History of Bellingham Shipyards

April 16, 2024

In June 1941, A.W. (Arch) Talbot made a pivotal move in maritime history by acquiring both the Bellingham Marine Railway and Boatbuilding Company and Bellingham Iron Works. This acquisition would transform the shipyard under Talbot’s leadership. During World War II, Bellingham Shipyards, fueled by Talbot’s acquisition, became crucial players in the United States wartime efforts. They secured additional contracts throughout the war, ultimately constructing over 110 wooden-hulled vessels for the U.S. Navy.

Talbot’s purchase wasn’t just about the shipyards. It included a critical contract to build four minesweepers for the British Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease program. This program, established by the United States, allowed them to lend or lease war supplies to any nation deemed essential for American defense. For Arch Talbot, securing this contract marked the beginning of Bellingham Shipyards’ wartime journey, paving the way for its significant contributions.

Bellingham Shipyards’ extensive experience in building wooden craft became their key advantage. This expertise propelled them forward as they secured additional contracts throughout World War II. Ultimately, they constructed over 110 wooden-hulled vessels for the U.S. Navy, fulfilling diverse roles such as minesweepers, salvage tugs, rescue tugs, crane barges, and ammunition lighters.

Of the 110 vessels built by Bellingham Shipyards during the war, all were delivered on time or ahead of schedule.

Interestingly, each vessel played a unique role in supporting naval operations. Salvage tugs were instrumental in rescuing damaged or stranded ships, while rescue tugs specialized in saving lives at sea. Crane barges facilitated the handling of heavy cargo, and ammunition “lighters” were essential for transporting ammunition. Minesweepers, as the name suggests, were designed to clear underwater mines, ensuring safe passage for other vessels. Notable model vessels, such as the ATR 68 and YMS 269 Minesweepers built by Bellingham Shipyards, are on display at Bellingham Cold Storage, offering a firsthand look at the craftsmanship and historical significance of these vessels. 

Behind the success of Bellingham Shipyards stood exceptional leadership and a dedicated crew. The shipyard’s ability to push out vessels at an impressive pace earned them five Navy “E” awards for excellence in both production quality and efficiency. This accolade highlighted the commitment of the team to contribute significantly to the war effort.

In addition to the Navy “E” awards, Bellingham Shipyards and its personnel received recognition from the Department of Defense. They noted the superior talents of Bellingham’s shipbuilders, specifically commenting on both the beautiful woodwork. According to them, the overall quality of the craft was “the best they’d ever seen”.

As the curtains fell on the war, Bellingham Shipyards found itself at a crossroads. They transitioned from wartime shipbuilding to the serene realm of crafting recreational boats. The Bellingham brand, renowned for its commitment to quality and craftsmanship, persisted, carrying the enduring legacy of wartime determination into a fresh era of leisure and exploration.

Bell Boy Fiberglass ship, built by Bellingham Shipyards

Among the commendable attributes of Arch was his unwavering loyalty and dedication to the community. As cornerstones of the Whatcom County economy, Bell Boy Boat Company and Amfab assumed pivotal roles in ushering in the new era at Bellingham Shipyards. Leveraging the skills honed in the shipyards, Bell Boy Boat Company embarked on the production of lightweight, cost-effective fiberglass boats. Throughout the 1950s, these boats introduced innovative features like the distinctive “barrel bow,” a built-in spray knocker, and a wrap-around windshield – features that swiftly became industry standards.

“Eighty-three years ago, our company answered the call to help rebuild the world. That spirit of innovation and dedication to a greater good is woven into the very fabric of our organization. Today, we carry that legacy forward, tackling new challenges and creating solutions that pave the way for a brighter future.”

Doug Thomas, Bellingham Cold Storage President and CEO

From its acquisition by Arch Talbot in 1941 through its wartime achievements to the post-war metamorphosis, the narrative of Bellingham Shipyards unfolds as a captivating chapter in maritime history. More than a mere chronicle of a shipyard, it stands as a testament to human resilience, ingenuity, and the formidable power of community.

For further details, explore the anniversary books on our history page.