Then and now: A history of our state ferries

Then and now: A history of our state ferries

With two jumbo ferries plying the waters between Edmonds and Kingston daily, year-round, on a regular timetable, it’s startling to think back 50 years.

Half a century ago, a single 80-car vessel operated by herself most of the time. Traffic surges were met by the addition of supplementary vessels with only start times given, and even that, not for the public, and scheduling for the rest of the day was unheard of.

In that context, the all-time record for number of vessels on the route was reached in August and September 1967.

The regular vessel was the Nisqually, formerly the Mendocino on pre-bridge San Francisco Bay. She was built in 1927 and refurbished repeatedly by both the Black Ball Line and Washington State Ferries and was in the steel-electric class because steel hulls and diesel-electric power were something of a novelty 90 years ago.

She lasted on Puget Sound until 2007, though 1967 was her last year as a regular here.

In No. 2 position was normally the Klahanie, formerly the Golden Age, also a Bay import, and while a year newer, was never refurbished. Her lifespan was about 15 years less.

As a boy, I liked to dig souvenir chunks of wood out of her rotting posts holding up the passenger deck. Her overheads leaked so badly that the passenger deck was awash when it rained.

Her elder sister Kehloken, ex-Golden State, was two years her senior and also showed up often, borrowed from Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth.

The last double-ended steam ferry in the West, the San Mateo, was typically No. 3 on the weekends but ran from Seattle to Bainbridge Island during the week. She was active first in the Bay and then on the Sound from 1922 to 1969.

For most of the summer of 1967, Leschi ran Fridays and Sundays.

She was originally a side-wheel steamer on Lake Washington but was a propeller-driven diesel by the time she migrated to the salt chuck. Her last run was Palm Sunday of 1968 at Edmonds-Kingston.

Bing Crosby’s uncle had a ferry line called Crosby Direct Line from Alki Point to Manchester. In 1925 he built his flagship, the Crosline. She later operated in the San Juans and to Sidney. During World War II, she ran from Vancouver to North Vancouver across Burrard Inlet. Then she, with a waiver because of her Canadian flag status, was re-registered in the U.S. and rebuilt for the Point Defiance-Gig Harbor route.

Skansonia, built in 1929, was another Gig Harbor ferry that, after the second Narrows Bridge opened, operated on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah (Vashon Island) route.

On Sundays Aug. 13, 20 and 27, and Sept. 3, and Labor Day Sept. 4, 1967, the line-up was: Nisqually, Klahanie, San Mateo, Kehloken, and Leschi.

Car capacities were 80, 55, 55, 55, and 32, respectively, but were actually a bit overstated. Compare that with the Puyallup and Walla Walla’s 202 and 188 this summer!

But the little mosquito fleet sure kept the traffic moving as there was always a boat in and another one coming. In those days, there was only one working slip in Kingston and only one tie-up slip, so three of the vessels paraded up from Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island one by one and then, at the end of the day, sailed south again.

Sometimes it was after midnight before the vessels were released and started their return voyages, because five-boat service continued until every motorist was carried.

One Sept. 1, the run had five vessels: The Olympic, ex-Gov. Harry W. Nice, originally from Chesapeake Bay, broke down at Mukilteo-Columbia Beach. The Leschi was diverted north to cover for her and — being a holiday weekend — both the Crosline and Skansonia were also called out to join the Nisqually and Klahanie with San Mateo coming up from Seattle-Winslow after rush hour as the fifth boat.

Nowadays, the whole state fleet is purpose-built with no used tonnage from Maryland, California, Lake Washington, or the private carriers that preceded state ownership.

The motley fleet was colorful, but varying car deck clearances, speeds, and maneuverability made operations much more complicated. What was nice was the commitment to get everyone carried as soon as possible with no one left on the dock at the end of the evening, such as happens now.

However, the convenience of our large ferries, dependable schedules, and two-boat service every day of the year surely outweighs the hit-and-miss approach of the old timers.

Nevertheless, for those given to nostalgia for the veteran fleet of yesteryear, there is a certain longing for the baroque operations of a half-century ago.

The Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Village Green Community Center. The meetings are open to the public.

— Rex Lee Carlaw is a lifelong follower of ferries and a member of Kingston’s Ferry Advisory Committee.

Then and now: A history of our state ferries
Then and now: A history of our state ferries