IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT “San Francisco and Los Angeles were built with Puget Sound timber,” but by 1900, as the easily accessible forests began to thin out, a whole myriad of secondary industries sprang up – shipbuilding, fishing, millwork, and brick making – and those trades were evident around Yukon Harbor. One woman from that era remarked she listened to new fewer than seven factory whistles and bells each day.
The construction of the Harper Brick Factory in 1900 dramatically changed the local sights, sounds, and smells, adding smokestacks and whistles as well as a different type of vehicle traffic. The innovative tug, ATLAS, became a familiar sight, hauling mostly bricks to and from Seattle but also serving the Colby Lumber Company.
The story that has been passed down through the generations is that a visitor, E.A. Smith, discovered the requisite brick clay a nearby hill in 1899. Smith apparently knew a thing about brickmaking, because he immediately declared that “it is a good quality material” and told his host, Louis Garnett about it. Garnett passed word of the abundant natural resource to investors in Seattle, and an enterprise was begun.
Established by Frederick Crane Harper and partners, the brick factory was located to the west of the creek estuary that lies between Harper and Southworth, where a small baseball field and park are today. At the height of production, 50-60 men worked at the plant, producing more than a million bricks annually. The facility was large and complex, and a model of brick making technology for that era. The facility included kilns, warehouses, a bunkhouse, cookhouse, and a small rail tram. A dock and specialized barges were constructed, too. As motor vehicles began to appear, a drawbridge was constructed across the mouth of the estuary to facilitate the movement of the ATLAS and her barges.
(See the article, https://yukonharbor.wordpress.com/2008/02/16/the-harper-estuary-and-bridge/, for details about the Harper Drawbridge)
Some of the men who worked at the factory included Mr. Breitenstein, Ed Levenseller, Otto Eckblom, Kenny Newell, and a Mr. Libby. A Mr. Colby was assistant manager under Mr. Libby, and Frederick Harper was the general manager of a time. (We are curious to know about the man named Colby, since the town got its name from a steamship named for a local Indian by that name. There could be a connection, but this is the only mention we’ve seen.)
Harper (1855-1936), a native of New Brunswick, Canada, immigrated to Washington Territory in 1887. He was a successful real estate developer in Port Townsend during that town’s boom period, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1892 he relocated to the eastern shore where he became a merchant, eventually becoming a state senator. He built and managed the brickyard at Terra Vaughn in 1900 with the help of several partners, employing virtually every adult male. When the town established its own post office, the town was named for him out of gratitude for his support for the local economy.
Harper had other business interests. As an adjunct to the brick factory, he established the Harper Barge and Lighterage Company, employing the ATLAS to haul the two large scows capable of carrying bricks, lumber, and other heavy cargo. He was an investor in two Seattle area hotels, as well.
Built in 1909. the ATLAS was a unique vessel because it was large for a tug, measuring 50 feet long, 12 feet in beam, and drawing six feet of water. It was powered by an innovative gasoline engine, initially with a single-cylinder 32 horsepower engine manufactured by the San Francisco-based Atlas Gas Engine Company. She was one of the first gas-powered ships on Puget Sound.
Their slogan was, “More dependable than steam,” and the rugged gasoline engine – innovative technology at the time — inspired the new owner/captain, William G. Grant, to name the new ship after the engine. That power plant was later upgraded to a two-cylinder 65 horsepower model. She proved to be an extremely durable and efficient vessel, as the attached log of her workload for one month in her first year of operation attests.
The following description of the factory appeared in The Brick and Clay Record about 1910:
“The clay working plant of this company is situated at the water’s edge so that the brick may be readily loaded into scows for shipping. The clay is brought from the bank to the plant by tram cars drawn by a horse… The brick machine has a capacity of 40,000 a day and is supplied by an automatic, side-wire cutting table….
“The brick are all dried in an eight tunnel drier which is heated by what is known as a waste heat system. This consists of taking the waste heat from the burning kilns and forcing it into the drying tunnels. The heat is caused to circulate through these tunnels by means of a rotary circular fan.
“All of the brick are burned in down draft permanent kilns. There are two of these kilns, each having six chambers… each chamber having a capacity of 46,000 brick. The brick are burned from six to nine days. They have good color and a good degree of hardness, are very smooth and regular in outline. Nothing but common brick are made here.
“The brick are all loaded onto scows and taken to various points around Puget Sound. This gives very cheap transportation and allows the company to compete in practically all cities on the Sound.”
Similar clay-firing plants sprang up all around Puget Sound, including two at Port Orchard (nee, Sidney) In 1913, the Brick and Clay Record profiled various prospering factories, and described Harper and others as “the happiest brick makers in the District for the reason business has been so good.”
Like the timber before it, the brick clay eventually ran out. The factory closed in 1932, and Harper retired to a home in Seattle. Various factory buildings were converted to other use and eventually were destroyed. As late as 2013 remains of the drawbridge and kilns could still be seen, albeit only faintly. The workhorse tug ATLAS also moved on, possibly being re-named the VIOLET.
Research for this article was produced by James Heytvelt, a local resident and member of Friends of the Harper Pier. He is a frequent participant in the Yukon Harbor Historical Society, providing insight and documentation to our efforts.