Point Defiance Park was established in 1888 when President Grover Cleveland authorized the federal military reserve to be used as a public park. As early as 1895, the Park Board leased space for a boat stand, restaurant and float at Point Defiance Park to J. Olson for $5 a month. The first permanent boathouse was built in 1903 by Edwin Ferris. Ferris agreed to pay for the construction of the boathouse if he could run it for ten years, at which time he would turn the building over to the Park Board for their use. Ferris’s beautiful octagonal boathouse/pavilion was an immediate success.
Visitors came to the park via ferries, steamers and private boats to tie up at Ferris’s dock or travel along a trail from the original streetcar station. In 1919, the Park Board hired Ambrose Russell to design a new, larger, more permanent boathouse for the waterfront. Only one wing of Russell’s design that included a central tower with two long projecting wings was ever built. The first floor of the 90 x 170 concrete building was finished in 1921. The second and third floors were finished in 1925. Unfortunately, the financial realities of the Great Depression prevented completion of this ambitious project.
In 1933, Ferris’s original octagonal pavilion was removed and a trial aquarium was placed in the first floor of the new pavilion. The entire first floor was converted to an aquarium with its star resident for many years being Dub Dub the seal. The aquarium moved to the grounds of the zoo in 1963. In 1939, a Works Progress Administration built a new boathouse facility on the site of Ferris’s original boathouse. In 1974, a fire destroyed the upper two stories of the 1919/1925 pavilion. The bottom floor is still used for boat storage today. In 1984, a fire also destroyed the WPA era boathouse. The present boathouse opened in 1988.
Even though the physical structures have come and gone over the years, the boathouse complex of Point Defiance Park has always been a focus of fishing and waterfront activities. For many years, water carnivals drew thousands of people to the boathouse to enjoy the fun and fishing derbies are a long-time tradition that continues today. Park visitors continue to visit the beachfront where they can rent boats, fish, eat ice cream or clam chowder, picnic and enjoy the view.