Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nick Bez (Nikola Bezmalinovic)

This limited biography of is about one of Gig Harbor’s early, successful businessmen who needs to be better known in our community.

Nick was born on August 25, 1895 in a stone house overlooking the Adriatic on the outskirts of the town of Selca, located on the eastern tip of the island of Brac.  He was the first of six children.  The family owned a small vineyard, a few olive and fig trees, a catch basin to save enough rainwater to last through all but the very driest summer.  They also had a small rowboat in which Nick, and later his brothers could fish in the Adriatic for sardine, eel and squid.

At age fifteen, he borrowed fifty dollars from his father and booked passage to the United States on an Italian ship.  He arrived in New York alone in 1910 and went to work in a restaurant to earn enough money to buy a train ticket to come west.  Nick had heard stories about the fishing and Gold Rush in Alaska, and he was also aware of several other Dalmatians living in Tacoma.  On a wintery day in 1911 Nick emerged from the train at Union Station in Tacoma with only fifty-cents remaining in his pocket.  Nick found work in an Old Tacoma sawmills and shortly thereafter a job as a deckhand on a towboat headed to Southeastern Alaska.

It took him six years of hard work and persistence to buy his own purse seiner.  This did not end his struggles for survival but instead started a new phase in his life.  In 1915, at age of 20, 6 foot 2 inches and 225 pounds, and as a boat owner Nick led the purse seiners against the beach seiners who used horses to drag flat nets on the shore in a no-holds-barred fight for the control of the lucrative Alaska salmon industry.  It was a long-drawn out, bloody conflict but in the end the purse seiners claimed victory.  

In 1919 at age 24, Nick americanized his name and became an American citizen as well as an established fisherman, and he owned 3 purse seiners.  Nick decided to branch out and in 1931 he got into the airline business buying Alaska Southern Airways.  Before another decade had passed his fishing boats had become canneries and with the airline he was flying men and supplies from the mainland to Southeastern Alaska.  He later sold the airline to Pan American making a large profit.  By 1946 he owned West Coast Airlines.  This was also the year he began canning fish on board a large converted freighter belonging to the United States (something he had been doing on his own ships on a limited scale for a number of years), supported by the government in Washington and financed by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The avowed purpose of this undertaking was to prove 'that American fishermen could replace the Japanese’, who, in the years preceding World War II, caught and processed 66 per cent of the world's tuna in their floating canneries and virtually monopolized the multimillion dollar-a-year catch of the Bering Sea's huge king crabs. The experiment ended in 1948, deemed a complete success, and Bez returned to using his own floating canneries.

Nick Bez was one of the wealthiest and most influential of the Croatian Americans. He owned or controlled a string of fishing boats, four of the biggest salmon canneries in the Pacific Northwest, two gold mines, and an airline. His airline, Air West, an offspring of West Coast Airlines, was later sold to Howard Hughes for 100 million dollars.

He married (to the former Magdalene Dorotich, an American-born Croatian) and they had two boys. They settled in Gig Harbor and for around twenty years he would commute daily to Seattle to oversee his growing empire.  Eventually the family moved to Seattle where they established their permanent home.

Nick became a member of the Transportation Council of the United States Department of Commerce, the National Democratic Club, at one time serving as national treasurer, and many other organizations.  His influence was felt in Washington State politics as well.  His achievements were numerous.  His friends ranged from fishermen to bush pilots to presidents of the United States.

Because of his generous contributions to the Democratic party and his friendship with high government officials, including presidents, Bez has been accused of using his political connections to the detriment of small fishermen. This hurt the big fellow. He confessed that processors, including himself, "cotch too damn many feesh" to maintain an adequate supply. He favored a stabilization of the industry by developing new grounds and methods.

When Nick died in 1969 he had proved himself an industrious pioneer.  His rugged, adventuresome spirit led him to gamble against many odds, to come out the winner, and acquire financial independence and respect of his fellow men. His family still owns two houses and a lot in Millville.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. You blog post was too good. The way it is written are very neat and clean. Keep it up.

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