who were employed by the shipyard were from Norway, Denmark, or Finland, and trained as ship carpenters, fine joiners, hull men, riggers, and machinists. Between 1920 and 1941, the shipyard produced an array of salmon seiners, trollers, and combination halibut seiners, with names such as Arcturus, Sterling, Faithful, Ballard Pride, and Salten.

Production kept pace with demand as fishing represented a mainstay of the Ballard economy. One contract awarded in January 1935 called for two, 45-foot seine boats to be ready for delivery the following May to the Nakat Packing Corporation. The shipbuilding pace increased as well. In 1940, six new fishing boats were completed and launched at Sagstad Shipyard.

The entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 marked another surge in growth and ship-building capacity for the Sagstad operation. The shipyard in Ballard underwent modernization to accommodate new government contracts for converting wooden-hulled ships into warships. This included the construction of several buildings for machinist work and as covered spaces, as new boats were made from the hull up.

At its peak production from 1941 to 1945, Sagstad Shipyard employed 275 men. Ships built included 104-foot aircraft rescue boats for the U. S. Army Air Corps; 127-foot Miki Miki-class ocean-going tugboats for the U. S. Army; and 128-foot refrigerated cargo ships for the U. S. Navy. During the wartime period, Margaret Sagstad (wife of Stanley Stagstad) worked in the office "taking care of books and everything" (Alice Sagstad interview).

Military orders for new ships during the war years were so large that Sagstad opened a second shipyard at La Conner, Washington, to meet government demand. This second shipyard was on land leased to Sagstad by the Swinomish Tribe, with 30 of the tribe's members among the yard's 85 employees. Alf Hansen, a Norwegian and originally a ship carpenter, served as the La Conner shipyard's superintendent. Both 88-foot and 204-foot barges were made here for the Army's Transportation Corps, with nine of these delivered in 1944.

On January 12, 1944, port officials held a conference with shipyard representatives from Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Bellingham, and told them to "prepare for several years of heavy ship repairs in all ports on the Pacific Coast" (Calkins). However, the anticipated flood of ships did not materialize. As demand for new ship construction was also curtailed at the war's end, the secondary yard in La Conner ceased operations under Sagstad.

End of an Era: Shipyard Changes Hands

The end of World War II preceded a period of transition at Sagstad Shipyard. At the age of 66, Sivert Sagstad died on November 18, 1946 from a sudden illness. During his boat-building career in Ballard, he designed and constructed more than 31 vessels at his shipyard between 1912 and 1941.

The ownership and management of Sagstad Shipyard went to Sagstad's two sons, Stanley and Howard, both of whom had recently returned from active service in the U. S. Navy. The brothers ran the yard's daily operations until 1948, when Stanley was stricken with a viral brain fever that left him disabled and unable to work the remainder of his life. Two years later, Howard enlisted a new business partner, Odd Johansen, who took a 10 percent ownership stake in Sagstad Shipyard. Johansen, who was a fellow Norwegian immigrant and well known in the Ballard maritime community, helped to manager the yard's operations until 1959.

Other Sagstad family members contributed to the management of the business. Margaret Sagstad became a partner in the shipyard, assuming her husband's role in that regard. This transition period marked a return of the yard to steady shipbuilding contracts beginning in 1951.

The 1950s witnessed Sagstad Shipyard's renewal as a local source for the construction of both new commercial fishing boats and military watercraft. A new fleet of combination halibut seiners was completed between 1951 and 1954, including: Lorelie II, Symphony, Pamela Ray, Shirley, Loui M., and Alma J., and others. Salmon trollers and seiners were in like demand, with seven new boats launched, including: Westwind, Rebel, and Caribou. An order for 25 new gillnetters destined for Bristol Bay, Alaska, was made for the Red Salmon Packing Company.

Productivity at the shipyard was high. During this time, the U. S. Air Force commissioned Sagstad Shipyard to build 21, 63-foot aircraft rescue launches, to be completed by 1956. The following year, another government contract called for building 20, 36-foot minesweeping launches within a year's time span.

