Coming up on the centennial of World War One, Camp Lewis and the way it was funded by local citizens sorta steals the show but there was another almost unbelievable episode that ties Tacoma to the Great War in Europe. Since most of the heavy metal thrown into the conflict was used for armor, tanks and munitions the shipyards of the world ground almost to a halt. By 1917, even the secret submarine yards of the Germans were crippled by the shortage of steel as a generation of young men on both sides of the conflict were lost to the grinder of a mechanized war. The new fighting in the skies was being kept aloft by wire, linen and spruce sticks. The feared armadas of iron clad dreadnoughts were battered, blunt and pointless by the time America joined the allies. The state of navel warfare in Europe was perfectly illustrated by the French government’s staggering order for 20 five masted, 280 foot steam auxiliary transports(the largest warships at the Battle of Trafalgar, often called the greatest sea battle of wooden ships, were only 200 feet in length). The order went to the FOUNDATION Shipyards which would build the vessels on their 50 acre site at the port of Tacoma Washington. The fleet was built entirely of Douglas Fir and once the commission was in full build, the enterprise was considered the largest shipyard operating anywhere in the world. At one point ten 3300 ton ships were being built at one time side by side.
Only the trial vessel ever reached Europe. Though the hulls were fitted with engines and finished except for the masts, the war to end all wars ended in November of 1918. The ships never left Puget Sound and the fees were never fully paid to the shipyard. The legendary FOUNDATION yards disappeared in the early 1920’s and the curious French fleet drifted to Lake Union and then finally back to south sound in 1926. At midnight on June 11th, 13 of the last ships were tied up at the mouth of Minter Creek on Henderson Bay and a crew of scuttle hands torched the kerosene soaked decks. Days later, when the bones had cooled, the scavengers salvaged what iron and brass they could and left the rest. Ruins of the great French Fleet, built entirely in Tacoma.

Written by tacomahistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

3 comments

  1. What a great piece of history! Has anyone managed to locate any surviving elements of the burned wreckage in Henderson Bay?

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    1. Hi Shawn,
      So I’ve had students and people at my programs tell me about beachcombing about remnants of the ships and you can see the outline on Goggle earth but I’ve never been there myself. Pretty well known to the local folks on the bay and some metal scraps are in homes and collections.

      Liked by 1 person

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