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Dockton, Washington and the John A. Martinolich Shipbuilding Company

Though not as widely known as naval architect Ted Geary, shipwright John A. Martinolich (1877 – 1960) played an important role as the builder of the Westward, with his expertise in building workboats and his ability to transform Campbell Church Sr.’s vision and Geary’s design into an elegant charter boat. The John A. Martinolich Shipbuilding Company was located in the town of Dockton, Washington, on the west side of Maury Island, from 1905 to 1930.

Dockton’s history as a shipbuilding center goes back to the late 19th century. The Puget Sound Dry Dock Company, originally of Port Townsend, Washington, built the largest dry dock on the West Coast in 1890, but before the company could generate any revenue it faced a financial crisis. In 1891 investors from Vashon Island and Tacoma gained controlling interest in the Puget Sound Dry Dock Company, and decided to tow the company’s dry dock to Quartermaster Harbor, an inlet in Southern Puget Sound between Vashon Island and Maury Island. Locating the industrial facility in a protected harbor, the group of investors worked to establish a town site which later came to be known as Dockton. The Puget Sound Dry Dock Company repaired all kinds of vessels, from lumber schooners to steamships. The company’s success established Quartermaster Harbor as an early center for shipbuilding in Puget Sound, and led to the creation of several successful maritime industries.

Immigrants came gradually to Dockton to work at the dry dock, and many began fishing and farming as well. As the community grew, it came to be comprised of Scandinavians and Austro-Slavonians (including many residents of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and other regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, later Yugoslavia), with a small group of English and Scottish. Within Dockton’s ethnic communities, as in many communities in the western United States, new immigrants tended to cluster in areas already settled by members of their extended family or friends from their former home countries, a social phenomenon known as chain migration.4 The tight-knit community of Dockton retains a predominance of Slavic and Scandinavian family names to the present day.

John A. Martinolich was born on the island of Mali Lussin in Croatia. He began working in his father’s shipyard at the age of ten, and after a stint in the Austrian army, he emigrated in 1896 and settled in Dockton.5 Martinolich found work as a shipwright at the dry dock, alongside Pete Manson who later started a pile driving company which became Manson Construction. Martinolich left his job at the dry dock in 1904 and founded the John A. Martinolich Shipbuilding Company. His first vessel was the steamer Vashon, completed in 1905. The shipyard initially built mostly ‘Mosquito Fleet’ steamers and other work boats, as well as sailing ships, and it was later credited with developing the West Coast purse seiner, a deep draft fishing boat. John Bussanich had been the original dry dock blacksmith, and by 1909 he operated his own blacksmith shop on the beach at Dockton. He furnished most of the castings and fittings for Martinolich’s shipyard.  

Martinolich maintained a steady production of vessels between 1905 and 1915, including the steamer Verona (1910) which was later involved in the Everett Massacre, and the steamer Nisqually (1911). During World War I, Martinolich took on a project for the Norwegian government, constructing three enormous sailing ships measuring 235 feet each. They were named the Dockton, the Ella A., and the Elinor H., and when the Norwegian government ceased making payments on the vessels, the shipyard was nearly forced into bankruptcy. The business was stabilized by 1921, and Martinolich became known as the “King of Purse Seiners” for the fishing boats he built in the 1920s. The yard also continued to build other work boats, and occasional yachts, as well as some unusually powerful runabouts that were used during Prohibition.6

Naval architect Ted Geary worked with numerous ship builders, including the Blanchard Boat Company on Seattle’s Lake Union, to produce his early designs. He and his client Campbell Church Sr. selected the John A. Martinolich Shipbuilding Company to build the Westward, perhaps because the shipyard produced commercial work boats that Geary and his client had admired in the past, perhaps because Martinolich presented a very competitive bid for the construction project, and perhaps because a fire had destroyed the Blanchard Boat Company in 1923. Maritime author Lee Makovitch circulated a story about Campbell Church Sr. visiting the Martinolich shipyard, picking out one of the workboat hulls under construction, and telling Martinolich that he wanted a yacht designed on that hull, but this anecdote has not been confirmed by further research, and several other sources indicate that the Westward was created as an original design
by Geary and subsequently constructed to Geary’s specifications by the John A. Martinolich Shipbuilding Company.7

Geary completed the design for the Westward in December 1923. The vessel was constructed around the Atlas Imperial diesel engine, rather than the more typical process of building a boat first and installing an engine afterward, due to the engine’s size and placement. The Westward was launched at the Martinolich shipyard in May 1924. Although the yard built a few more vessels including traditional cannery tenders designed by Ted Geary and others, and the fishing boat Janet G, financial difficulties caused Martinolich to send his crew to Gig Harbor in 1929 to work at the Skansie shipyard, and he retired in 1930. John A. Martinolich died in 1960. His sons continued to be involved in boat building for decades, operating shipyards in Tacoma and San Diego from the 1940s through the 1970s.
4 Haulman, Chapter 7.

5 Van Olinda, page 45; Loverich Interview, 2006.

6 Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association Research Files: Dockton.

7 Smithsonian Institution Marine Transportation Collection; Pacific Motorboat; Newell.

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