Preserving the History of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle, Washington

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Monday, March 18, 2019


Researched and written by Eleanor Boba

We described once before some aspects of the storied career of the W.T. Preston, the snagboat that served the Corps of Engineers and the people of Puget Sound for more than half a century, 1929-1981. We are fortunate to have access to a series of oral histories conducted by Pam Negri in 1981 and 1982 with officers and crewmembers of the vessel. The oral history project was commissioned by the Corps of Engineers, Seattle District.

The W.T. Preston, with its sternwheel kicking up a wake, July 14, 1959. The Preston was home-berthed at the Ballard Locks. Photographer, Dietz.

Today we’re focusing on the care and feeding of the crew. The Preston served as home away from home for its crew of 12 to 14 men. Keeping these men fed and happy was a challenging job requiring creativity, flexibility, and good management and budgeting skills, a job that fell entirely to the cook and assistant cook.

Lee Fox slices roast beef while Gary Hunter stands by, July 14, 1959. Photographer, Dietz

Early Days

Many of the men on the Preston rose up through the ranks. Captain Norman A. Hamburg started out as cabin boy. He recalled the difficulty of obtaining and keeping fresh produce onboard in the early days.

“In the summer time, it was quite interesting because where we pulled up to the bank there, the farmers always had a liking to the snag boat. They would bring down the fresh vegetables and corn and invite the crew to come up and pick strawberries, raspberries, cherries or whatever was available in the summertime. Another thing we always cherished was fresh milk. We had no refrigeration onboard at that time. The cook would get enough supplies to last a week, then we had an ice box and we’d get about 12 quarts of milk- had to use that up pretty fast, because the ice didn’t last very long in the icebox. So, those 12 quarts would go pretty quick. When we stopped there, the farmers knew our conditions and they used to bring down a gallon of milk and we really cherished that- to have in our cereal in the mornings”. (Hamburg, tape 10)

The Preston went into service for the Engineering Department (Corps of Engineers) in 1929, on the cusp of the Great Depression. Captain Hamburg commented on those tough times:

“The cook had to take and put everything under a lock and key. We had a vegetable locker outside that acted as a cooler. Every evening, he would have to bring his lettuce, tomatoes, and things like that in because, during the depression, there was a lot of people out of work and we had a lot of things that would be stolen if it wasn’t brought in- laying in the docks in Seattle. There were people just coming aboard looking for a hand-out all the time.” (Ibid.)

Cook Eddie J. Padden in the galley, surrounded by the tools of his trade. September 19, 1967.


While Captain Hamburg remembered the days before refrigeration, Jon Lynch, the last cook on the Preston, boasted of having two refrigerators and a large freezer, as well as a “walk-in refrigerator that’s no longer being used as refrigerator because the insulation wore out some years ago. So, I just use it as a store room now.” (Lynch, tape 5A)

Lynch was also proud of his top-of-the-line Kitchen Aide dishwasher. It seems the previous dishwasher, bought cheap, had lasted only about a year: “The door was sprung somehow, and I’m not sure but I think that someone tried to sleep in there once. After that it was a piece of junk…Some of these evenings get pretty rowdy.” (ibid.)

By contrast, Lynch cooked on an ancient oil-burning range that had to be started up each morning by one of the firemen on board. Someone told him the range dated from 1893 which, if true, might mean it was inherited from the original Puget Sound snagboat, the Skagit. Such a stove provided radiant heat, but did not offer much in the way of temperature control. Lynch noted that the oven temperature would quickly rise to about 600 degrees.

No Okra!

Or turnips, or rutabaga. Other than that, Cook Lynch found that the boys would eat just about anything he planned: “Meat, potatoes, salad, vegetables, gravy, sauces, soups. Pretty much whatever you would have at home, only more so.” (Ibid.)

Rough Weather

Lynch recalled one particularly rough crossing.

“Once, when we went to Port Townsend about six or seven years ago. It became really rough. This boat does not take any kind of weather at all, and it was rough. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the guys were seasick. It was really surprising how much this boat took. And it was really difficult to work on the stove. Everything [was] sliding back and forth. We don’t have any guardrails on board that stove. So, it was interesting, holding everything on there without having anything fall to the deck. It was really interesting, but I managed it.” (ibid.)

The Preston was designed for work on inland rivers and waterways. In the latter part of her career she was more frequently called upon to work in open water. This was one reason the boat was retired.

Place settings

The cook or cooks (there were usually two) were responsible for getting meals on time to all officers and crew, and this did not happen in one place. Officers were served in the wardroom, adjacent to the galley, while the rest of the crew ate “down below.” Food could be lowered down via a dumbwaiter in the galley. The cooks had to set up and serve food in both locations. If the captain chose to remain at his post at the wheelhouse, his meal would need to be sent up to him, an additional chore. Sandy Welsh, the last skipper of the Preston recalled these times: “It didn't bother me to eat up here. I know there were a few times when the cooks would get upset because they would have to prepare the meal and bring it up here, but that was part of their job, just like it's my job to run the vessel.” (Welsh, tape 25)

Noon meal in the wardroom, the officers’ mess. Left to right: William W. Morgan, 2nd Mate; Norman O. Ronning, 1st Mate; Captain Norman A. Hamburg; Elbert D. Becker, Acting Chief Engineer. September 19, 1967.

“Everybody’s favorite cook”

Fritz Rydberg’s name comes up often when researching the Preston. Rydberg served on the snagboats for forty years, most of that time as cook aboard the Preston. Easily recognizable in photos by his stature, he was often called “Little Fritz.” According to Captain Norman Ronning, Fritz was everybody’s favorite cook: “He was very dedicated. Took his job very seriously, and always wanted to please everybody that he could. He really done a good job.” (Ronning, tape 14)

Rydberg received a number of awards for service during his career. At his retirement party on April 7, 1952, he was given a radio equipped with a short-wave band “so he can listen in on ship talk when he gets tired of landlubber programs [as well as] a diamond-studded lapel pin with the emblem of the Corps of Engineers.” (Seattle Daily Times, April 8, 1952). He also received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award. The Anacortes Museum and Maritime Heritage Center preserves a number of photos of Rydberg, along with his prized recipe box complete with recipes. According to the museum, Rydberg was known for his large, hard sugar cookies, which crewmembers would sometimes toss to children along the shore. Rydberg passed away in 1969 at the age of 76.

Fritz Rydberg at the ancient oil-fired range and oven. This photo, taken on the day of his retirement party and appearing in the Seattle Daily Times the next day, was probably staged for the cameras. No food in the skillet!

Fritz Rydberg is honored on the occasion of his retirement from the snagboat service. He is presented with a short-wave radio, April 7, 1952.

The End of the Game: Surf and Turf

Prior to the official retirement of the Preston in 1981, the officers and crew commiserated with one last meal together. Jon Lynch described the lunch to Pam Negri:

“Well, we had a bottle of booze, we had expensive steak, and we had 8 oz. lobster tail imported from Maine. The steak was 10 oz. each…I imagine those people down at the office were slightly stunned to see $99.28 for lobster. That was for 12 of them [in 1981]. Then, one bottle of booze does not go around this table with anything left over. That was it, one small drink apiece to say Bon Voyage. That was all, that was the end of the game.” (Lynch, ibid.)

All oral histories referenced are in the custody of the Anacortes Museum and Maritime Heritage Center (as is the Preston, herself); all photos are held in the Corps of Engineers collection, in the care of Friends of the Ballard Locks.

And here's a link to some of the history of the Puget Sound snagboats, referred to earlier.

Link to earlier article on Puget Sound Snagboats