Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Navigating the Archives with Karl House

Anyone who has called on the resources of the Puget Sound Maritime archives in the past decade has likely made contact with Karl House, the Society’s Research Coordinator. If he can’t find it, it probably can’t be found.

Karl’s long career navigating on sea and land may have helped prepare him for this position. In a series of oral history interviews, Karl shared his personal history with us, a history that begins close to the water.

Before he was four, Karl spent time on board the tugboat Defiance, captained by his father for Washington Tug and Barge Company.

He was towing sawdust barges between the mill at Port Gamble and the paper mill at Port Townsend. I was able to ride with him on some of those trips. They’re really etched in my memory and I’ve been fond of tugboats ever since.
Junior Mariner Karl House on board the tug Defiance, c. 1938. 
Photo courtesy of Karl House.

Like falling off a log

Tugboats became a recurring theme in Karl’s life. The day after he graduated from Queen Anne High School in Seattle, Karl signed on as deckhand aboard a Foss Company tugboat, the Hazel Foss. He continued to work for Foss and other companies during summers and breaks from college, earning enough to pay his way through the “U Dub.” He remembers the work being lots of fun, with the possible exception of one memorable event in 1952:

I fell off a log raft being towed by Foss #18 on the Duwamish River in December of 1952. It was dark out. I had moored a log raft at the South Island log storage on the Duwamish River. I had tied it up and I was returning to the tug to take the tug’s towing bridles off the front end of the log raft and when I went to remove the second bridle the boomstick [one of the long logs that corralled each section of logs] turned slightly and I fell overboard.
I was dressed in winter clothing: heavy jacket and shirt and I had on these heavy boots that were used for working on log rafts. When I fell overboard, because of the current going downstream in the river, I was washed under the logs in the first section of the tow. The logs were tight enough together that there wasn’t room for me to climb up on a log, so I had to stay underwater for about 70 feet until I came to the next section of logs where there was a crosswise boomstick and I knew there would be an opening of eight or ten feet [before the logs in the next section,] so I felt the bottom of the boomstick and I was able to grab the bottom of the boomstick and pull myself over the side and get up out of the water.

In the Navy

The year 1955 was an eventful one for Karl. In short order he graduated from the UW with a degree in transportation business, married his high school friend Deane Hullin, and was accepted to the Navy Officer Candidate Program in Rhode Island. By the end of the year he was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Shortly thereafter Ensign House shipped out on the General J.C. Breckinridge, a Navy troop transport and passenger carrier home-ported in San Francisco, giving him his first true deepwater experience.
We’d make a trip from San Francisco to Yokohama, maybe down to Okinawa, then turn around and come back, get into San Francisco and spend maybe four or five days there, fix stuff that was broken, re-store the ship and head back out again. So the ships were underway a lot!

Karl, right, and LTJG Hal Murphy in the pilothouse of the Breckinridge, 1957. 
For some reason Karl acquired the nicknames "Brow" and "Charlie Brow" while in the Navy!
 Photo courtesy of Karl House.

In 1957 Karl was transferred to the General William Mitchell, home-ported at Pier 91 in Seattle. On the Mitchell as operations officer and navigation officer, Karl found himself often negotiating the approaches to Incheon [aka Inchon], Korea, a place made famous by General MacArthur’s surprise invasion of the peninsula during the Korean War. He describes the challenges:

Incheon is on the west coast of Korea and it is about 40 or 50 miles inland through a bunch of small islands and rocks from the Yellow Sea. The tidal range of Incheon is about 28 feet, similar to the tidal range of Anchorage, Alaska. Because of the tidal range at Incheon there are a lot of tidal currents and, at that time, 1956-1958, there were no current tables published for Incheon so it was quite a learning process to try to figure out the currents and their velocities while entering and leaving the approaches to Incheon.
We never ran aground or wrecked, but the best information we had for charts were British hydrographic surveys from 1938. Because up until the time General MacArthur ordered the invasion at Incheon it wasn’t much of a port really. There are no pier facilities there so anything that comes aboard ship or goes off ship has to go by lighter, and it is mostly done at at least half tide or higher.

