Launching History

Time was that the best hand made wood fishing boats on the Pacific Coast were crafted in Tacoma. All the boatyards traced the voyages of their work, Martinac’s many pack ice exploring salmon trawlers, the tuna clippers from Tacoma Boat Building and perhaps most legendary of all the purse seiners of Western Boat Company. And among the storied fishing boats, none can match the celebrity and eventfulness of the Western Flyer launched under the Morgan Bridge from the ways of Martin Petrich’s Western Boat in 1937.

The Petrich family were co-owners of the Western Flyer when skipper Tony Berry took her to the sardine fisheries off Monterey California and it was there in the off season of spring 1940, that John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts chartered vessel. In late March, the stern of the Western Flyer from Tacoma, sailed out of view headed for the Sea of Cortez and a timeless role in American literature and culture.

The book Steinbeck wrote about that voyage, laced with Rickett’s early theory of an interconnected natural world has become a classic of nonfiction narrative. The Nobel prize winning author’s clear fact based storytelling was a perfect voice for Ed Rickett’s still radical ideas about the then largely undiscovered science of ecology. Steinbeck’s The Log of the Sea of Cortez has been compared with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in terms of building an awareness of the world around us and the responsibility we have to protect it.

Sitting at a navigation desk in the chartroom of the Western Flyer, Steinbeck began his first book following The Grapes of Wrath, and sailing into the Gulf of California he and Ricketts observed the ending of freshwater flow into the sea due to the completion of Hoover Dam. Later the Western Flyer would be used to record the collapse of the Pacific coast sardine fishery in the late 1940’s and then the damage done by overfishing King crab and halibut in Alaska. Sometimes history made in Tacoma sails away for awhile, and sometimes it comes back.

Expect more on both the past and future of this remarkable boat and its unending story. It’s not a quick tell or a short voyage.



john steinbeck boo ya
John Steinbeck



Written by

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.

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