MEYDENBAUER BAY–In the decades between the world wars, seven steam-powered boats, their high bows weighted with harpoon cannon, rode out winters tied two and three deep to a lonely wooden pier that reached into Meydenbauer Bay.
No one could have known it at the time, but Bellevue’s quiet, crook-fingered bay on Lake Washington was where the nation’s long tradition of whaling would come to an end.
For much of the 1920s and ’30s, this alcove was home and headquarters for American Pacific Whaling and a family that for a time dominated commercial whaling in the Pacific Northwest.
By the time the company folded in the 1940s, Bellevue was one of the last active whaling ports in the United States.
Of steam and noise and whales
Few people are left who can recall the steam and the noise and the weather-worn men converging on Bellevue’s waterfront each year when the small fleet of whaling boats prepared to leave for a season of harpooning blue, sperm and humpback whales in Alaska.
What remains today of the company’s pier and warehouse now belongs to the city. Bellevue bought them last month as part of the Meydenbauer Bay Marina, which eventually will become a park.
It seems certain the city will dedicate at least a portion of the marina to recall Bellevue’s days of whaling.
Whether it warrants much more is a matter of debate. The company’s reach stretched across the icy waters of the North Pacific but left a relatively small mark on the city.
Except for a few hectic days in spring and fall – when the fleet was readied for another season, and again when it returned rusted and worn – the boats were more of a quiet curiosity than anything else.
Only a few people worked year-round for the company. The sailors, the gunmen, the flensers (who stripped the blubber), the cook, the oilmen and the other 150 or so whalers and workers mostly vanished for the winter, many of them to bars on Seattle’s Skid Road.
Still, William Schupp and his seven boats were about the biggest thing going in Bellevue when his company moved its headquarters to Meydenbauer Bay in 1919.
Locks made it possible
Schupp was a Michigan native who had made a fortune in the insurance industry before he began building a whaling empire with the purchase of American Pacific Whaling in 1915.
It was a search for a freshwater winter port for his steel-hulled fleet that brought him to Bellevue, which then was little more than a few hundred people, farms and a couple of stores along Main Street.
The newly built Ballard Locks in Seattle had opened Lake Washington to the sea, and Meydenbauer Bay was perhaps the most protected spot on the water. Kirkland’s shipyards – where the boats would be hauled out each spring for repairs – lay just a few miles north.
Bellevue was never a place where the hundreds of whales slaughtered each year were hauled from the water, stripped of their blubber and meat, then rendered into oils, food and fertilizer. That task was saved for the company’s two whaling stations at Port Hobron and Akutan in Alaska, places you could smell long before you could see them.
But in March, the wooded hillsides of Meydenbauer Bay would begin to echo with the sounds of ships being made ready for the season’s hunt. Chipping hammers rang as paint and rust were stripped from the topsides. There was the smell of hot tar as the men slathered it on the lines and rigging and decks.
By mid-May, after the boats had returned from being overhauled in Kirkland, they were loaded heavy with supplies, food, harpoons, exploding tips, and fathoms and fathoms of sturdy manila rope.
Some motley crews
Then the crews would begin to arrive. Most of the men were immigrants, many of them from Norway. A lot looked like they had just come off a three-month drunk or three months in jail. Some looked as if they’d done both.
But all the men were ready to spend the next five months on a boat or a desolate island, with no radio, no entertainment, little to do and less to read.
Good jobs were difficult to come by, especially during the Depression. And whaling paid at least $30 to $40 a month, food and lodging included.
On sailing day, the boilers would be lit, and steam that drove the boats’ engines would begin to build. And when it was time, the men climbed aboard and the boats peeled away from the dock for the weeklong trip to Alaska.
“Getting under way was a time of smoke, steam, tearful farewells and . . . great excitement,” recalled William Lagen, who, as Schupp’s grandson, grew up around the whaling fleet in the family home above the pier.
The end of the hunt
But that excitement waned in the 1930s. The fevered hunt for whales began to take its toll. The catch numbers fell. So did the demand for whale products as the world’s economy slumped.
It was the war with Japan that finally put an end to American Pacific Whaling’s work. The Navy halted whaling in Alaska, and the boats were refitted for military patrols.
Schupp tried to revive the business after the war, but he died unexpectedly in 1948.
The pier – no longer alone on the bay – changed with the times.
Bellevue in the 1950s began to bloom as a haven for middle-class families seeking a home in the suburbs. Soon William Lagen turned his grandfather’s dock into a marina.
Pleasure boats replaced whaling boats, and the city moved on to different pursuits.
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