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The Role of the Mosquito Fleet in the Settlement of the Puget Sound 1890 - 1920

Ian Crozier

Final Research Paper American Urban History

Prof. Manish Chalana

June 9, 2017

“Throughout [the Puget Sound’s] whole vast extent ships move in safety, and find shelter from every wind that blows, the entire mountain-girt sea forming one grand unrivaled harbor and center for commerce.” - John Muir 1888

In the period from 1890 to 1920 steam-powered water transportation networks played a pivotal role in the settlement of the Puget Sound region. These networks were plied by an assortment of vessels that were collectively called the “Mosquito Fleet” for their great number and unrelenting activity. Many types of vessels served the Mosquito Fleet routes; they ranged in length from about 40 to more than 200 feet, included sternwheelers, sidewheelers or propeller driven boats fueled by wood, coal, and later on oil and gasoline (Findlay 2008). These vessels carried freight, passengers and mail between Seattle and other ports and the diverse settlements scattered across the approximately 2,500 miles of coastline in the Puget Sound and connected waterways (Huppert et. al 2009). Their frequent and flexible service allowed the development of a diverse regional economic and social structure in the Puget Sound or rural areas connected with urban centers. By 1890 this complex economy had developed from early mill towns and homesteads focused, respectively, on resource extraction for export and self-sufficiency in the wilderness setting. It transformed again with the proliferation of the automobile and the establishment for the first time of a land-based transportation network in the 1920’s.

The evolution of the way Americans think about wilderness, cities and rural lands was a powerful force shaping how Euro-American settlement unfolded across the west. Early leaders of the independent nation embraced the “Agrarian Ideal”: that a rural population of landowning farmers and their families was essential to the development of independent, morally-rigorous citizens needed for democracy to succeed. This creed was suspicious of industrial cities and the class divisions and dense living conditions that followed them. Industry made inroads in the young USA first in rural settings, where water-powered mills seemed to offer the benefits of mechanized manufacturing in an agrarian setting (Bender 1982, 4, 42). In Toward an Urban Vision, Thomas H. Bender wrote how this process brought about a rapprochement with industrial manufacturing that allowed it to gradually penetrate the American landscape and finally to dominate cities to cities (1982, 43). According to Bender, this process fostered the creation of a tenuous “urban vision” which accommodated rural social patterns within an urban setting (1982).

The Agrarian Ideal reappeared later in the mythology of American exceptionalism, triumphantly epitomized in Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier hypothesis” of 1893, which stipulated that the experience conquering the wilderness of the frontier by farming families forged a unique American culture, distinct from Europe and the Atlantic cities of the east coast (Abbott 1997). This hypothesis was refuted by Wade, who documented how cities had been foremost in the settling of the Ohio Valley in the early years of westward American expansion from 1790-1830. Without these cities, with institutions consciously based on cities of the Atlantic seaboard, the economic infrastructure would not have been in place for later settlement by farmers. William Cronon took this approach further in Nature’s Metropolis in which he described the “elaborate and intimate linkages” between the development of the rural economy of the Great West and the urban economy of Chicago. Cronon documented how advancements in mechanical and economic technology (e.g. the railroad, the grain elevator, the joint stock company, the money-order catalog) transformed the subsistence-based isolated rural economy of the early nineteenth century into the commodity-based, financially leveraged, globally connected rural economy centered on Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century (Cronon 1991).

Finally, the triumph of the capitalist city, choked with coal-smoke, crowded with the working class, with its core dominated by industry, warehousing and retail led to a new revival of the Agrarian Ideal in the creation of the upper-class garden suburb. In Crabgrass Frontier Kenneth Jackson traced the philosophical, economic, and technological roots of American suburbs. In this work Jackson explored how, among many other things, new transportation technology and an evolving concept of the attraction of natural settings in the nineteenth century led residents of cities to seek escape in quieter, more peaceful, and orderly settings (Jackson 1985).

