Story last updated at 5/21/2014 - 5:39 pm
He doesn't remember what day it was, but he remembers the first time he saw it.
One day in 1962, Willy Eyon looked up from his work at Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock to see the Big Dipper painted on the stack of a new ship getting its final touches. "I didn't know they were Alaska ferries until I could see the stack had the Big Dipper on it," he said.
Eyon, now 83, was born and raised in Wrangell but grew up to become one of the workers on the first Alaska Marine Highway System ferries to serve the state. "I often wondered even when I was working in the yard, why am I working here? It isn't part of my life in the Southeast. ... It was just a different life, but it was still along the water, and I guess if you're raised with that, I guess you live with that."
Eyon graduated from high school in Wrangell and - like many of his generation - was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served at Fort Richardson in Anchorage and after his stint decided to take his GI Bill money to get an education.
Rather than stay in Alaska, he looked south. "It was closer for us to go to Seattle, because you could catch a free ride on a fishing boat or a fishing tender," he said. "I could bum a ride down there like everybody else."
Eyon attended Edison Technical School in Seattle (today, Seattle Central Community College) and learned his trade. "I couldn't afford to go to college and probably didn't want to, so I got right in and started at a machine shop," he said. Soon after, he switched to boats.
"After I put in my certificate and my time, they put me in the yard at Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock," he said. "The company I was at, Puget Sound Bridge, was larger than my hometown."
This was in the late 1950s, and the Seattle shipyard was booming with military and civilian work.
He started by working on existing ships being refurbished ("In the shipyard, they could do a tanker in one shift - they'd sandblast and paint a tanker in one shift," he recalled.), but soon moved on. "I think it was kind of a learning place for new workers. ... I rather liked it, but they put me in the main yard, and that's how I got to work on new construction," he said.
Because of skills learned at Edison, Eyon became one of a handful of linesmen, the people responsible for measuring and checking the work on a ship against the plans kept in a building called "The Loft."
"It takes a special ... well, you'd better know what you were doing in the Loft," he said. "A lot of welders had their leathers, and the burners, and they had painters and they had machiners, but all we wore, all we had to carry, was a small book in our pocket and a pencil."
Even for Seattle, the heat could be tremendous. New ships - including the Malaspina and other mainline Alaska ferries - were first built in a graving dock, a pit dug in the earth with doors at one end that opened to the ocean. "The graving dock was down in a hole, so the heat would just cook you down in there," he said.
Ships were known by their hull numbers, which is why the ferries were such a surprise, he said. On his end of the work, they were barely distinguishable from one another until they floated out of the graving dock and to a nearby dock for superstructure work.
After one hull floated away, work started on the next hull. "After you got the outside hull done, they would get that all ready, and then they would open up that gate and launch them and move in the next boat," he said.
There were everyday challenges he recalled. Simple things, like the heat of the day, could throw off his measurements as the steel hulls expanded. "The sunshine could actually pull the ship off center, because the heat of the sun would heat the steel hull," he said.
Each day, their work would be checked again and again. "We had enough inspectors - Coast Guard, the state, and the yard would have their own people," he said. "They always would correct one another before things were welded in place."
Eyon recalls being proud of the ferries, that Alaska had a state-of-the-art operation.
He left the shipyard not long after the Malaspina, Taku and Matanuska entered service in 1963. He went on to build schools across Alaska for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, traveling to Barrow, Wainwright, along the Yukon and down around Bethel. "I was a jack of all trades, you'd have to call it," he said.
He eventually ended up back home, but things weren't quite the same. "Now, we're just like the outskirts of Puget Sound, when you think about it," he said.
One thing that remains the same - the ferries.
"Every time I see it going by, it kind of reminds me of those days," he said. "I was even invited to ride up in the pilothouse one time, and I just couldn't believe I was a passenger any more, you know?"