Thursday, March 7, 2013

Spiro Babich

Have you ever considered how many Horatio Alger stories have played their life out in our community? Consider the young people who left their homelands, crossed the ocean (and continent) arriving in Gig Harbor virtually penniless. As you learned in Nick Bez's story, his fortune was 50 cents.

Spiro Babich

In comparison, Spiro Babich was wealthy -- he had twenty dollars in his pocket when he arrived in 1910 from Croatia, off the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia.  Although the small town in which he lived was near the water, he came from a farming community some distance away in the countryside. His homeland was primarily an agrarian economy made up of small family farms growing olives, grapes, and vegetables.   

Spiro knew no English and, more surprisingly, did not know how to fish commercially. The only fishing he had done was to catch a fish for the dinner table. However, his brother Andrew was living here and he sponsored Spiro and became Spiro's employer. They first fished together on the seiner "President" where Spiro was engineer and Andrew was the skipper. As the two men became more aware of each other's instincts, they changed place.  

Spiro also benefited greatly from Samuel Jerisich's knowledge and success of fishing. Spiro married Julia Skansi, Peter Skansi and Melissa Jerisich Skansi's daughter May 20, 1919;  they had two son's, Peter and Paul.  Melissa died at age 23; Julia was born  July 22,1906.

By 1917, Spiro went off on his own and built the first of many vessels he would own during his lifetime. The "Superior," a 65-foot seiner, was the first of these. He would own and operate a boat for two or three years, then sell it and order another one. His next boat in 1924 was "Golden West." All in all, he owned around 20 purse seiners. Some of the others were "Vanguard," "Ranger," "Reliance," "Invincible," and in 1930 "Reliable," The only one he kept from first acquiring to the end of his year was the "Invincible" built in 1929.

Fishing boats "Sonia" and "Invincible" in harbor
He operated the "Invincible" from California to the Bering Sea at various times, and it was also used as a back-up vessel when needed.  It was finally sold in 1962.

In a very few years after arriving in America, Spiro had become enormously successful from commercial fishing. During the Depression he returned to Europe with his family on an ocean liner. This was a period in history that was not so generous with others who lost everything and when the stock market collapsed, people were jumping out of windows and off buildings committing suicide. Food lines were long and many were homeless, not only in America but also in Europe.

Spiro was one of the first local men to fish in the False Pass area of the Bering Sea and operated there for many years.  However in the early 1930s he also became very involved with the sardine fishing on the California coast. The "Reliable" was specifically built for sardine fishing in 1930 and the in 1936 his new boat, "Dependable" was built for sardine fishing as well, but lasted only one year before Spiro sold it along with all its equipment including nets, skiff, knives, forks, etc..

The next boat, "Crusader," was launched in 1937 but as Peter described it "she was a beautiful boat but had a 'hoodoo' career" The boat was eventually lost in Shumigan Islands, Alaska, while under charter.  

In 1940, Spiro's largest boat, "Western Queen" measuring in at 92-feet, was built. But when World War II began, the United States Government commandeered it and used it as a patrol boat. Spiro's fastest boat was built in 1944, the 90-foot "Liberator." It was one of the fastest fishing boats anywhere.

Spiro's last boat was the 66-foot "Julia B" and was used in False Pass, Alaska, and for local fishing in Puget Sound.

After Spiro passed away in 1957, a very fierce competitor paid him perhaps the ultimate compliment: "You know, there are a hell of a lot of fish gone up the river that wouldn't be there if Spiro were still alive."  A true testament to a man who, buy his own example, became admired and respected as the king of his domain. Or, as frequently remembered, as "the best fisherman in Gig Harbor."

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Correction re: Spiro Babich's Family History: Spiro Babich did not marry Samuel Jeresich's daughter Melissa. Melissa married Peter Skansie around the turn of the century. Melissa and Peter's only child, a daughter, Julia, was born in June 1901. Melissa died in February 1902. Spiro Babich married Julia Skansie in 1919. Their first child, a daughter, died shortly after birth in January 1920. They then went on to have two sons: Paul in December 1920 and Peter in May 1923. Spiro Babich was my paternal grandfather.