Pier 4 collapses into Elliott Bay in Seattle on September 14, 1901.

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 7/17/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22708
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On September 14, 1901, Pier 4, commonly known as the White Star Dock, collapses into Elliott Bay on Seattle's central waterfront. The calamity occurs at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, and there are no fatalities, though two dock workers must run for their lives to reach the safety of Railroad Avenue. Investigators will conclude that the collapse was caused by faulty construction, and the pier – known today as Pier 55 – will be rebuilt within months. 

Falling Down

Things have been falling into Elliott Bay ever since Henry Yesler (1810?-1892) built Seattle's first pier in 1854. A wharf built by Charles Plummer, one of Yesler's business rivals, tumbled into the water in the early 1860s after toredos, a wood-eating worm, ate through its pilings. Gale-force winds uprooted six cattle cars and a caboose and blew them into Puget Sound in 1882; part of the Central Pier fell into the bay in 1887; and Yesler's own wharf was imploded by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Most famously, the clock tower at Colman Dock crashed into the water after the steamship Alameda rammed the dock in April 1912. "The stately tower sheared off, fell onto the Alameda, and then into Puget Sound. The clock drifted off into the darkness. It was recovered the next day with its hands stopped at 10:23, the exact time of the accident" (Stein).

The collapse of the White Star Dock was similarly dramatic, but with fewer eyewitnesses. It was a quiet Sunday morning, and only two workers – Fred Allen, manager of the dock, and George Thornton, chief wharfinger – were on the pier when it began to wobble. Reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"Allen and Thornton were at the extreme west end of the wharf. They felt a slight swaying of the structure, followed instantly by an almost imperceptible sinking of the pier. Both ran for dear life. Allen kept within the warehouse inclosure while his companion sprinted along the edge or projection of the pier beyond the south wall or side of the warehouse. Both gained the street – Railroad Avenue. They had to run nearly the full length of the dock, 345 feet. Their feet had hardly cleared the wharf proper when the mammoth structure went down" ("Drops Suddenly ..."). 

The White Star Dock

Thanks in large part to the Klondike Gold Rush and a stampede of prospectors to Nome, Alaska, the White Star Dock was busy from the day it opened in the fall of 1900. Built by the Northern Pacific Railroad and leased by partners Frank A. Bell and Sol G. Simpson (1844-1906), the pier was a terminus for shipping and transportation lines. Bell, previously a steamship sales agent and an upward climber in Seattle society, managed the Seattle Steamship Company from offices on the pier. Simpson, a Mason County timber baron, was the financial muscle behind their partnership. Soon business was so good that Bell felt secure in leaving pier operations to his underlings while he and his ailing wife traveled to the Midwest for an extended vacation. They left Seattle in early September 1901.

On September 13, the day before the collapse, the German ship Adolph, recently arrived from Antwerp, finished discharging its cargo of 1,750 tons of cement onto the White Star Dock. That evening the SS Humboldt sailed for Alaska from the pier with a full cargo of freight and 43 passengers. Among them was Nina Moore of San Francisco, "whose experiences in going to the Klondike nine months ago to wed Capt. Bledsoe, a well-known Yukon pilot, only to find that he had transferred his affections to another, were widely published in the North and the states. Miss Moore is returning to Dawson to resume her position as matron of the Northwest mounted police" ("Alaskan Steamers Sail"). Several hours after the Humboldt sailed, the Adolph departed for Tacoma on the morning of September 14, leaving the White Star Dock unusually quiet as the clock struck 9:30 a.m. "The crash came without warning," reported the Post-Intelligencer, "and the fact that those on the dock got off without personal injury seems almost miraculous. Ordinarily there are scores of people on and about the White Star, one of the best patronized docks of the entire water front" ("Drops Suddenly ...").  

Assessing the Damage

A quick accounting of the collapse fixed the total loss at $80,000 -- $25,000 for the cement now on the bottom of Elliott Bay, $4,000 for 800 tons of hay, $1,000 for five tons of general merchandise, and $50,000 for the pier itself. Also carried into the bay were "all the books, records, safes and office effects of F. A. Bell & Co., lessees of the property" ("Drops Suddenly ..."). Escaping damage were two Alaska steamers tied to the dock, the SS John S. Kimball and the SS Mary D. Hume. "They were scarcely moved by the collapse and their lines remained intact. The Kimball is still alongside with her lines extending out to the wreckage" ("Drops Suddenly ..."). 

