On January 23, 1964, firefighters from the Ballard fire station in Seattle set ablaze the beached hulk of the former USS Bering steamship. After sitting for two decades on the shores of Puget Sound just north of the entrance to the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the engulfing flames herald an end to a vessel with a long history of service. Among its maritime roles, the ship served the Lomen Brothers reindeer herd business in the far north, for which it earned the nickname the "Reindeer Ship."
Ship of several names
The origins of the "Reindeer Ship" trace to its launching under another name, the Annette Rolph, on July 4, 1918, in Fairhaven, California. The ship was a wooden-hulled "tramp" steamship built for the trans-Pacific trade, under the Rolph Navigation and Coal Company. In her later career for Rolph business interests, she worked the coastal trade and mail line between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Callao, Peru.
The Lomen Brothers purchased the vessel in 1930 and renamed her the Arthur J. Baldwin. It underwent a conversion into a refrigerated ship, for service with the Arctic Transport Co. of Nome, Alaska. For the next six years, it earned the nickname the "Reindeer Ship" for its role in bringing supplies such as lumber and gas to northern ports, and shipments of reindeer meat from the Lomen reindeer fields on return southern voyages to Seattle.
The vessel was next called Bering, starting in March 1936 under the Alaska Steamship Co. The ship was put into general service, which included special runs between salmon cannery ports and longer-range voyages through the Arctic Ocean to resupply Point Barrow, Alaska.
The ship's final period of active service began in 1942, when it was briefly designated USS Bering by the War Shipping Administration as part of the maritime supply line to Alaska during World War II. Its service was cut short prematurely, when on its maiden voyage to the North it went aground on a reef near Cape Spencer on December 17, 1943. It was refloated by the crew and returned to Seattle, with the owners reimbursed $100,000 by the federal government for the loss.
In 1944, Tregoing Boat Co. purchased the condemned vessel for $1 and beached her at Shilshole Bay as a breakwater, just north of the entrance to the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The breakwater was envisioned as part of the plan for a new pleasure craft marina. However, funding for the new moorage never materialized and the Bering became irrelevant. To the north of the vessel, a new breakwater was later built by the federal government for protection of the new Shilshole Bay Marina. Meanwhile, the Bering remained a fixture on the shoreline for the next two decades.
An newspaper story about the construction of the Shilshole Bay Marina in 1962 described the Bering and its legacy as a local landmark:
"South of the marina, a gray weathered hulk of a freighter seems to have been beached on the shore. You'll wonder about it. Every sightseer does. You may want to strike off across the mounds of grass and sands to inspect it at close range. At low tide, one can walk all around the ship" (Krenmayr).
In 1964, public debate continued to focus on the ship and its continued presence on the waterfront. Some saw it as an eyesore, while others viewed it as a tangible relic of Seattle's maritime history and connection to the World War I era.
Fate of vessel determined
The arrival of the new Shilshole Bay Marina in the early 1960s was one factor in the public discourse about what to do with the derelict ship. Another was the question about public safety. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that access to the vessel was unrestricted and a liability if left unchecked: "The old ship was an 'attractive nuisance' for boys in search of adventure ... nine years ago a boy was saved from drowning in a rainwater pool in the hold" (Page).
The final straw came when the Ballard Order of Elks purchased the shoreline on which the beached ship was situated. In the first week of January 1964, the City Council Public Safety Committee recommended that the ship be burned in place. The Elks soon coordinated the planned burning event with the city's fire department in Ballard. On Thursday, January 23, 1964, firefighters set fire to the hull of the ship, with curious onlookers watching from the beach. Three days later, the fires were still smoldering among the timbers of the hull's remains, which had burned to the waterline.
As of 2017, remnants of the ship's unburned keel was still visible at extreme low tides, near the end of a series of pilings in front of the Elks lodge.