Why would MacArthur pick that spot then?

Because nobody thought that he would do that due to the navigational difficulties, shallow water at low tide, and so on. Incheon is on a latitude right across from Seoul, Korea and the Korean peninsula isn’t all that wide. So the reasoning for going in at Incheon was to cut off the North Korean forces which had penetrated south on the peninsula almost to the end of Korea before they were stopped. So MacArthur ordered the Incheon invasion to cut off the North Korean army from their source of supply -- food and ammunition and whatever else an army needs.  
Cover of a booklet detailing life aboard the General Mitchell
Courtesy of Karl House.

Back on Dry Land

With the conclusion of his required active duty, and with a wife and two young sons at home, now-Lieutenant House began his land-based career, while remaining a naval reservist. Going to work for his father-in-law’s company, the venerable Hullin Transfer Company, and its sister concern, Federal Transfer Company, Karl learned the business of trucking freight, working his way up from unloading box cars at night to general manager of both companies. His career at Hullin/Federal spanned 29 years until the business ceased operation in 1988. All the while he continued to drill with the Naval Reserve, both at Lake Union and at Sand Point.

Working for Hullin gave the Houses a chance to use a company-owned boat, the Davy Bill, for family trips to the San Juans and the Gulf Islands. Once again Karl was back on inland waters! After retirement Karl and his wife purchased a 42-foot fiberglass Grand Banks boat named Rapture which took them as far as Alaska. A favorite place for cruising family vacations was Desolation Sound in British Columbia.

At the age of 65 Karl took on yet another maritime career: tour boat captain. With a master mariner’s license obtained in 1999, Karl was able to hire out as a relief captain on several of the sightseeing boats that churned the waters of Puget Sound and Lake Washington, including the Spirit of ’76. Although generally enjoyable, the work did have its hazards:

More often than any other activities done with the Spirit of ’76 was hauling parties of University students which from time to time got pretty unsettling. It was licensed to haul as many as 298 passengers. I recall one trip that we had almost capacity. We had the University of Washington marching band and they invited their friends from the UCLA band that was in town. There was very little room on that boat with all those people on it.

Navigating New Waters

In 1981 Karl’s mother gave him a gift membership to Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society. Some years later he answered the call of then-PSMHS librarian Jack Carver to help out in the library.

The first thing I had to learn was where the stuff was in the library and what the extent of some of the  collections were to help find answers to questions coming in. Then one of the things I did was process photo orders when the person in charge of photographs was not present to do so, so I became somewhat familiar with handling the photos and I got a lot of help from the MOHAI [Museum of History and Industry] people: Howard Giske and Kathleen Knies and Carolyn Marr. They were all very good at teaching me how to do these things and continue to be very helpful and excellent people to work with.

In the decade plus that Karl has been working in the library (both at the old MOHAI and the new), he has become the go-to guy for research inquiries on all things maritime. MOHAI Curator of Photography Howard Giske sums it up:

To all of his colleagues at the MOHAI Resource Center library, Karl House is a reliable, diligent and deeply knowledgeable partner, the right man with the right answers to pretty much all maritime questions. If he can’t locate it in PSMHS’s extensive collections, he may be able to find it at home! And Karl’s friendly, easy-going personality is always welcome aboard the good ship MOHAI.

PSMHS boardmember Roger Ottenbach concurs, adding

He does all this in a way that the person asking the question feels he really enjoys providing the info.

No doubt they are right!

A full transcript of the oral history interview with Karl House is available in the PSMHS office: For information on the PSMHS research holdings and how to access them, see our webpage:

-- Eleanor Boba

Karl and Deane House, 2008. Karl in his service dress whites. 
The Houses have two sons, Drew and Todd. 
Photo courtesy of Karl House.