The Seattle Times 1896-1996
Seafair: our summer bash

This story ran in The Seattle Times on Sept. 8, 1996

By Sharon Boswell
and Lorraine McConaghy
Special to The Times

Slo-mo-shun IV launched Seattle and Seafair into the world of unlimited hydroplane racing. Stan Sayres and his team developed and built the 1,800-horsepower thunderboat locally, testing it on Lake Washington. Between 1950 and 1954, Slo-mo IV and its sister boat, Slo-mo V, captured an unprecedented five consecutive Gold Cup trophies.
Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

OVERSEAS IN KOREA, ARMIES OF THE COMMUNIST-CONTROLLED NORTH SWEPT OVER THE BORDER to invade South Korea, prompting the deployment of American-led U.N. troops. At home in Seattle, a much more benign invasion began as business leaders dressed like pirates swept into town, launching the first Seafair celebration.
    In a world frightened by the threat of another major conflict so soon after World War II, Seafair provided a bit of lighthearted fun as well as a means of promoting Seattle. The tradition began in 1950 and built through the decade as new events were added and public interest grew. Although planners initially expected Seafair to attract thousands of visitors to the city, its ultimate success lay in its spirit of home-grown fun.

Costumed dancers and synchronized swimmers added to the spectacle of the Aqua Follies, held in a specially built theater on Green Lake. Photo Credit: Greater Seattle Inc.

   Seafair was the brainchild of Greater Seattle Inc., a group of prominent local boosters hoping to use Seattle's 100th anniversary as a springboard to increased civic cooperation and promotion. Modeled after successful events like the New Orleans Mardi Gras and St. Paul's Winter Carnival, Seafair began as an attempt to build a nationwide reputation on the city's maritime heritage.
   Seattle had staged similar extravaganzas as early as the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. That fair attracted more than 3.7 million visitors during its 4 1/2-month run, and its success encouraged city fathers, then facing a serious business slump, to organize a yearly celebration advertising the region's advantages.
   Their first attempt resulted in Potlatch, a weeklong festival featuring dozens of parades, concerts and special events, including a visit by battleships from the Pacific fleet. Born in 1911, the event borrowed loosely from the region's Indian heritage for its unifying theme.
   The onset of World War I brought these first Potlatch celebrations to an end after only three years, and not until 1934 did Depression-weary Seattleites revive the tradition. The Junior Chamber of Commerce joined other business groups in staging a scaled-down version of Potlatch with a focus on friendly neighborhood atmosphere rather than lavish spectacle. A few Indian themes remained, while Paul Bunyan folklore and community-sponsored royalty were added for a dash of pomp and history.
   But international conflict once again intervened, and in 1942 Potlatch was suspended for the duration. Civic leaders vowed that "a bigger and better celebration" would follow World War II, but except for a 1948 Fly-in Potlatch -- honoring the local aviation industry -- the event never revived.

Seafair's grand parade featured lavish floats and a whole cast of royalty led by King Neptune, who in 1952 was portrayed by civic leader E.L. Blaine Jr. Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

AS MEMBERS OF GREATER SEATTLE TESTED THE WATERS WITH A NEW CIVIC FESTIVAL IN 1950, Seafair surfaced around a more generic nautical theme. King Neptune -- portrayed by a prominent civic leader -- presided over the event, while local beauties vied for the title of Queen of the Seas. Other Seafair boosters, costumed as Davy Jones and his pirate band, caused spirited mayhem, playing tricks on those who did not join the merrymaking or buy special Seafair pins.
   The national water-skiing championships, never before held in the West, became part of this first Seafair, as did numerous other sporting events, but the Aqua Follies proved to be the greatest crowd pleaser. This "swimmusical review," held in the specially built Aqua Theater on Green Lake's south end, featured a cast of more than 100 lavishly outfitted singers, dancers, swimmers and divers performing in the water or on a floating stage.
   On the final day of the celebration, three old stern-wheelers, including the W.T. Preston, raced on Elliott Bay. The burning of the historic steamship Bellingham by the Seafair pirates provided a spectacular climax to four successful days of revelry.
   Throughout the prosperous 1950s, the era's bigger-is-better mentality shaped Seafair, which stretched to 10 days in length as sponsors added more family activities and more pageantry. A prime minister, an honor guard and dozens of white-suited commodores joined King Neptune and his queen; a whole court of junior royalty mimicked the adults. Seafair clowns competed with pirates in crazy antics; eight different parades, including one by torchlight, snaked through city streets; 15,000 sailors participated in an expanded Fleet Week observance.
The cup, at left, was hydro racing's most coveted prize.
Photo Credit: Seattle Times.

HYDROPLANE RACING, AN INNOVATION OF THE 1951 SEAFAIR, quickly became the celebration's signature event. The preceding year, Seattleite Stan Sayres had set a world speedboat record at 160.3 mph in the locally designed and built Slo-mo-shun IV, going on to win the sport's prestigious Gold Cup race in Detroit. Sayres' victory brought the next race to Lake Washington, coinciding with Seafair. By 1954, when the Slo-mos had won an unprecedented fifth straight Gold Cup, the city was filled with "hydromaniacs" as nearly 500,000 turned out to watch the great thunderboats compete.
   Civic pride helped keep the hydros racing in Seattle. Local residents contributed money -- often in $1 or $2 increments -- to help Sayres defray the huge cost of testing his boats. And in years when the Gold Cup left Seattle, a Seafair Trophy Race still provided competition. Seafair thrived in the wake of the hydroplanes, surviving because the community supported its commitment to Seattle and to family fun.

Historians Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy teach at local universities and do research, writing and oral history. Original newspaper graphics courtesy of the Seattle Public Library.

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