In the late 1800s, the Hansen family, including seven brothers, arrived from Norway and began new lives in Seattle. The young brothers were smart and not afraid of work, and soon they were successfully fishing for salmon in Puget Sound on boats they designed and built themselves.
The brothers drew up a new boat design every few years, incorporating ideas for improvement over their previous boats. In those days before computer-aided marine design, they carved wooden half-inch-to-the-foot “half models” of the designs, as boat builders had done for centuries, and scaled up the full-size hulls from them. They would then sell their old boats to other fishermen and use the cash to build new boats for themselves. Over time, their boats got better and better and became recognizable for a distinctive 27-degree angle in many aspects of the hulls and wheelhouses. They also began using the word “Maid” in their boat names: the Mystery Maid, the Valiant Maid, the Victory Maid. They kept this tradition for decades.
As Hansen built boats became more common in Puget Sound, the quality of their construction, their seaworthiness and their fine lines began to be more widely noticed and appreciated by their fellow fishermen. This appreciation led inevitably to other fishermen asking the Hansens to build new boats on order, and in response, the brothers founded the Hansen Boat Company in Ballard, across from the Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal, in 1927. Harold Hansen, who had been the main designer, became the head of the company.
When the Depression arrived in the early 1930s, however, the orders dried up and the Hansen brothers sometimes had to go to work in other boatyards to keep their heads above water. This changed as the economy started to improve in the late 1930s, and then really picked up as World War II began in Europe in 1939, and then for America, in 1941. The war drove fish prices up, which resulted in fishermen ordering new boats, which created a boom in the Seattle boat building industry. The Hansen Boat Company went back to work.
One odd driver of fish prices during the war, besides a simple expansion of demand to feed soldiers, was a sudden and urgent need for shark liver oil from the U.S. War Department. Shark liver oil had always had its uses in various industries, including hide tanning, textiles and cosmetics, but the oil is also rich in vitamin A, the lack of which affects human night vision. This was suddenly relevant in 1941 as the Imperial Japanese Army rampaged across Southeast Asia and the islands north of Australia, often in terrifying night assaults. By 1942 the U.S. Marines were fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Guadalcanal in desperate hand-to-hand battles at night. The War Department was frantic for vitamin A to improve the Marines’ night vision.
The problem was that before the war most of the world’s shark liver oil had come from Norway, and when Hitler’s armies overran Norway in the spring of 1940, that supply dried up. In response, the War Department began putting in orders for shark liver oil with American fish processing companies, the dock price of sharks went through the roof, and fishermen being what they are, the race to catch them was on. A formerly marginal fishery exploded on both coasts and Alaska, driving a demand for bigger and better shark-catching boats, which the Hansen Boat Company was happy to oblige. Harold and his brothers never worked for other boat yards again.
After the war the general prosperity kept fishermen buying new boats and Hansen’s expanded with new designs, including a 58-foot long by 17-foot wide seine boat in 1950. The new design was pretty, and still had those distinctive 27 degree angles, but it also had a significantly larger fish hold than previous designs, and amenities like sinks and refrigerators and hot and cold running water. Over the years the company built dozens of these and similar boats for the Kodiak and Chignik salmon fleets.
The seven original brothers had built their boats with the knowledge that their lives and fortunes depended on the quality and seaworthiness of their design and construction. As Harold’s sons came into the business, he told them to work that same way, as if they were building boats for themselves.
The Hansens and the larger community of Ballard shipwrights who worked for them came from a legacy of centuries of Norwegian boat building going back to the Vikings, with a bone-deep belief in doing things right. Even ordinarily unseen details, like the wood joinery inside galley cabinets, were finished with a high level of craftsmanship.
As Seattle shipwright Brian Johnson said recently, “In those days that whole community of Ballard boat builders, not just at Hansen’s, worked with a consciousness about their work that comes from having a multigenerational work force and a long tradition of excellence. That tradition is going away as fewer young people come into the boat building trades, but even until fairly recently, it was just the way things were done with those guys in those boatyards. They gave a damn about the boats they built.”
Hansen Boat Company still builds boats in a yard in Marysville, Washington, north of Seattle, and there are still a number of Hansen boats in the harbor in Kodiak.
Much of the information related here comes from a forthcoming book, “Hansen Boat Co: The Men, The Boats, and How They Were ‘Maid,’” by Ketchikan resident Kevin Kristovitch.
Toby Sullivan is executive director of the Kodiak Maritime Museum.