When Silverback Marine CEO Ian Gracey looks up at the rafters of Building 407 at the Port of Tacoma’s Earley Business Center, he’s reminded of an important piece of Tacoma and family history. The huge trusses, hewn from slabs of old growth timber, are a reminder that the building that houses his rapidly growing workboat building business is decades old.
The structure stands at the end of the 180-acre arm of land between the Blair and Hylebos waterways, where Todd Shipyards Corporation set up shop in 1916 to build ships for the U.S. Navy during World War I. In 1939, as the U.S. prepared for war, the company resurrected its shipbuilding efforts on the site with the creation of the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation.
The area buzzed with activity throughout World War II with more than 33,000 people working at the site. Fleets of busses delivered workers each day, and staggered start times were also set up to help reduce the traffic congestion.
One of the men at the shipyard in 1942 was a young naval officer named John Montaldo, Gracey’s grandfather.
Shortly after graduating from the Naval Academy, Montaldo was assigned to the USS Block Island aircraft carrier, one of more than 75 ships built in Tacoma during the war. He spent three months in Tacoma before the ship launched on May 1, 1942.
“I don’t know if he was ever in this building,” Gracey said. “But it is really motivating to be here where grandpa was.”
As a boy growing up in Seattle, Gracey and his grandfather restored an old rowboat together. He taught Gracey how to row and regaled him with stories that led to his lifelong love of boatbuilding.
Perhaps the most gripping of his grandfather’s stories was about the day the Block Island was sunk near the Canary Islands.
In the ship’s short life, it hunted Nazi submarines, sinking two and receiving partial credit for sinking two others.
However, on the evening of May 29, 1944, Montaldo’s ship was struck by two torpedoes.
As an engineer and officer, Montaldo was one of the last men off the ship. His duty was to shut off the steam boilers to advert an even greater tragedy. All but six of the men were rescued by escort ships.
“Let us all take the time to remember and honor the men and women who served in the U.S. military and sacrificed so much for our country.”
Countless stories like these traced back to Tacoma during the war. But shortly after the end of the war, with demand for ships in decline, Todd-Pacific Shipyards traded its Tacoma facility to the Navy for a shipyard in Seattle. And in 1959, the Port of Tacoma bought the land and buildings for $2.1 million.
In the decades since, the location has been home to yacht builders, a shipping company and more.
Today, the site still hums with maritime activity as it is home to facilities for companies such as Trident Seafoods, TOTE Maritime, SAFE Boats and Motive Power Marine, along with Silverback Marine.
“The Tacoma Tideflats has a rich history of shipbuilding, and it is exciting to see boat building activity returning to the Port,” said Dick Marzano, Port of Tacoma commission president. “Advancing marine trade business development opportunities and living-wage job creation in Pierce County is one of the foundational goals of our five-year strategic plan.”
For many years, the Port has used the site as an incubator, where small companies could get started and have room to grow.
And for his rapidly growing business, Gracey describes the site as “a perfect location for boat building,” just as it was during WW I and WW II.
“With the Memorial Day weekend upon us, let us all take the time to remember and honor the men and women who served in the U.S. military and sacrificed so much for our country,” added Marzano.