Even business involving pleasure boats kept the shipyard busy with new orders. The 21-foot sailing yacht known as Sea Breeze was launched in 1956. As the Sagstad family was to soon learn, the role of pleasure boating on Puget Sound would soon take a prominent role in the operations of Sagstad Shipyard and its future in Ballard.

A Shift in Maritime Operations

In 1959, the Sagstad family under Howard Sagstad's direction had the property rebuilt into a marina. The yard would no longer serve as a site for only boat construction and servicing; as part of its new operations, several of the World War II-era buildings were torn down and replaced with a vertical lift dry-dock, a new crane for hauling out small boats, machine and electrical shops, a marine store, and a complete gas-fueling dock. The new Sagstad Marina held its grand opening on May 21-22, 1960. 

The next three decades included selective building operations continuing at Sagstad Shipyard and Marina. The majority of these were fishing vessels. A year after the site was reopened for business, the yard began work on a new series of 34-foot beach seiners for the San Juan Fishing Fleet (e.g. Linda Lee, Rebel, and Solveig). Another 12 new boats that were slightly longer, 38-foot beach seiners, were commissioned by Pacific American Fisheries, with names such as Swedonia, Point Helm, and Moss Cape.

The 1960s marked the last major shipbuilding period for Sagstad Shipyard, as the yard produced a mixture of research vessels, new seiners, and pleasure boats. The 38-foot Malka was completed in 1963 for the University of Washington, as a research vessel used for testing salmon in Western Alaska during the summer. The vessel also saw service with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during the winter months, in the collecting and analysis of bottom fish and crustaceans in Puget Sound.

In 1965, two of the yard’s largest fishing boats were completed: the 54-foot seiners Lovely Joann and Cold Stream. The shipbuilding market had changed dramatically by this time, as demand for commercial and pleasure boats made of aluminum, fiberglass, and stainless steel had replaced traditional wood-hulled vessels. Over its lifetime, Sagstad Shipyard (and its secondary site in La Conner) was responsible for the design and construction of more than 300 fishing vessels, tugboats, and military rescue boats. One of the last fishing vessels constructed by Sagstad Shipyard and Marina was the Merle Elaine, a 39-footer launched in 1967.

In 1994, the Sagstad family sold the property and business interest in their namesake company to Al Feige. The transfer signified the end of the company as an active shipyard. Since then, it has continued to offer yacht docks, slips, and moorings for short- and long-term rental for boaters, as well as services as a repair and maintenance facility for vessels at Sagstad Marina's 1916 site, located at 5109 Shilshole Avenue NW in Seattle.


Sources:

Olaf Kvamme, "Viking Ship of Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition," Nordic Heritage Museum Historical Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2009): 4-24; Margaret L. Sagstad, The Saga of Sagstad Shipyard, scrapbook, 1996 (Catalog no. 1996.153.001, Special Collections Archives, Nordic Museum, Seattle, Washington); Lynn Moen, ed., "Alice Svenslid Sagstad," oral history interview, Voices of Ballard: Immigrant Stories from the Vanishing Generation (Seattle: Nordic Heritage Museum, 2001): 101-103; R.H. Calkins, ed., "Marine News -- Yards Prepare for War Repair," The Seattle Times, January 12, 1944, p. 13; The Seattle Times, January 31, 1935, p. 25; "For Sale: Miscellaneous," Ibid., July 1, 1906, p. 24; Howard Droker, "Fishermen of Four Cultures," Ibid. (Magazine section), June 22, 1980, p. 7; Fred Poyner IV, Seattle Public Sculptors: Twelve Makers of Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1909-1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017); Washington Posten, February 7, 1909, p. 4; "The Viking Ship Proposition," Bothell Sentinel, March 6, 1909, p. 1; "Sagstad Shipyards, Seattle WA," Shipbuilding History.com website, accessed April 2, 2019 (shipbuildinghistory.com/shipyards/small/sagstad.htm); "Sagstad Boatyard," blueprint, n.d. (Sagstad Boatyard file, Puget Sound Maritime Collection, Seattle, Washington); "Swinomish Tribe in WW II," Saltwater People Historical Society website, accessed on April 3, 2019 (saltwaterpeoplehistoricalsociety.blogspot.com/2015/05/).


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