In the Puget Sound the interplay of these themes of rural and urban development was profoundly influenced by the region’s unique geography. Early settlements sprang up around steam-powered sawmills which exported lumber directly to California and other points by ocean-going ships. The same waterways which provided easy access to export markets also provided connections between the various settlements, and before long hierarchical relationships developed between them. As settlement spread and transportation networks improved, self-sufficiency gave way to specialization and commodities for export were sent to Seattle for local sale there or for export to national markets. Transcontinental railroad links brought new migrants, capital, manufactured goods, and markets to the region by way of rail-connected cities. These steam-powered rail and water networks forged an interconnected regional system which enriched and diversified the economy of Seattle. The same water-based transportation networks which brought the goods of the region to the city enabled the urban middle and upper class to pursue its ideals of peaceful, healthful natural settings in waterfront resorts, retreats and summer homes throughout the sound.

Figure 0‑1. Map of Mosquito Fleet ports. Source: author, adapted from Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1908; Kitsap Historical Society 2011; Findlay and Paterson 2008; von Haake 1987.

Figure 0‑2. Map detail.

The steamboat began affecting the relationship between American cities and surrounding country as early as 1814, when Robert Fulton’s steam ferry began operating between Manhattan and New York. In the following decades steam ferry lines proliferated and Brooklyn blossomed as a tranquil alternative to Manhattan. By providing reliable, convenient transportation, steamboats were the first transportation technology of the nineteenth century to expand the limits of the “walking city” beyond the distance the could be traveled on foot in a few hours (Jackson 1985, 25-32). Steamboats also had a profound effect in the American frontier. On the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers the advent of steam technology fundamentally changed the structure of the early western settlements, precipitating the rise of Cincinnati and Louisville and the downfall of Lexington as prosperous centers of settlement and frontier expansion (Wade 1959).

The earliest arrival of the steamboat in the Puget Sound was the Hudson River Company’s Beaver in 1838. Regular steamship service between the territorial capital of Olympia and Victoria was established by 1858 and a handful of steamers also served settlements at Steilacoom, Seattle, Port Townsend, and a few other milltowns (Faber 1985). Importantly, Seattle established the first regularly steam ferry service to small Bainbridge Island ports in 1865. This was the first intra-sound service establishing Seattle as a supplier for other local settlements and established the hierarchical relationship based on that city for local supply (Chasan 1981, 12). As this relationship deepened, an increasing number of steamers and transportation companies were based in Seattle, distinguishing that city as the center of the regional economy where retail, wholesale and service activities flourished (Warren 1986. 44).

The arrival of transcontinental rail created a new structure for movement and trade in the sound. Rail connected cities Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Olympia and Bellingham were a source of new settlers, labor, manufactured goods and machine tools which could easily arrive to the sound to be transferred to small steamers. These steamers plied the waters carrying passengers, freight, and mail between the many settlements on flexible routes and schedules (Warren 1986, 60).

Once the national connection had been established, steamboat travel had several advantages over rail for local travel. Unlike the rail lines, which required enormous capital outlays for construction and operation, steamboats were relatively cheap to build and operate (Chasan 1981). The costs of constructing a steamer could be borne by a merchant of moderate means, or by a syndicate of concerned citizens in a local community. The Flyer, one of the larger and more successful ships in the fleet, cost a mere $4,000 to build (Faber 1985, 137). Moreover, steamboats passed freely over open water, eliminating track construction and maintenance costs, and allowing much greater operational flexibility. Even the simple infrastructure of a dock was not required for steamboat commerce, as many stopped at small floating rafts or were simply approached by rowboat from shore (Chasan 1981, 39). And while steamers consumed massive amounts of wood for fuel (the Flyer burned 3072 cubic feet of wood for a trip from Seattle to Tacoma), this was readily available on shore from the many logging camps and mills (Findlay 2008, 72). The low capital costs led the proliferation of both steamboats and operating companies in the 1880’s, 1890’s and first decade of the twentieth century.

