The El Primero: An Old Lady and her stories

El Primero#5
The El Primero was a fixture on the Tacoma waterfront. A local group is trying to bring the old boat back to town.

For over half a century, the 121-year-old luxury yacht the El Primero cruised the waters of the Puget Sound — its sleek steel hull and double masts an unmistakable silhouette. She was a fixture of the Tacoma waterfront and a frequent host to American presidents visiting the Pacific Northwest.

The stories — more than her 120-foot length and exquisite woodwork — distinguishes the El Primero from other boats.

The El Primero’s illustrious career began in 1893 in San Francisco. One of the first steam-powered yachts built at the time, the vessel was commissioned for Edward W. Hopkins, an avid boater and heir to the Hopkins fortune.

Hopkins sold the boat to Chester Thorne of Tacoma in 1906, and thus started the yacht’s extended stay on Puget Sound.

The power brokers of Tacoma were frequent guests aboard the yacht, according to Tacoma historian Ron Magden. It was the place to be.

“You came aboard to be with presidents,” Magden said. “(William Howard) Taft practically lived here.”

Its colorful history reads like a Tom Wolfe Jr. novel.

Shortly after arriving in Tacoma, Thorne lost the El Primero to Sidney Albert “Sam” Perkins in a poker game played on her elegant stern deck. Although no can recall what Perkins put up against the boat, Magden said aces and eights was the hand that won her.

The El Primero became a favorite toy of Perkins, a prominent local booster and newspaper publisher. He entertained guests — famous and infamous — on her lovely decks, often ferrying them to Filucy Bay on the southern tip of the Key Peninsula.

El Primero#6
The elegant 120-foot luxury yacht is tied on a dock by the Foss Waterway Museum in June 2014.

I hope to compile as many of these stories as I can. With your help, this can be a dynamic record of your encounters with the El Primero. Send me a note at if you have a story to tell or have photos of the old boat.

Read about a local group working to bring back the El Primero to Tacoma here:

Contact information:

The group working to bring back the El Primero to Tacoma is led by Richard Hildahl and Stan Selden. Hildahl can be reached by telephone at 253-884-1400 or by email at

How to send tax-deductible donations:

The Tacoma Historical Society is accepting tax-deductible donations for the restoration and maintenance of the El Primero.

Send your contribution to: El Primero Project c/o Treasurer, Tacoma Historical Society, P.O. Box 1865, Tacoma, WA 98401.

Here is the link to the Tacoma Historical Society page for the project:

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