The pleasant weather on April 6, 1906, drew a larger than usual crowd to the sprawling Lindstrom Ship Building Company shipyards where Washington Street meets the Chehalis River. They had come to witness the launch of the S.S. Quinault, a 147-foot steam ship with a 38-foot beam, built for Aberdeen’s Hart-Wood Lumber Company. The ship was to carry lumber and passengers on the Grays Harbor — San Francisco route and was fitted with the most modern accouterments including steam heat in the passenger and crew areas. The festive air belied the tragedy that would soon befall a family.
That same Saturday morning, in a small house on West Hume Street, 9-year-old Henry Johnson, son of Charles Johnson, a ships carpenter at Lindstrom’s, sat at the breakfast table and told his family of a dream he’d had where he was lying on the ground and men were piling boards on top of him. The ominous tale made his father uneasy and he told the boy to stay at home and away from the shipyard that day.
After his father left for work, young Henry went outside to play and, as is the way of lively youngsters, he soon found himself at the shipyard where he joined his friends climbing on the scaffolding. His father was returning to the ship with some bolts from the blacksmith shop when he noticed three boys near the vessel, Henry among them. Taking the little boy aside, he explained that the lad could get hurt and ordered him to go home. The child began to cry but, being an obedient lad, went home as instructed by his papa.
At home his mother calmed the boy, explaining that the ship would be moved later and he might be hurt. She gave him some candy and believing he was satisfied, went back to her household chores. An impulsive child, Henry was soon drawn back to the shipyard. He clambered aboard the vessel and was playing near a rail at the stern when he suddenly spotted his father. Fearing he would be sent home again, the boy stepped backward out of his father’s line of sight, and went tumbling over a railing. He plummeted 25 feet onto some planking, coming to rest in the mud flats. The boy lay motionless, blood pouring from a gash on the back of his head.
A scream from the gathered crowd drew the attention of the construction crew and the alarmed father raced to his son’s side. As the bereaved father cradled his son, calls went out for a doctor. After some time, Dr. A.S. Austin was finally summoned and the young patient was rushed to the Grays Harbor Hospital at the corner of Wishkah and Broadway. There they found that the unconscious boy’s skull was fractured (“crushed” being the word used by the newspapers of the time) and he was vomiting blood, indicating internal bleeding.
Dr. Austin operated on the skull fracture, easing pressure on the young brain. For the next week the boy remained unconscious in his hospital bed, his anxious parents by his side. The following Monday morning, April 15, Henry Johnson began to show signs of regaining consciousness, but by noon he had slipped back into a coma. He passed away a half-hour later.
Little Henry Johnson’s funeral was held that Wednesday in the chapel at Beardsley Brothers undertaking parlors on East Wishkah Street. A well-liked student, Henry’s mourners included his teacher, Mrs. Huntley, and all of his classmates from Franklin School.
Despite the tragedy that befell the Johnson family at the shipyard that day, business was business and the launch went on as scheduled. As the vessel slid down the ways and touched the water, Emily Hart, a niece of one of the principle owners, smashed a bottle of wine on the bow, christening it the Quinault. The ship was loaded with lumber and towed to San Francisco for installation of the engine and boilers. And the vessel would be needed: On the very day that little Henry Johnson was being laid to rest, a massive earthquake and fire destroyed most of San Francisco.
For the next several years, the Quinault and other coastal steamers ferried lumber and construction materials to the stricken city. The Quinault continued to ply the coast for another decade before she was wrecked off Point Gorda, Calif., in 1917.
In June 1908, John Lindstrom, mayor of Aberdeen in 1905-06 and owner of the shipyard, died in a manner eerily similar to that which took the life of young Henry Johnson. Lindstrom had gone to Portland where he was elected president of the Pacific Coast Shipbuilders Association. The following day, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Lindstrom fell to his death from a fourth-story window of the Willamette Hotel in Salem, Ore. Lindstrom’s shipyard was later sold and renamed the Grays Harbor Motor Ship Co., providing cargo ships for the war effort during World War I.
Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and warns kids not to treat construction areas like playgrounds.