Edward E. Johnson,
builder of Argosy
|The following is an excerpt from an article in March 1988
issue of The Sea Chest, the journal of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical
Society, titled "Pacific Halibut Schooners and Their Builders", by Harold E.
Edward E. Johnson was born in 1868 in Vanersborg, Sweden. His connection with boats began at age 15 when he learned the carpenter trade in his home town. Then followed an apprenticeship at the Langholmens Shipyard in Stockholm. His early years in Sweden included a stint in the Swedish army. In 1891, he emigrated to the United States settling for a time in Omaha, Nebraska. While there he worked as a farm hand. His duties included the building of corn cribs, an activity which took advantage of his training as a carpenter. Before long, he switched to working on a railroad checking tracks for those needing repair. Traveling in blizzards on an open hand car didn't appeal too long for a Swedish carpenter so he left the Midwest for Tacoma. There his first work was to put copper on the hulls of sailing ships many of which had come from the East Coast by way of Cape Horn. Around 1892, he went to Smith Cove in Seattle where he built a shallow draft vessel for use on the Yukon River in Alaska. The boat was then taken apart and shipped in pieces to St. Michael where it was reassembled for service on the river. Returning to Seattle, he tried his hand at sealing which was popular at the time, but as this had little appeal to him, he didn't remain very long.
Johnson had a top reputation for craftsmanship. Typically Scandinavian, he kept most of his records either in his head or in the pockets of his well-worn shirt. His boat yard was characterized by low overhead consisting of a small office with a single dim light bulb and windows dirtied with sawdust. His methods matched his records. On occasion he was asked to quote a price on a new boat. After he quoted a price of $9,000 (this was in the early 1900's) and a delivery date in the following spring, the buyer asked Johnson if there shouldn't be a written agreement on the transaction. "Sure," said Johnson. Whereupon, he reached over to one side of the office, tore off the top of a paper sack full of nails and wrote on the scrap of paper: "I agree to build a boat for you for $9,000 with delivery in the spring." That was all. He did carry through, however. He was known as "Honest Johnson" by those who did business with him. I personally can testify as to his fairness when I had business with him in 1925.
Although he was a Swede working in a predominately Norwegian environment, it was no handicap for him. In the early years, he conducted many of his negotiations in the Norwegian language but when he was asked to join the Sons of Norway lodge, he drew the line. "Enough is enough" was his response. Among his accomplishments was a knowledge of the French language acquired during his service for a year in the he Swedish army, a skill of not much practical use for a son of Sweden working primarily with Norwegians.
As told by Johnson's grandson, Lloyd E. White, who worked for a time with his grandfather and who has competence in his own field of engineering design, Johnson had a reputation for building clean running hulls. With the advent of light weight high powered engines and increasingly efficient propellers, White notes that designers and boat builders had to turn away from the practices of those who preceded them. Where it was common to find persons admiring the beautiful bow of a vessel, he found the old-timers taking a different view, contending that the wrong end of the vessel was being judged. White remembers comments from vessel owners and Johnson's boat building peers to the effect that vessels from Edward Johnson's yard "tended to leave scarcely more wake than a duck."
In 1894, Johnson collaborated with John Strand in the building of the halibut fishing vessel ANNIE M. NIXON. In common with other boat builders of this period and later, ship carpenters operated shipyards by themselves or in partners with others. This relationship would generally be on a temporary basis for the building of a single vessel or two following which the collaboration would end. When orders were not forthcoming, the builders would seek employment in larger shipbuilding firms. Thus Johnson found employment for a number of years as a foreman at the Crawford and Reid Shipyard in Old Tacoma. An interesting facet of the history of this yard was the system used in launching vessels. As the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad ran between the yard and Commencement Bay, the tracks had to be removed each time a vessel was launched. For this purpose, the railroad built the rails on trucks in four sections each 25 feet long. Then at launchings, the railroad men brought in heavy tackle and rolled the tracks away. Following the launching, the tracks were replaced in their original position. Luckily at that time the trains ran not oftener than once a week so not much rail traffic was disturbed.
In the late 1890's, Johnson was bitten by gold fever and, in the company of many others, including Jack London, the noted novelist, left Tacoma on the steamer WILLAMETTE, for Skagway and the Klondike. After a year in search of the elusive mineral, he returned to Tacoma and resumed his career in building boats.
Johnson built many vessels of all kinds during his lifetime. Most of them were fishing vessels but one non-fishing craft was a handsome 65-foot yacht, ARGOSY, built for a Tacoma doctor in 1925. Government documentation records show eight halibut schooners as having been built by Johnson although he undoubtedly worked on many others while allied with other builders. Of these eight vessels, three were actively fishing halibut during the 1987 season. These were the SEYMOUR, built in 1913, the THOR in 1925 and the MASONIC (formerly named LIAHONA) in 1929.
Johnson left the employ of Crawford and Reid in 1911 and started his own yard at East 21st and D Street in Tacoma where the eight vessels were undoubtedly built. He retired in 1935 at age 67 and died in 1961 at age 93 to close out a distinguished career. His wife, Anna, preceded him in death by eight years. The Johnsons had three children, one boy and two girls.
A couple of interesting postscripts: Several years ago, while in the Bakketun and Thomas boatyard for some fairly major repairs, Argosy was moored for a few weeks stern-to-stern with the Masonic, one of the halibut schooners built by Edward E. Johnson.
Also, the article mentioned Lloyd White, grandson of Edward Johnson. I had the pleasure of working with Lloyd at Tacoma Boatbuilding in the 1980's (long before acquiring Argosy), and I remember him telling me of his grandfather who built boats. I also told him of my grandfather, who was a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington. It turned out Lloyd had had him as a professor while attending the UW! Small world!