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Shingle Weavers and Lumbermen

Lumbermen and workers go west

The first large Northwest lumber operations were California interests. Then in the late 1800s, timber barons of the over-logged Great Lakes region began to invest in the richly forested Puget Sound area, connected by the Great Northern Railway in 1893. Among the first in Ballard were T. D. Stimson, who moved the family lumber business from Michigan in 1890, bought up timberland, and opened Stimson Mill; and brothers William and Alexander McEwan, also from Michigan, who established the Seattle Cedar Lumber Manufacturing Company in the same year. William Bolcom moved to Seattle from Minnesota in 1901, establishing the Canal Mill and the Bolcom Mill on Salmon Bay.

Midwestern timber workers followed the industry west to work in logging camps and mills. 51858

Early Labor Organizing and the anti-Chinese riots

In the 1880s, unionization of Puget Sound workers was primarily led by the Knights of Labor. The Knights fought for workers’ rights, such as reduction of the 12 1/2 hour work day. Although the national organization was relatively inclusive of immigrant groups and of African Americans, the Knights of Labor promoted a campaign against Chinese laborers --- many of whom were former railway workers and miners entering the urban workforce. Members of the Knights of Labor led the violent anti-Chinese riots that expelled hundreds of Chinese residents from Tacoma and Seattle in 1885 and 1886.


Above: photograph of man who lost six fingers working in mills for over 10 years, from “Story of the Terrible Price One Father has Paid for Job in Mills,” The Seattle Star, March 10, 1913, page 10.


New arrivals

A large percentage of Salmon Bay mill workers were immigrants to the United States. By the 1890s, close to a third of Seattle residents were foreign-born, about one quarter of whom were Scandinavian. Many settled in Ballard and worked in the timber, construction, and maritime industries.


Working conditions

Although relatively well-paid, the dangerous nature of shingle weavers' work, lack of care and compensation for injuries and respiratory illness, and the unpredictability of market-driven mill closures, all strengthened the demand for union representation.


Above left: Canal Lumber Company Mill. Above right, from top: detail from photo of Seattle Cedar Lumber Company Mill, the Canal Lumber Company Mill (exterior and worker in lower level), interior of Bolcom Mill. Items 51858, 51845, 51827, and 51948. Series 2613-07, Engineering Department Photographic Negatives. Seattle Municipal Archives.

Ballard strikes

In 1886, Michigan shingle weavers organized the timber industry’s first trade union. Puget Sound shingle weavers followed in 1890, forming the West Coast Shingle Weavers‘ Union. But this union was weakened after a major strike begun in the Ballard mills failed due to the 1893 economic depression.

The International Shingle Weavers Union

In 1903, shingle weavers across the states formally affiliated with the American Federation of Labor as the International Shingle Weavers’ Union of America, whose goals included pay increases, a 10-hour work day, and care for injuries. The Shingle Weavers’ Union grew in membership and strength, and it served as a model for other trades.

Ballard shingle weavers started another major strike in 1906. It lasted four months and spread across Washington State, but ended with few concessions from mill owners. In 1907, the Shingle Weavers did successfully negotiate a raise that withstood the next economic slump. And, with the 10-hour workday having been achieved across the timber industry, workers would next fight for an 8-hour day.



Mill workers living in boarding houses faced crowded conditions. In the above 1907 letter to the Mayor of Ballard, the manager of the Hazelton Rooming House, which housed Stimson Mill workers, requested assistance feeding some 20 boarders who were quarantined due to small pox, stating that she "cannot afford charity on so large a scale."

From Seattle Municipal Archives Online Exhibit, Annexed Cities: Ballard. Box 2, Folder 28, City of Ballard City Clerk's Files (Record Series 9106-03), Seattle Municipal Archives.

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