Mossback’s Northwest: When the 'boys in the boat' raced Swinomish paddlers

How a race between rival crews brought Native and UW paddlers closer to the sport — and each other.

Here in the Northwest we know that red cedar is important. Native Americans have used it for millennia in homes, art, tools, baskets and boats. But this wood also had a modern benefit: It helped beat the Nazis and bring people together.

The University of Washington Shell House is a historic wooden structure on the shores of Lake Washington. It is at a fascinating intersection of history. Before the Ship Canal was built, this land in Montlake in the shadow of Husky Stadium was a place where the Duwamish and other native peoples portaged their cedar canoes between Lake Washington, Lake Union and Puget Sound.

It was here that the U.S. Navy built a large hangar during World War I to train their personnel on Navy seaplanes. After the war, it became home to the University of Washington’s crew. It also became the workshop of a brilliant designer of racing shells, George Pocock, an Englishman who came to the Northwest and settled in Seattle to build crew racing shells, and he came up with breakthrough designs that made them faster and cheaper.

His innovation lay in learning what local Indigenous peoples had known for thousands of years: Red cedar was a remarkable material. Native peoples had been using it for canoes — war canoes, or lightweight, durable and maneuverable canoes for fishing or simply getting around. Pocock discovered its virtues while working at Boeing, which was using it as material for seaplane floats. Pocock called red cedar “the wood eternal,” and his wooden racing shells became known as the “Stradivarius” of boats.

The most famous event involving them was the so-called “Boys in the Boat” race, when the Husky crew team went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and won the gold medal for rowing, beating the Nazi and Italian teams at Hitler’s big propaganda event. Plucky Northwest boys showing up the Third Reich. Their story became a bestselling book, The Boys in the Boat.

But there was also another interesting, but lesser known, event a few years later: The so-called Great Race of 1941, which pitted that Husky crew against Swinomish tribal canoe racers. The Swinomish tribal leader, Tandy Wilbur, promoted the event to showcase the tribe and improve relations with the white community through a shared culture of boat racing and demonstrating physical prowess. Husky crew races were a huge draw in pre-pro sports Seattle, and the ’36 crew victory had given the sport an even higher profile. Husky crew coach Al Ulbrickson also had ties to the Swinomish: he was a regular visitor to the reservation to fish for some of the biggest King salmon in the Northwest, according to Theresa Trebon, Swinomish nation archivist. 

Two Swinomish canoes — the Lone Eagle and Susie Q — were each crewed by 11 men and paired against two Husky shells with eight rowers each. The event took place in the slough between the town of La Conner and the Swinomish reservation in Skagit County.

Historian Bruce Miller wrote about the event, noting: “In both Swinomish and mainstream societies, boats and racing were powerful, evocative symbols. For Indians, canoes — with their origins in sacred cedar trees — represented a connection to the land, to the water, and, more generally, to an aboriginal world view. For the mainstream society, the rowers represented the vigor of a community then based in good measure on the primary industries of fishing, farming, and logging and intimately connected with the sea.”

The attending crowd got to see these two cultures side by side. There is a difference of opinion about who “won” the demonstration. Some say the Swinomish; others insist it was the Huskies. Rowers or paddlers? No one really cared. It generated good publicity for the tribe and was an unusual cross-cultural event for the times.

The Shell House still has the space where Pocock had his workshop. It is also home to a recently carved canoe, typical of those used on local rivers and the lake. It is a reproduction of a rare one found buried in the banks of the Green River in the early 1960s. It was a project of the Burke Museum, the Muckleshoot tribe and Nooksack carver George Swanaset Sr. Canoeing and rowing are still a very popular activity here.

The red cedar helped bring two local cultures together, not insignificant in the years before World War II. The landmark Shell House is the perfect shrine to commemorate community confluence.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.