Pier 54 was built in 1900 and was initially the home of Galbraith Bacon and Company, a wholesale dealer in feed and construction materials. It also served the local "mosquito fleet" of steamers that traversed the sound, and it berthed larger steamers that traveled as far as Alaska. Shipping and steamer traffic began to decline in the 1920s, but this was replaced by Gorst Air Transport in 1929, which offered hourly flights from the pier in a seaplane to Bremerton (as well as sightseeing trips and charter flights to Alaska) until the mid-1930s. A few years later, Ivar Haglund (1905-1985) arrived at the pier. He operated an aquarium there until 1956, but he is far better remembered for his restaurant, Acres of Clams, which opened on the pier in 1946 and is still in operation today.
Before Pier 54
It didn't take long for piers to appear on Seattle's waterfront after the first non-Native settlers arrived in the early 1850s. Henry Yesler (1810-1892) built one for his sawmill in 1853, and other piers followed to the north and the south. With no regulations to contend with, owners built as they saw fit. Warehouses and other buildings erected atop the piers and on nearby pilings followed, and in the 1870s and 1880s the railroads arrived. But it all went up in smoke on June 6, 1889, when the Great Fire struck Seattle and destroyed much of the business district and the waterfront, including the future site of Pier 54. Both the city and the waterfront quickly rebuilt.
Among the entrepreneurs who came to Seattle to take advantage of the opportunities that resulted from the fire was James Galbraith (1849-1916). Galbraith first arrived in Fairhaven (later part of Bellingham) in 1890 and operated a hay, grain, and feed store there for a year before relocating to Seattle. He opened a similar business with a partner, Thomas Riley, on Colman Dock; after Riley died, Galbraith changed the name of the business to the Galbraith Grain Company. By 1896, one of Seattle's docks (located just south of Yesler's Wharf) bore his name. He would be a prominent participant in the growth of the waterfront in the ensuing years.
The new construction was an improvement over what had burned, but it was still haphazard and inefficient. An 1898 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer explains that a new dock built adjacent to Yesler's was constructed at such an angle that "there is not room for a rowboat to squeeze between at the point where the two wharves meet out in the bay ... It renders the south side of Yesler Wharf absolutely useless" ("The War ...") and details its effects on steamer traffic docking at the pier. At the same time, more supply companies were moving to the waterfront and traffic was increasing, resulting in more congestion throughout the area. These developments forced the city to act.
An 1895 survey by the state Harbor Lines Commission established inner and outer harbor lines along the waterfront, providing a basis for the state to assert its rights to property that had previously been claimed by settlers. Following the Harbor Lines Commission's outline, City Engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949) developed a more efficient plan for the central waterfront two years later. Thomson's plan called for new piers to be built and for them to be aligned at the same angle, preventing a recurrence of the crowding at the ends of the piers. In addition, building them at an angle instead of straight into the bay enabled them to remain in shallow water for a longer distance. This made it easier for boat traffic and permitted the construction of larger storage sheds on the docks.
Pier 3: Galbraith Dock
Construction of the new central waterfront began in 1900 and was largely completed within two years. Pier 3 – which later was renamed Pier 54 – was finished early compared to some of its neighbors. Galbraith wasted no time leasing it from Northern Pacific Railway, and he and his partner Cecil Bacon were in operation there by October 1900. The men ran a wholesale hay, grain, plaster, and concrete business under the name Galbraith Bacon and Company, and it was a big store: Some historians have described it as the Costco of its day.
Commonly known as the Galbraith Dock, the pier was located between the western ends of Madison and Spring streets, and of the 18 new piers built between 1900 and 1902 as part of the waterfront project, it was one of the more medium-sized docks. A 1902 Seattle Times article gives its statistics as 120 feet wide by 317 feet long, with a 32-foot tall, two-story warehouse measuring 80 by 300 feet and with a capacity of 9,300 tons. In its earliest years it served not only as a freight depot but also as a destination for the mosquito fleet of steamers that traveled the towns and villages along Washington's waterways. In its first year, the pier served steamers such as the Inland Flyer and Albion on the Port Orchard route, and later in 1901 it was the pier of choice for the craft S.S. Elihu Thompson, which provided service to towns in the Alaska Territory in rooms that were "thoroughly renovated, [with] steam heat in all staterooms" ("For Valdez").
By 1910 Galbraith had moved his operations north to Pier 12, though Pier 3 continued to be known by his name until the 1930s. The pier did a brisk business during the 1910s, serving the mosquito fleet with steamers like the Nisqually and the Bremerton, which provided service to, respectively, Olympia and Bremerton. It continued to serve Alaska-bound traffic too – in 1918 the Alaska Steamship Company had three Alaska-bound steamers serving Pier 3, one which traveled as far west as Seward. But increasing automobile traffic in an already-congested waterfront area as well as the ongoing struggle in maintaining the pilings that supported many of the pier's structures were harbingers of change as the 1920s began.
Over the next 10 years there were significant changes on the city's waterfront. The Port of Seattle was rapidly developing additional harbor facilities, but not on the central waterfront where Pier 3 was located. One example is Fisherman's Terminal near Ballard, which opened in 1914. Other docks followed at Smith Cove north of downtown, and in the East Waterway on the Duwamish River. These were easier for ships, especially larger ships, to reach than Pier 3. At the same time, local steamer traffic began to decline as automobile and bus traffic travel became more common.
