During the Great Depression, many Americans traveled from the East to the West seeking a higher quality of life. The common dream was one of a lush Pacific Coast where opportunity was abundant and the old life of dust and drought could be left behind. The most famous of these are the Joads family from Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath. In some ways, the real-life journey of Paul and Mollie Satko from Virginia to Alaska echoed that famous fictional family. But the Satkos were real, and not realist fiction. Tacoma features prominently in their real journey because as an outsider, the defiant spirit of Paul Satko inspired Tacomans.
Most other communities rejected the wacky tinkerer. Travelling from Virginia towards the Pacific, Paul Satko faced ridicule and threats of arrest as his Ark of Juneau violated several laws.
Tacoma was different. When the Satkos came to Tacoma it was because it offered them a better waypoint to get to Alaska than Seattle offered him. Sure, Seattle may have been closer, but the spirit of Tacoma captured Satko’s imagination and his resolve captured the imagination of Tacomans.
In the mudflats and Hooverville of Tacoma, the Satkos worked on turning a jalopy/automobile contraption into a boat capable of taking them via water to Alaska and a dreamed of 160 acres. With friends like Henry Foss (remember Thea’s story?) and a Mayor like Harry P. Cain, the family was able to build an unseaworthy vessel into something that could make it the whole four miles from Point Defiance to a beach on Vashon Island – in a day.
Satko’s Ark was a bad idea. But his dedication, media savvy, and family inspired Tacoma. The moment that most clearly shows just how much the City of Destiny believed in this defiant man was after his arrest in Seattle.
Seattle had lost much of its frontier spirit. The unsafe Ark was not just an eyesore, but a danger to Seattle and shipping throughout Puget Sound. Paul’s children were seized in fear of fire hazard. Seattle police eventually arrested Paul too. These arrests for safety reasons may have been justified. The fire hazards were numerous and the boat was built by a tinkerer rather than an expert.
When news of Satko’s arrest reached Tacoma, a movement was launched. How much of this movement was because the people of Tacoma liked Paul Satko and how much of the movement was because of the rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma is up for debate. What could not be debated was the power of the movement.
Satko’s bail bond was posted by his supporters. They arranged living quarters. His supporters helped repair the boat just enough so that it could leave Seattle and make way for the dreamed of life in Alaska.
Tacoma supported the off-beat idea that an automobile mechanic could turn a motor and a wagon into a seaworthy vessel. Tacoma believed. Grit city was enamored with the meme of Paul Satko, even if Paul Satko the real person wasn’t worthy of that level of support. For that short time, residents thought of Satko as one of them, even as he saw Tacoma as a stop-over along a grander path.
The ideal Satko lives on in Tacoma. It’s a simple concept. It is grit, determination, destiny and defiant spirit. It is a frown upon rules and the strong desire to make your own reality. That’s the Paul Satko that deserves to be known in legend, even with all his personal warts and mishaps.
SatkosArk.org – experiment in non-fiction storytelling.
Anacorteswa.Gov – Satko’s Ark Sails Against at Museum Presentation.
Anacortes Museum & Maritime Heritage Center – Ark of Juneau photos
University of Washington – The Great Depression in Washington