Investigators quickly zeroed in on faulty construction as the cause of the collapse, as reported the following day in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"The theory most generally accepted as to the cause of the collapse is that the piling had practically no sway bracing. The piles used were from eighty to 100 feet in length. They stood high above the water, especially at low tide, as happened at the time the crash came. With inadequate bracing, the supporters of this theory say, the piles began to sway back and forth and the weight on them finally pitched westward. Scores of them snapped and broke, while others were bent, twisted and pulled from their holes. The great weight went down and down until it struck bottom, burying beneath the surface of the water a greater portion of the wharf structure as well as the contents of the warehouse" ("Drops Suddenly ..."). 

Quickly Rebuilt

Two days after the collapse, workers began dismantling the wreckage, and several days later the Northern Pacific announced plans to rebuild the pier. A Northern Pacific official "said the first work will be to get the site cleared and the debris towed out of the harbor and dumped ... Men are working at every point of the wreck cutting, sawing and pulling to pieces. A floating pile driver has been provided for pulling out the mass of piles. The unbroken parts of the roof are being sawed asunder so they can be handled" ("Wrecking Started"). 

In late October the Great Northern announced it would build another new pier on the waterfront, increasing its total to five. The new Pier 2, to replace the old Yesler's Wharf buildings at the foot of Yesler Way, was to be built with the best pilings available "and rendered toredo proof by the latest and most approved process. There will be no repetition of the White Star dock disaster. The new wharf will be provided with sway braces in plenty, and strengthened with brace piles wherever advisable" ("For a Fifth Large Dock"). 

To ensure the safety and longevity of Piers 3, 4, and 5, the railroad received permits from the City of Seattle to build a seawall around the wharves and to fill in the area inside the seawall. Reported the Post-Intelligencer:

"The plan of the railroad for filling in the front will be an elaborate one and very expensive. In general it comprehends a sloping bulkhead or seawall of stone work around the outer edge of the space to be filled. This seawall will rise from the bottom of the sea to about half the depth of the water at high tide. Within the area formed by this line of bulkheading will be the general fill of earth, stone and brush upon which the docks will rest ... it will lessen the depth of water by one-half and will effectually remove the danger such as menaced and finally destroyed the White Star dock" ("Will Rebuild ...").

When completed, the seawall measured about 800 feet by 400 feet and contained some 200,000 cubic yards of fill. 

The New Pier 4

The new Pier 4 was completed in May 1902. F. A. Bell retained the lease and continued to manage the pier, though his business partnership with Sol Simpson had dissolved in a hail of lawsuits and recriminations over money. Bell resigned in 1903 and management of the pier passed to the Arlington Dock Company, which was based on Pier 5 and needed more room for its growing operation. Pier 4 would remain a busy shipping terminus for another decade or so before most of Seattle's shipping activity moved either north to Smith Cove or south to less-crowded piers in the East Waterway. Pier 4 still stands, now known as Pier 55, though it has been much modified. A 1945 project shortened the pier by 120 feet, and another major remodel was undertaken in 1983. Today Pier 55 is a tourist destination and home to the Argosy Cruise line.


"Alaska Steamers Sail," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 14, 1901, p. 6; "Drops Suddenly Into Bay," Ibid., September 15, 1901, p. 12; "Dock Wreck Causes Suit," Ibid., October 17, 1901, p. 5; "For a Fifth Large Dock," Ibid., October 27, 1901, p. 12; "Work on White Star Dock," Ibid., November 15, 1901, p. 7; "Plans to Fill in Under Wharves," Ibid., November 27, 1901, p. 6; "Three More New Docks," Ibid., April 21, 1902, p. 14; "White Star Dock Work," Ibid., February 7, 1902, p. 7; "Wrecking Started," The Seattle Times, September 17, 1901, p. 3; "Will Rebuild the White Star," Ibid., November 27, 1901, p. 7.

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