Airplane traffic also increased during the 1920s, and this had a unique impact on Pier 3. In 1929, Gorst Air Transport began offering hourly service (in good weather) between Seattle and Bremerton in its "air ferry" that departed from the pier. Crowds lined Pier 3 on Saturday, June 15, to take the nine-minute flight from Seattle to Bremerton. There were probably as many pleasure seekers as business travelers, and for many it was their first flight. Passengers flew on an eight-passenger Loening seaplane. "It has a closed cabin and is fast," bragged The Seattle Times ("Bremerton Air Taxi"). The $2.50 one-way fare (about $45 in 2023) didn't deter many – the paper later reported that 900 passengers flew during the first week of service. By the summer of 1933 approximately 75,000 travelers had flown the route, and more had flown on sightseeing trips and charter flights to Alaska provided by Gorst.
The company moved its operations to Pier B in 1934, but it was only a few years before Gorst was replaced with a longer-lasting, and attention-attracting, presence on Pier 3: Ivar Haglund (1905-1985). Haglund was pursuing a career as a folksinger when he happened upon the idea of opening an aquarium on the pier in 1938. By this time a new and improved thoroughfare along the waterfront, Alaskan Way, had replaced Railroad Avenue (which had been built on pilings that were continually rotting), making access easier for visitors. As he was more than once during his life, Ivar Haglund was in the right place at the right time.
The aquarium was located in the northeast corner of the pier structure. It wasn't Seattle's first aquarium, but it may have gotten the most attention thanks to Haglund's creative, and frequent, promotions. His most well-known tenant was Pat the Seal, and he included the animal in his publicity stunts; for Christmas 1940 he took him for a visit to Santa Claus in a downtown department store. Two months later he hoisted the aquarium's resident octopus, Marmaduke, onto his shoulders and took him for a stroll along the waterfront. Stocked with local Puget Sound marine life, the aquarium was both entertaining and educational, and was especially popular in its early years. It closed in 1956.
As the docks were built along Seattle's waterfront in the early twentieth century, they were assigned a hodge-podge of designations – some were numbered, some were lettered, some were street names, and some were company names. Many of them were known by two different names, such as Pier 3 and Galbraith Dock. When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, military officials and others realized how confusing the various names were and created more uniform designations. This led to Seattle's piers being renamed in 1944, and Pier 3 became Pier 54.
A resurgence of shipping activity on Seattle's waterfront during World War II proved to be temporary. After the war ended in 1945, more operations moved away from the central waterfront and north or south on Elliott Bay to larger facilities where there was easier access and more room for expansion. By the 1960s, the waterfront's shipping operations had decreased to the point that city planners began looking for ways to redevelop the area. The Graham Plan (named after its author), presented in 1965, called for a substantial renovation of the central waterfront and new construction, which would then be developed for entertainment and restaurants. Though only part of the plan was funded, Haglund was once again in the right place at the right time.
Haglund had opened his Acres of Clams restaurant on Pier 54 in 1946, across from his aquarium in the southeast corner of the pier structure. Unlike the aquarium, which he seems to have opened almost on a lark, the restaurant was the result of long thought. He supported a partner in running a small fish-and-chips counter near the entrance to the aquarium when he first opened, but this enterprise lasted only a year. The restaurant enjoyed far more longevity, and it's still in business in 2023. From a humble eatery that originally contained fish nets, ship's wheels, and ash trays made from shells – "a little shabby but sincere" (Dorpat) in Haglund's words – the restaurant has grown into a more-sophisticated (and pricier) Seattle destination.
When he learned that the city planned to redevelop the waterfront, Haglund bought Pier 54 in June 1966. The seller was the Waterfront Fish and Oyster Company, a long-established seafood company that had shared the dock with him since 1940, and Haglund paid $500,000, approximately $4.65 million in 2023 dollars. He explained to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter that "my identification of past development of the area's tourist-attracting value and in shaping the future of it caused me to purchase the pier" ("Ivar Buys Pier 54 ..."). Presumably, he also bought it so he could control the future of his beloved eatery. This was a prescient move, because a year or two later he turned down an offer from the Port of Seattle to purchase the pier as part of planned development for a proposed trade center.
Though Waterfront Park opened along the central waterfront (and to its north) in 1974, further development during the 1970s was slowed by a lack of significant funding, zoning restrictions, and accessibility problems caused by the existing traffic infrastructure, particularly the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Subsequent revisions in zoning laws allowed additional redevelopment projects of existing buildings along the waterfront to move ahead in the early 1980s. Redevelopment was further aided by the Harborfront Public Improvement Plan, adopted by the Seattle City Council in 1988, which called for a waterfront organized into use zones, with the central zone (Piers 54 to 57) slated to feature retail stores and restaurants. Though voters rejected a levy to fund the project that autumn, the city nevertheless moved forward with further redevelopment in other areas of the waterfront, but not on Pier 54, in part because of a desire to keep the historic character of the pier.
Change nevertheless came to Pier 54 when Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, a popular collectibles shop, moved there in 1988. A Seattle institution since 1899, the shop once offered curiosities such as shrunken heads, Native trinkets, totem poles, tiger skins, and armadillo-shell sewing baskets. The shop has attracted an array of customers over the years, from the professional collector to the looky-loo, and while many of the store's offerings now are more banal (t-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs), the store remains a must-see attraction for tourists, and some locals, visiting Pier 54 today.
Haglund died in 1985, but title to the pier remained with his business until 2017, when it was sold for $39.5 million to A. F. Gilmore, a Los Angeles-based real estate company. Bob Donegan, president of Ivar's Corporation, told a Seattle Times reporter that Ivar's had picked Gilmore over six other candidates because of its customer-service experience and because it's "not a short-term investment property flipper" ("Pier 54 Property ..."). To underscore the point, Ivar's signed a 29-year lease to remain in its location. The restaurant carries on at the pier today, along with a smaller Ivar's seafood bar, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, and a handful of other businesses.