Bellingham’s waterfront, spanning from Fairhaven to Squalicum Harbor, was once filled with activity — fishermen hauling the day’s catches, canneries preserving salmon to ship around the world and boatyards crafting new ships to set sail on the seas.
During World War II, some industries shifted and the Fairhaven Shipyard, owned by the Pacific American Fisheries, gained government contracts to create rescue tugs — ATRs — and other ships for the U.S. Army and Navy. Once out on the sea, the wooden-hulled tugs would be dispatched to aid vessels that were damaged by enemy attacks.
On Friday, July 14, the Whatcom Maritime Heritage Museum welcomed a model version of one — the ATR-32 — to its collection to display in its space at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. Linda Carr of Milwaukie, Oregon, donated the ship built by her husband, Robert Maxwell, who spent more than a decade working on it.
“I’m just real pleased he’s being honored,” she said of her husband, who is currently in a memory care facility in Oregon.
The fascination with the ATR-32 began, Carr said, when she and Maxwell lived in Bellingham for about a decade. A mechanical engineer by trade, Maxwell spent hours studying the blueprints from the National Archives, carving the wooden hull, meticulously scaling each piece from 1 foot to 1/4 inch, and stringing thin wires from masts to the deck.
Carr said they once took a trip to British Columbia to find an authentic ATR, and Maxwell spent hours measuring the deck and all corners of the boat to make sure his model was scaled to be as precise as possible.
On top of that, the boat is radio-controlled and can be driven through the water, at a speed of the same scale as the model to prototype. The fastidiousness of the piece earned it multiple awards from the Northwest Remote Control Ship Modelers.
Carr said her husband had always loved transportation and had built models of a sailing ship and fishing vessels and even a train track in their front yard, but the ATR-32 was his best work.
“I called him my Renaissance man,” she said. “He would draw up these plans for different things and then he’d build it. He’d just do it.”
Steve Haus, executive director of the museum, said he’s grateful to include the model in the museum’s ever-growing collection of artifacts.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t even understand that we had all the shipbuilding going on in Bellingham Bay. A lot of industry came out of the shipbuilding,” he said. “People — I don’t think they understand how active it was back in the day.”
The museum features a plethora of other models, old photos of Bellingham’s waterfront and artifacts of maritime history on display in its small space, nestled beneath the grand staircase at the terminal. Haus said the museum has more artifacts in storage, waiting to be shared with the public.
The museum is in communication with the Port of Bellingham, the Whatcom Working Waterfront Coalition and the San Juan AREA Sea Life program to honor the region’s maritime history with displays and information at the Georgia-Pacific site. They are also lobbying to find a better, larger facility to house and share the maritime history of the region.
The Whatcom Maritime Heritage Museum is volunteer-run and is typically open on Fridays when the Alaska Ferry is in port.
A previous version of this story misspelled Steve Haus’ last name. The story was updated to reflect this change on Monday, July 17 at 9:35 p.m. Cascadia Daily News regrets this error.