No. 10 | June 12, 2019
The Fleet that Never Was
By Margaret Laliberte
The head of Yarrow Bay is a dreamy backwater on a sunny summer afternoon these days, but for a few months in the summer of 1945 the bay was the subject of a lively, often acrimonious, debate. Community and civic groups from around Lake Washington squared off against each other over a proposal by the US Navy to place more than three hundred ships for safekeeping between the marshy head of the bay and what is now Carillon Point.
This largely-forgotten slice of Eastside history happened as the war in the Pacific was coming to an end. In fact, on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the steering committee of the Kirkland Commercial Club met to consider the proposal. (They supported it.)
The Navy needed a place to mothball part of its National Defense Reserve Fleet, smaller ships that could be readied quickly for sea duty. Navy planners identified Yarrow Bay, drew up blueprints for two north-south docks and received a $4,000,000 appropriation for construction. The shoreline would be filled in and the whole bay dredged. This, according to the Navy, would beautify the harbor.
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Kirkland officials and a few civic groups and local unions saw the chance to keep jobs as the Lake Washington Shipyard in Houghton slowed down with the end of the war. A local union official argued “It may be hard on the scenery, but you can’t eat scenery. The presence of those ships means jobs. Jobs mean that our kids will be fed.” (At first the figure going around was 2500 jobs, but later it was revealed that there might be only about 100 civilian jobs.; the rest would be Navy personnel.)
Supporters faced the vehement opposition of community groups around Lake Washington who feared the “industrialization” of the lake, water pollution, loss of views, and falling home values, to say nothing of all those sailors in town. Fred Delkin of the Hunts Point Community Club put it plainly: “Hunts Point doesn’t want the honky-tonks and other things that will go with [the ships] if a big maintenance crew is kept here.” The Yarrow Point Community Club sent flyers urging residents to protest to their senators, the Governor and Pentagon leadership.
Residents of Houghton, which was unincorporated at the time, felt that Kirkland and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce were selling them out. “They dropped this thing on us like a bombshell,” said Houghton resident Marcus Johnson. “I’d never think of buying a thing in Kirkland now,” said Mrs. Fred Gash. “We’d rather go all the way to Bellevue, and that’s what we’re doing.” The community had a much-loved beach park on the bay: 600 feet of waterfront where hundreds gathered on weekends to swim and picnic. It must have felt impossible to imagine the entire bay filled with military ships.
The Navy flew out two captains, one from the Navy Office of Public Information, to assess local sentiment at three meetings. The first, on Mercer Island, drew 400-500 people from 34 different community organizations bordering Lake Washington. Capt. Campbell’s patient assurances that bilge water and sewage would be safely piped ashore and not dumped into the lake did nothing to alter the vehement opposition of all the community groups. The captain asserted that the federal government had full authority over Lake Washington as a navigable body of water and could establish a moorage wherever it chose, although it would prefer to consult residents’ opinion. (He had the grace to admit that 98% of mail received back in Washington D.C. on the matter was in opposition to the plan.)
At the third meeting, held at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and lasting three hours, sentiment was declared about evenly divided, though the meeting ended in some confusion as to whether the proper rules of procedure had been followed. The Navy captains were clearly weary. “This has been no vacation,” Capt. Campbell admitted. “I’ve heard some of the hottest air I’ve ever heard during my time here.”
Local meetings and debate continued through the summer, but at the end of the day, the Navy ran up its flag and withdrew. According to reminiscences of V.J. Berton, Houghton’s first elected mayor, the proposal was finally dropped because the Navy had concluded that acid in the lake’s water would rust the ships’ metal. The fleet was instead sent to the Columbia River; the Navy moored the ships at long concrete piers just east of Astoria at Tongue Point Naval Air Station until 1963.
Back on the lake, one of the most lasting consequences of the summer imbroglio was the feeling in Houghton that association with Kirkland was no longer in their best interests. In 1947 the community voted to incorporate, and Houghton remained a separate jurisdiction until 1968, when it consolidated with Kirkland. And Fred Delkin’s fears of honky-tonks was well-founded: zoning at the time was weak to non-existent. There would have been little to stop development of commercial establishments catering to the Navy operations.
The strong opposition to the Navy’s project might have surprised the early promoters of the Lake Washington Ship Canal who envisioned significant industrial development on the lake. But as residents of the growing region increasingly appreciated the exquisite beauty of the lake and its shoreline, industrial uses stopped making much sense.
Thanks to Margaret Laliberte, Eastside Heritage Center volunteer, for researching and writing this story. Margaret is a resident of north Clyde Hill , just south of Yarrow Bay. If you would like to contribute an article to Eastside Stories, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more about the Eastside. Books available from Eastside Heritage Center include:
Lake Washington: The Eastside
Bellevue: the Post World War II Years
Our Town, Redmond
Bellevue: Its First 100 Years
Our Mission To steward Eastside history by actively collecting, preserving, and interpreting documents and artifacts, and by promoting public involvement in and appreciation of this heritage through educational programming and community outreach.
Our Vision To be the leading organization that enhances community identity through the preservation and stewardship of the Eastside’s history.