Virgil Maddax: West Linn’s Boat Builder

By Roger ShepherdMarch 2014

The property now known as Maddax Woods, a West Linn park at the north end of River Street was once the site of a thriving boat building business. Soon after Virgil Maddax married Dorothy Sommer in 1941, they rented a canoe and paddled up the Willamette River looking for a piece of land where Virgil could build and launch boats. They found and purchased the perfect property along the river in West Linn, and Virgil soon began building a house for the newlyweds to live in. But with only the foundation completed, a man from Newport asked Virgil to build a boat for him. The house was put on hold, Virgil built a boat barn and he and Dorothy lived in an 8’ x 15’ tool shed for two years while he split time between building boats and the house.

Virgil Maddax was born August 28, 1898 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Maddax family moved to Oregon City when Virgil was three years old. His father worked in logging and farming. As a young man, Virgil worked in commercial fishing out of Astoria fishing for Pacific Salmon. In the late 1920’s, Virgil built his first boat, the Loretta, in Oregon City.

Virgil built a reputation for his boat building, constructing ocean-going boats 40 to 60 feet in length. Most of the boats Virgil built were wooden, but his last three built boats were steel hulled. He was featured in the magazine Pacific Motor Boat. Some of the boats he built include the Hornet (built in 1941), Ceres (1942), Lucky Strike (1948), Blue Sea (1949), Blue Belle (1961) Lorrayne (1966) and the Mar Azul (1969). The Lorrayne, a 60 foot steel-hull pleasure boat was built for J.T. Low of Beaver Creek. Low sailed the Lorrayne to Alaska, Mexico and Europe.

Beginning in 1949, the Maddax’s would launch their 40-foot boat, the Blue Sea, in June from their property in West Linn, sail down the Willamette and Columbia Rivers to Astoria, then down the coast to San Diego, where they would fish for Albacore tuna off the coast of Southern California. The Blue Sea’s refrigerated hold held eleven tons of tuna and could stay out at sea with three weeks of provisions. When the tuna season ended in September, they would return to West Linn and Virgil would resume building boats. After retiring from commercial fishing in 1963 at the age of 65 due to medical reasons, Virgil and Dorothy sailed to Mexico and Alaska on pleasure trips. Their cat, Suzy, would accompany them on their boat trips.

Dorothy Sommer was born June 16, 1914 in Portland. She worked at Montgomery Ward before marrying Virgil Maddax. Dorothy was well known for her gardens on their property and a long-time member of the West Linn Garden Club. She was also an award winning flower arranger. The Maddax’s would purchase grain by the ton to feed the ducks and geese on their property.

Virgil died on October 31, 1991 at the age of 93. Dorothy continued to live on their property until her death on September 13, 1999. They bequeathed the land to the City of West Linn to be used as a passive park. The Friends of Maddax Woods formed in 2001 to maintain the grounds and restore Dorothy’s gardens. Another goal is to rebuild Virgil’s boat barn to be used as an interpretive center. The Friends have been holding their annual Lighting of the Woods since 2004.

Several of Virgil’s boats are still in use today, including the Mar Azul (docked in Seattle), Lorrayne (Friday Harbor), Blue Belle (Ilwaco), Lucky Strike (Port Angeles), Ceres (Coos Bay) and the Hornet (Newport).