Figure 0‑3. Vaughn, 45 feet. Source: Cindy Haugen in Mosquito Fleet of South Puget Sound

Figure 0‑4. Victor, 59 feet. Source: Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society in Mosquito Fleet of South Puget Sound

Figure 0‑5. Eliza Anderson, 140 feet, provided the first regular service between Olympia and Victoria starting in 1858. Source: Pacific Steamboats.

Figure 0‑6. Flyer, 170 feet. Source: Saltwater People Historical Society.

Figure 0‑7. Tacoma, 221 feet. Mosquito Fleet of South Puget Sound

The mosquito fleet served a range of settlement types, which served different functions within the developing economic structure of the Puget Sound. At the center was the city of Seattle. Seattle’s central place in the Puget Sound economy is hinted at by US Postal routes from 1897. Mail routes were the primary form of communication in the rural Puget Sound, and mail routes were particularly important to the Mosquito Fleet because mail contracts provided dependable fares (Findlay 2008). In 1897 forty-eight post offices in the Puget Sound were serviced by steamers departing from Seattle. Meanwhile twenty-one post offices were served from Tacoma, nineteen (mostly in the San Juan Islands) were served from Bellingham, and five from Olympia. Another thirty-nine on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula were served from the office in Port Townsend, which was in daily communication with Seattle (von Haake, 1897).

Figure 0‑8. Map of 1897 Mail Routes. Source: author, after von Haake, 1897.

In 1908 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer estimated that two thousand passengers arrived or departed from Seattle each day on the Mosquito Fleet and that $15,600,000 worth of cargo annually was shipped from the city to settlements in the Puget Sound via thirty-seven distinct routes (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1908). These boats docked at Pier 3, then known as Galbraith Dock (now Ivar’s), and Pier 4, known as Colman Dock on the downtown waterfront. From there farmers could cart their produce to Pike Place Market, just up the hill (Faber 1985, 134).

Figure 0‑9. Colman Dock circa 1908. Source: Seattle Now and Then

All early Euro-American settlements on the Puget Sound were established around sawmills. The earliest, including Seattle, were set up by capitalists seeking to sell lumber to the boomtown of San Francisco. By 1870 there were 42 mills operating in Washington, most of which were located in the Puget Sound (Warren 1986, 53). These mills were located at the waterfront for easy loading of lumber aboard ships (Chasan 1981, 9). The docks which facilitated loading lumber also provided convenient landings for steamers. Seattle, centrally located in the Sound and among the most prominent of the early settlements, became a supplier for milltowns through regular steamer service beginning in 1865 with routes to the mills on Bainbridge Island (Chasan 1981, 12). Labor, tools, livestock, food, and communication arrived in milltowns like Port Gamble, Port Madison, Port Orchard Port Blakely, Whatcom Creek, Shelton, Seabeck, Port Discovery and Utsalady. These settlements developed simple instruments of the frontier economy: a hotel to accommodate visitors and transient workers, general stores to retail supplies, grocers to sell food, and saloons for rowdy recreation. These businesses would all be located adjacent to the docks (Warren 1986 52; Fredson 1982, 3).

Some milltowns incorporated and became towns, like Sidney (Port Orchard), Whatcom (Bellingham), and Shelton. Others remained company towns, wholly owned by the lumber company, containing a few houses for managers and their families, bunkhouses for workers, a store, a hotel, a galley and a few other buildings all owned by the company to “monopolize whatever money may be spent by the employees” (Puget Sound Business Directory 1872; in Chasan 1981, 9). Though a far-cry from a planned company town like Pullman, Indiana, company mill-towns shared some similar characteristics with suburban company towns in the east. The mill town provided amenities for the worker within short distance of the work site, isolated workers from distractions of the inner city, and allowed the company greater control over the urban environment and workforce. On the other hand, centralized control over living and working environments left workers with only one entity to blame for dissatisfaction (Chudacoff et al. 2010, 117). Labor unrest was increasingly common in the Puget Sound during the early twentieth century. The International Workers of the World (IWW) was strong in the northwest and most popular in among lumbermen (Fredson 1982, 10).

