A Different Perspective

Bill Schwartz has an interesting take on tanks.  Specifically, a huge one that is the iconic Semiahmoo Water Tower landmark of the Semiahmoo spit.  Most people look at it without a thought to how it came to be, but Bill knows tanks inside and out.  With a glance, he can tell that this one was probably built between 1900—1920.  He also knows who built it without looking at the nameplate—and that two unions were involved.  This water tower caught his eye because it has the markings of a tower unusual to this area.

This man knows his water tower tank history—but you wouldn’t guess why when you meet him at a Blaine Chamber business gathering like I did.  Friendly and professional, and quick to offer helpful solutions to your marketing and social media problems—he has the hands of a man who works in an office.  But this was not always the case.  Bill once built tanks like the Semiahmoo Water Tower.  His Dad worked in the field as a Journeyman Outside Boilermaker until he was 86 years old and passed away the year after he retired.  Bill and his brothers worked on tanks in every western state, sometimes alongside their dad.

History Behind The Clues

He spotted the obvious clue first—the tank is made of steel.  Bill knows the first elevated steel water towers were built around 1895. They were made of wood until then.  Next, the clue of structural steel legs—not the standpipe as you usually find around here.  In 1940 the first completely welded water towers were created.  Boilermakers began using piping material for the legs, instead of structural steel.  That meant that the Ironworkers Union lost that part of the labor on water towers.  The Pipefitters Union then tried to make a case for erecting the legs, claiming they were “pipes.”  But since the piping didn’t carry any product, the Boilermakers ended up doing all parts of the construction, from then on.  As for the Semiahmoo Water Tower on the spit, Bill could see that it was most likely created by workers from both unions because it has structural steel legs.

Another stand-0ut feature is the pattern of Xs on the rails.  In the west, Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. (CBI) competed with Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. (PDM)—but Bill can tell their brands by the design of the rails—a series of X’s is CBI—zig zags were PDM.  So, with just a glance, he could narrow down the time-period, and tell me that the Semiahmoo water tower was built by CBI, with Boilermakers handling the tank construction, and Ironworkers the legs.  This made me curious and I went looking for the steel nameplate he said should be found at the base to prove his conclusions.  What I found was a deep tangle of blackberries and a chain-length fence.  I decided to take his word on it.

Bill explained that the Semiahmoo Water Tower was built to give the cannery water pressure to process salmon—they filled them up each night for the next day’s processing.  A quick internet search brought a wealth of information about the cannery.  The Semiahmoo Spit became a trading post for prospectors around 1858, and eventually, Whatcom County’s first salmon cannery opened in 1881.  In 1891, the Alaska Packers Association was the largest salmon cannery in the world.

For a more detailed history of the Semiahmoo Water Tower, the cannery and other pictures, check out this link:




Click below for an amazing drone view of an eagle on the top of the tower:


Boilermaker Legacy

Bill shows obvious pride as he explains that his Dad, Luke Schwartz, worked for both the CBI and PDM companies and was elected as the Business Manager of Seattle Local 104 of the Boilermakers Union.  He didn’t last long in an office though, and after a few years left to go back “out in the field.”

With a chuckle, he shared a fun story about building a water tower with his Dad and brother near Flathead Lake Montana.  They spent their days out in the sweltering heat, while a group of old timers hung out in the nearby café—watching with binoculars every day as they built the tower higher and higher.  After work, they ate at the café, and he said they felt kind-of like rock stars as the locals gathered around to ask questions and admire their courage.

Another memorable time showed how tough this man was.  Back in 1986, the Georgia Pacific paper mill in Bellingham had five large “digesters” – essentially large tanks, about 50 feet tall.  One day Luke, at 68 years old, was at the top of a digester making repairs when a welded ladder inside broke.  He fell straight down 40 feet and landed on cement, after breaking through some 2X12’s on the way down.  Incredibly, he was back to work in just 3 weeks.  It’s interesting to note that the five digesters are still there, and will stay in the new waterfront project, as historical pieces.

Bill has first-hand knowledge and many interesting stories about tanks you still see all over the state.  After a conversation with him, you might take a second look as you drive by them around the county, or out on the freeway.   He’s a friendly man, eager to share his unusual knowledge.  It’s easy to contact him if you have questions.  He is a Business Development Manager for Whatcom Talk.  They link neighbors by creating community chatter—this sounds interesting, too.  Curious?  Learn more by visiting www.whatcomtalk.com.

A Family Story

Here’s a first-hand account from Bill about his work with his family:  “I have three brothers, and all of us have worked building large tanks and towers, in every western state.  For a few years, my Dad and brothers Tim and Andy formed their own tank-building company, called Pilgrim Construction.  And on several occasions, my brother Robin and I worked on jobs with them.  The five of us didn’t always get to work on the same job together, but it was fun when we did.  That included jobs in Grandview, Washington (took down the city’s water tower and re-erected it in Poulsbo, Washington), Wrangell, Alaska (new city water tank), and Petersburg, Alaska (new city water tank), to name a few.  Robin and I also worked for Dad on PDM jobs in Pablo, Montana (water tower), and Silver Lake, Oregon (water tower).  And some, but not all of us worked together on tanks or water towers in every state Colorado and west.  It brings back memories when we drive around and spot a tank or tower that we’ve worked on.  And in our eyes, those tanks are beautiful!”

Written by Jodi Sipes with considerable help from Bill Schwartz

Do you know more about how the Semiahmoo Water Tower was built, and want to add to the story?  Please share by commenting below.