Black Boat

Here’s a story of charred aspiration as a roadside attraction.
For more than a decade Tacoma architect Silas E Nelsen and his son Silas Jr. labored in a shed behind Nelsen’s Center Street office to build an elegant 50 foot cedar hulled sailboat decked in teak with bright brass fittings and the finest stateroom finishes. On April 4 1970 a fire destroyed the shed and left the yacht a blackened, useless symbol of broken dreams and wasted time. In a hollow, Scandinavian jest Nelsen sold the black hull to the owner of the Bayshore Marina, Wes Hatton, for one dollar. He hauled the boat to his Ruston Way business and used its bow to hang a sign advertising the “Bayshore Coffee Shop” and there it sat for years, a striking sculpture with a sad story nobody talked about. By the time the property was purchased by Virgil Hohman and the architect Paul G. Ellingson to design and build The Lobster Shop at 4013 Ruston Way they couldn’t find the owner and knew nothing about the sailboat backstory. When the restaurant was finished in 1981, the black ship was gone and Silas Nelsen was retired and living in Tacoma. He was 87 at the time perhaps Tacoma’s most notable living architect. He passed away in 1987 never really willing to talk about the vessel or its whereabouts. There is no record of a Viking funeral ever occurring in Tacoma.


1 comment

  1. So happy to stumble upon this entry! Have been trying to piece together the fate of this story for years.
    Quick background: In the summer before my senior year (Stadium HS, ’68), I was part of a national student conference that went back to Washington, DC for a week-long gathering. As I had a passionate and abiding interest (as many have before and since) in trying to raise funds to rebuild the condemned sections of the Stadium Bowl, I made appointments to see our (then) local Congressman, Floyd Hicks, and US Senators, Henry Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnusen (who’d been a long-time family friend, having roomed with my uncle at UW law school!). I was armed with blown up photos of turn-of-the century celebrations in the bowl – including Teddy Roosevelt speaking to the crowd (with no microphone) and John Phillip Sousa’s band performing for May Day. My goal was designation of National Historic Landmark status and maybe some federal funding for the rebuild. Just days before I left, I learned that a local architect had years earlier drawn up plans for the full restoration of the horseshoe bleachers – but, of course, nothing had come of them in the intervening years. I reached out to him, and he invited me to come to his office on Center Street.

    He brought out his very detailed blueprints and drawings, spread them out on his conference table, and walked me through every single page. His enthusiasm increased with each page – as did mine – for this vision too long ignored. It should be noted that nobody ever hired him to do this — it was for him a pure labor of love and civic duty.

    About two hours passed, as I shared with him the posters I had and my plan to meet the senators, as we discussed strategies and past efforts.

    Suddenly, he said: “I want to show you something I think you’ll appreciate. Follow me.”

    We walked out of his office, crossed his back lot, and through the door of a huge industrial-sized wooden shed. Inside the shed was this ship! As you’ve described – it was fifty feet long-filling the shed from end to end and (braced) from floor to roof.

    “This is just a little something my son and I have been working on for my retirement. It’ll be ready to launch in about another year or two.” The front end of the shed was rigged to fully open, and he’d already worked out the planned route with the City to haul it down Center Street and to launch in the bay — and explained to me in detail what roads would have to be blocked off, and overhead lines removed to get it to the port.

    It was stunningly beautiful, with, as you’d described, finished teak decking and polished brass fittings. Over the years, I still can tap the surrealistic charge from this Noah’s-like ark juxtaposed in the shadow of Nalley’s Valley! I honestly don’t know how many people knew about this project — but then and now I felt honored to have been shown it.

    I went to D.C., was warmly received by our congressmen, and actually felt that they were sincere in their interest in the Stadium project and historical designation — but, of course, there was, y’know, a war going on, and this was not the time to be looking for funding.

    Away at college, a few years later, my mother sent me a clipping from the Tribune about the fire in the shed — but I was never able to find any follow-up.

    Such an inspiring and sad tale.

    Thanks for bringing this full circle for me.


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