Milltowns served as the permanent seat of settled populations of farmers and middle class businessmen who profited from the mills from supplying loggers. Here, middle-class citizens organized to create civic institutions such as schools, libraries, government buildings and fraternal lodges and churches. Regular steamer service from Seattle or Tacoma also allowed them to serve as supply centers for local farming. Small-scale manufacturing for local consumption occurred as well: in Shelton there was a shoe factory, a cigar factory, and a soda bottling factory (Fredson, 1982, 3). Farmers could travel into town by horse, rowboat, or local service on a steamer for supplies or for transshipment of produce direct to larger markets in the cities. Milltowns also served as the administrative centers for local regions of the Puget Sound, with banks, insurance companies and often county courthouses, increasing the size of the local educated middle class, and strengthening links of control and exchange with surrounding towns and hamlets (Kitsap Museum “Sound People” n.d.).

As logging activity accelerated beachside timber supplies were exhausted, leaving behind denuded land littered with stumps along the shore. This land was cheap, accessible and was eagerly occupied by settlers who established small subsistence farms. (Kitsap Museum, “Sound People.” N.d.) Small hamlets were established along the shore throughout the sound in the late nineteenth century when homesteaders would stake claims near a convenient landing point on the shore. These settlements formed the nuclei which formed into small communities like Olalla on the Kitsap peninsula. At first transportation was limited to rowing or sailing to urban markets (Bradshaw 2012). As steamers began making regular passage they would stop on request at these “row-boat stops” where passengers and freight could be rowed to and from the vessel. In the early days of Olalla items as varied as house-building materials, horses, cow and chicken feed, tools, and orchard trees arrived by streamer (Bradshaw 2012; Dingman 2012; Gunderson 2012). As more settlers arrived roads were cut into the interior from convenient landing points and a simple general store with a post office would be established by the water (Bradshaw 2012; Gunderson 2012). Feeling isolated from markets and opportunities in the city a group of Olalla residents pooled money to form the Olalla Improvement Company and construct a small steamer in 1898 to improve steamboat service to the community. In later years, several steamboats would pass per day (Bowen, 2012, 610-618; Ulsh 2012, 2).

Figure 0‑10. Typical small Mosquito Fleet waterfront in Colby, WA, 1906. Source: Yukon Harbor Historical Society.

Improved steamer service brought more settlers, more services and better community organization. In Olalla a blacksmith, a shingle mill, a school, a hotel, a bakery, a boardinghouse, and a barbershop were present by 1910 (Bowen 2012). Farmers could now more easily market their produce in markets in Seattle and Tacoma; berries and poultry and eggs were the most common cash crops (Peterson 2012; Mallory 2012). An “Olalla Trading Company” was established with a general store, partly funded by the selling of shares to community members. A Berry Growers Association was organized to help berry farmers ship and market their produce and a Wharf Association to pay for the construction of a dock which was finally constructed in 1911 along with wooden sidewalks in the small hamlet (Bowen 2012, 613-616).

As communities improved transportation and communication links, increased in population and gradually accumulated capital they began to specialize in economic production. Food production was the chief area of economic activity after timber and during the Mosquito Fleet period food commodity production began to replace subsistence farming (Chasan 1981, 10). Silverdale became the “capital” of poultry and egg production, with the establishment of the first agricultural co-op in the state. Poulsbo became a major port for fishing and canneries were established in Everett, Anacortes, Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Bellingham, and Friday Harbor, producing tens of thousands of cases of canned salmon, shellfish and fruit for shipment per year. Oysters were farmed around the narrow inlets of around Shelton and Hood Canal while central sound communities on Vashon and Bainbridge Islands, the San Juan Islands and Kitsap Peninsula increasingly focused on berry production (Kitsap Museum “Sound People.” N.d.).

Economic specialization also occurred in the Puget Sound in at least one area of manufacturing: shipbuilding. Access to prodigious quantities of high-quality timber and shipping channels made shipbuilding a natural activity for Puget sound communities since the early days of white settlement (Warren 1986, 68). Although shipbuilding took place in the major ports of Seattle and Tacoma, it also occurred in communities served by the mosquito fleet, especially Bremerton, Dockton (on Vashon Island) and Port Blakely (on Bainbridge Island). These locations produced ocean-going merchant and military vessels and housed the infrastructure and labor required for this large and complex undertaking. Though these sites lacked local populations to support their activities, workers and supplies were easily obtained through mosquito fleet networks (Chasan 1981, 28).

Figure 0‑11. Advertisement for Vashon Chautauqua. Source: Vashon Maury Island Heritage Association.

Elsewhere in America in the late nineteenth century members of the middle and upper classes increasingly took weekend excursions by rail to attractive natural locations nearby the city (Warner 1962, 60). In the Puget Sound, residents of Seattle were blessed with easy access to many beautiful spots aboard mosquito fleet steamers. Within Seattle, Alki (annexed 1909) was the most convenient beach getaway, but steamers also carried travelers on weekend or summer getaways to Three Tree Point (now in Burien), Redondo Beach (now in Des Moines) and many spots on Vashon Island (Findlay 2008). Steamers also departed from docks at cablecar parks Leschi and Madison Beach on Lake Washington (Dorpat 2013).

The middle class urge to escape from the city intersected with faith in transformative power of education and self-improvement at the Vashon Island community of Chautauqua Beach. Organized in 1887, the Puget Sound Chautauqua Assembly acquired 600 acres of land by donation of several enthusiastic homesteaders on the east side of Tramp harbor for use as a resort and “escape from the noxious fumes and immoral influences of a crowded city”. The Chautauqua offered lectures, language classes, religious instruction in addition to bathing and campfires on the lovely beach, with thrice daily steamer service to Seattle and Tacoma during the summer (Okigwe et al, 2017). A dock was constructed for steamer service and a hotel, general store, pavilion, and cottages were constructed in this community. The site was surveyed by a civil engineering firm and platted by a draughtsman, both based in Seattle. The endeavor was popular for several years but flagged in popularity (as did Chautauquas nationally) and was dissolved in 1912 even as summer homes and camps on other parts of Vashon Island offered new types of peaceful rural retreats from the city (Okigwe et al, 2017).

Figure 0‑12. Summer Retreat at Vashon Chautauqua. Source: Vashon Maury Island Heritage Association.

The circumstances which fostered the appearance of the Mosquito Fleet held for less than thirty years, as improved roads and the proliferation of automobiles and trucks was already altering the structure of population, movement and trade in the Sound by the mid-1910’s. Still, the era of the Mosquito Fleet had a lasting impact on the geography and form of the Puget Sound region and the towns within it. Linked with transcontinental rail hubs, cheap, flexible steamboat service facilitated the transition from a region of isolated, export oriented milltowns to a complex economy with deep linkages between rural settlements and urban centers. This service helped determine how and where towns and villages grew, and in so doing, created a large part of the regional geography we continue to inhabit today. Legacy Mosquito Fleet settlements oriented towards waterfronts have stronger physical relationship to geography than most other kinds of towns and suburbs because their way of life and livelihood was dependent on the water. In the one hundred years since cars started to be the primary mode of travel the relationship between Puget Sound settlements was transformed. The majestic waterways of the sound also became a barrier to movement, rather than a conduit for it. The history of the Mosquito Fleet illuminates how powerfully modes of movement affects patterns of living, how these shape land and cities, and how the interaction between rural and urban creates an interconnected region.

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