An island of shipbuilders


Before the boutiques, condos and Volvos, Bainbridge Island was known for producing some of the finest 500-ton schooners and work-horse steamers in the world.

There’s not much left of that not-too-distant past. Blakely Harbor, once a forest of sails, riggings and masts, has only a few blunted pilings to hint at where the Hall Brothers Shipyard sprawled along the northeast shore. Winslow, where Hall ships were launched after 1900, bares even fewer markers.

You have to use a lot of imagination to picture the old shipworks now. To help get a sense of Bainbridge’s saltier days, maritime historian Gary M. White is coming to Eagle Harbor Books on Sunday to present dozens of rare photos and decades of research from his new book “Hall Brothers Shipbuilders.”

Read my story about White’s 35-year pursuit of all things Hall brothers below.

Book a Look Into BI’s Boat-Building Brothers
By Tristan Baurick

With only a glimmer of curiosity leading him, Gary M. White made a quick stop at the library to peruse a few history books on Puget Sound shipbuilders.

“I just started poking around,” he said. “But I got hooked.”

Curiosity quickly turned into passion, drawing him into a three-decades-long journey through 20,000 archival newspaper articles, 400 photographs and 350 hours of recorded interviews about Bainbridge Island’s Hall brothers and their world-renowned shipyard.

White, a Tacoma resident, recently boiled down his 35 years’ worth of research into the 127-page “Hall Brothers Shipbuilders,” a slim tome you can almost fit in your back pocket.

“That wasn’t easy,” said White, who will read from his book and present a slide show of historical photographs at Eagle Harbor Books on Sunday. “I wanted to tell so many stories and had all this massive research. I really had to cut back.”

The end result is an overview of a family business that became central to the Northwest’s early industrial history. The Halls, unparalleled on the West Coast in the production of big ships, built more than 100 vessels — from a five-masted, lumber-hauling schooner bound for Australia to fat-hulled steamers that plied the rough waters of Alaska. Their work over the course of the late 1800s birthed the “Hall model” of naval architecture.

“I can look at an old photo and spot a Hall vessel immediately,” said White, who works as a model ship appraiser. “You can see the Hall model in the beauty of the sterns and the lines of the ships themselves.”

Drawn to the region’s seemingly limitless stands of firs, the three Massachusetts-born Halls — Isaac, Winslow and Henry — established their first shipworks in Port Ludlow in 1874. At the invitation of lumber baron William Renton, the Halls relocated the company to Port Blakely on Bainbridge’s south end. There, the Halls spent 22 years working in symbiosis with Renton’s giant lumber mill to turn out ships that worked the Pacific “triangle trade” — Washington lumber to Australia, coal to Hawaii and sugar on the return trip to the mainland.

In 1902, the Halls moved their growing operation to Madrone, the town now named after Winslow Hall. Winslow was the middle brother who led the business side of the shipyard. The Winslow site remains, to this day, linked to its past though the state ferry maintenance yard, where a handful of modern shipwrights ply the old trade.

Not lasting long after Henry Hall’s death in 1909, the company’s heyday was in Blakely Harbor, where the Halls built their most infamous ship, the Hesper, White said. A fast vessel that set numerous Pacific voyage records, the Hesper is best known for the mutiny, ax murder and federal trial that dominated the front-pages of San Francisco newspapers in 1895.

White dug deep into the Hesper’s story, successfully lobbying a federal judge to unseal century-old documents connected with the trial.

“Some of the crew decided to make the Hesper a pirate ship and take it all over the world,” he said. “One young sailor was hanged. His fiancee waited at San Quentin for the body and took him back to Norway.”

Only two pages of “Hall Brothers Shipbuilders” touches on the Hesper, but White said his mountain of Hall brothers research could fill a series of books.

“The mutiny on the Hesper is a fascinating story that I want to do an entire book on,” he said. “And there’s a couple more I’d like to do.”

In the meantime, White hopes his book will spark some of the same curiosity in readers that drew him into decades of research.

“You don’t see much that’s left when you go to Blakely Harbor today,” White said. “But I’ve read so much and seen so many pictures that, in my mind’s eye, I can pretty easily picture it. The history Bainbridge has in its backyard — or rather, its front yard — is just marvelous.”

Gary M. White will present photos and stories from his book “Hall Brothers Shipbuilders” at 3 p.m. Sunday at Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way.