Tacoma’s historical boat builders

An article in our local newspaper got me thinking about the number of boat builders who have been in business in Tacoma. Of those who existed when I started work in the mid ’70’s only one still exists, J.M. Martinac, the others have been bought up or gone by the wayside due to changes in the economic climate.

So back to the article. It talks about the Western Flyer, the boat John Steinbeck used when exploring the Sea of Cortez. It was built by the Western Boat Company which had long ceased business by 1975 although I believe their facility was operating under a different name. Western Boat along with Tacoma Boat, Martinolich and many others built good, stout commercial fishing vessels for use in the North Pacific. Their era was one of wood and strong men to move the planks around, drill holes and screw in screws by hand.

I started my career working for Tacoma Marine Supply which was a supplier to most of these builders. It was amazing the barrels of screws they still had in inventory, most made from silicon bronze, from that earlier era. Most were Reed & Prince head ¬†which is similar to a Phillips head but the slots are straight, not curved. This allowed for installation without stripping the head which was really important when you were installing thousands per boat. Also lying around were planks of exotic wood, not little pieces but lengths that must have been over 20′ and probably 12″ in width. When the Tacoma Marine Supply building was torn down in the early 1980’s, the salvage company made out quite nicely with what they found.

By time I started work companies like Fairliner Boats had ceased business. They were one of the pioneers in building plywood cabin cruisers for the recreational market. Cruising around Puget Sound you still see plenty of their product still keeping families happy on the water. Fiberglass, steel and aluminum were the new materials of choice and companies like Martinac were using them to build Tuna Seiners for the Western Pacific of crab boats for the Bering Sea. Changes in the tax codes helped bring an end to this era, it was no longer easy to get ones money out of the commercial fishing industry without paying large tax penalties so all of the rich folks who were investing in the industry (but not operating the boats) took their funds elsewhere.

Tacoma now has a few boat builders but they have had to specialize. Companies like Martinac are building tugs and others like Nordlund Boat, custom yachts. You can still see the tradition of the wooden boat era when you look at the interior workmanship these companies provide. The wood work is gorgeous and the workers (I had trouble not saying workmen) are very proud of the product they are producing. I hope that these companies, some of which are on their third generation of family ownership, are able to prosper and keep Tacoma’s boat building history alive.

Rollie Herman

Rollie Herman

Working in the marine industry since 1971, president of Westpac Marine since 1984.
Past president of the United States Marine Safety Association and retired sailor
Rollie Herman

Published by

Rollie Herman

Working in the marine industry since 1971, president of Westpac Marine since 1984. Past president of the United States Marine Safety Association and retired sailor

3 thoughts on “Tacoma’s historical boat builders”

  1. I like you article about Tacoma boat building history. I purchased a mahogany boat from a gentleman this simmer. He tells me it’s a Tacoma boat. In fact that is what the registration says. It is a 14ft. Mahogany boat that was built in 1947 and is designed for an outboard motor. It has (what I call) the “tear drop” glass windows. The steering wheel is on the left side of the front cockpit. I do not find any plates or identifying marks on the boat. I can send pictures if you wish. I googled Tacoma boats but it looks like they built ships not the little runabouts like the one I have. I live in Minnesota. Any information you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
    David Sperling (Big Lake, MN)
    Home phone: (763) 263-5757

    1. You are correct, Tacoma Boatbuilding constructed larger fishing boats and military vessels. Tacoma used to have a boat builder in every back lot working on everything from rowing dinghy’s to steel crab boats. My background is based with the larger vessel builders and it only started in the early 70’s. If you are not in a hurry, send some pictures and I will show them around at the Seattle Boat Show which is in late January. There are still a few guys around who were selling to the builders in the 50’s and they usually stop by to visit the show. It would also be helpful to know the construction of your boat. Is it mahogany plywood or planks?

      1. The boat is of mahogany plywood construction. I had to go out and look at it because the plywood is mounted to the hull in strips like how you would expect planks to be installed. The front nose of the boat looks like it’s constructed of solid oak.
        I have to confess, I’m not very computer savvy. I don’t know how to attach a photo to this email. I have several photos I can email you. Is there an email address you can give me? I really would love to send the photos. I really have no other way of getting information about the boat I have. I really appreciate your help.
        David Sperling (Big Lake, MN)
        Email: dsperling@sherbtel.net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *