Puget Sound Ferries
Ferries have played a crucial role in transportation around the Puget Sound, centered on the Seattle metropolis, since the first settlers arrived in the region. The natural water locked geography of the region necessitates such means of transportation. Ferries have evolved throughout the decades, and to the surprise of some, continue to serve an integral, irreplaceable role in the transportation structure of the city of Seattle. They have grown from canoes capable of transporting 30-100 people to massive “superferries” that today can carry thousands of passengers across the Sound in relative comfort and speed. This section will chronicle the development of the ferry system as an integral part of transportation and a key component of the infrastructure of the Puget Sound region from their conception until present.
For white settlers on the Puget Sound, the first mode of ferry transportation was canoe travel. For a price, Native Americans would transport settlers from one place to another. In spite of primitive accommodations, the lack of schedules, and the slow pace, the Native Americans did deliver the customer to their destination safely. In addition to the canoes, sailing vessels also provided some water transportation for the region before the arrival of steamships. The seemingly endless supply of trees and the profits attached to logging attracted the earliest industry to the shores of the Puget Sound. The log piles, square timber, and sawed lumber were shipped using sailing vessels to San Francisco, Hawaii, and even Australia and China in exchange for sugar, salt, syrup, rice, dry goods, paints, liquor, tobacco, nails, and window glass. The 33 operational sawmills by 1854 fostered a growing economy that attracted new settlers. The growing economy and population necessitated an effective mode of water transportation. While sailing may have been safer than canoes for passenger travel, they were still slow and not well suited for the currents of the region. These conditions lead to the eventual introduction of steamboats to the Puget Sound.
Businessmen saw steamboats as a tool to increase the development of commercial interests, attract settlers, and gain bragging rights over Portland, Oregon. The general travelling public also desired a speedy mode of transportation up and down the Puget Sound, so much so that early entrepreneurs who brought steamships to the region were viewed as public benefactors. In late 1853, the steamship “Fairy” arrived from San Francisco and served for four years before sinking after her boiler exploded. The “fairy” was too small to be effective and safe but later steamboats gradually improved in reliability while maintaining the same general size. A series of initial steamboat ferries operated on the Sound throughout the 1850s, serving many purposes for many different travelers and businessmen. Once the 1850s ended, the era of the steamboat continued, fostering the development of many shoreline communities. For the next 60 years, Puget Sound residents depended on the services of small steamers nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet.
The Mosquito Fleet transported passengers and their goods between the metropolises of Seattle and Tacoma and the smaller, rural communities that dotted the Sound. The fleet of small steamship ferries stopped at every waterfront community and remained the main form of Sound transportation until the 1920’s. The Mosquito Fleet played a crucial role in the development of the Sound. Communities, isolated in dense forest where roads did not penetrate, prospered and existed due to their ability to connect to the bigger metropolitan areas using the fleet. The fleet included about 2,500 steamboats that averaged 100 feet long and carried approximately 300 passengers on about 25 routes on the Puget Sound by the turn of the century. Reflecting the “public service” spirit of the fleet, free mail delivery was a courtesy provided by most early steamers. In addition, most captains accepted lists of goods needed from isolated regions and delivered them on their next trip. Even the livestock crucial to small farmers arrived via the steamers. Mostly the steamers were a safe and reliable mode of transportation on the Puget Sound. This is noteworthy considering the wooden-hulled vessels with explosion prone boilers had to operate without radar in waters famous for blankets of fog that obscured all visibility. However, even though most of the time they were safe, a series of accidents helped speed up the eventual transition to steel hulled vessels. The progression of the steamboat business was toward larger, faster, more luxurious vessels that could drive competing steamboats out of business. Throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Mosquito Fleet vessel owners fought for dominance on the Sound. The development of the automobile put additional pressure on the ferry owners and operators. Indicative of the changing times, the opening of the Seattle-Tacoma highway in 1928, one of the first four lane highways in the nation, marked the beginning of the end for steamers.
The growing number of automobiles and their importance in the transportation system lead to the development of the Black Ball Line. Automobiles led to roads and the roads made it possible for passengers to drive to centralized ferry docks making stopping at every small community unnecessary. This led to a consolidation of routes, which reduced the number of ferries needed to cover the Sound. The consolidation coupled with the high cost of converting a passenger ferry to an automobile ferry shrunk the number of companies capable of maintaining a transportation service on the Sound. The two main highly competitive groups that survived the initial cuts to battle each other for supremacy were the Kitsap County Transportation Company and the Puget Sound Navigation Company (PSN). They had successfully absorbed smaller companies that operated on the same routes that they did by the 1930s. Only the south Sound area avoided intrusion by the two large companies because they operated under the umbrella of the Pierce County government. Eventually, in 1936, the Puget Sound Navigation Company, popularly known as Black Ball Ferries, won dominance over the Sound after surviving the turmoil of the Great Depression and the labor movements. Their position remained relatively unchallenged until 1951. The PSN grew through strategic purchases and mergers to staggering proportions, acquiring by 1942, 23 vessels capable of carrying 22,500 cars and 315,000 passengers daily. President of the Black Ball Line, Alex Peabody, whose father Charles Peabody founded the enterprise that derived the Puget Sound Navigation Company, and whose bloodline was rich with important characters in maritime history, piloted the company to its immense success. During this period in addition to the changes in ferry ownership and operation, the ferries and their routes themselves underwent several notable changes. The heavier load of the automobile in contrast to the individual passenger solidified the replacement of steam engines by diesel driven engines as the main power source for ferries. What also changed in this timeframe is the main direction of ferry travel. When north-south travel became obsolete due to highway construction, the focus changed to east-west travel between Seattle, the Kitsap Peninsula, and the Bainbridge and Vashon Islands.
All great things must come to an end, and even the powerful Black Ball Line could not fight the tides of public opinion. During WWII, the Black Ball Line served a crucial role in carrying traffic to the war production areas of the Puget Sound. The ferries between Seattle and Bremerton ran on the hour, 24 hours a day, during the war in order to connect the commuting employees of the Puget Sound Navy Yard and Bremerton. This level of convenient scheduling was unprecedented. In addition to the convenient scheduling, Peabody voluntarily agreed to general fare reductions and provided discounted fares for war workers. However, once the war ended and defense industries abruptly halted production, ferry traffic decreased considerably. This in turn decreased the revenue and forced a series of service cuts and rate hikes that the public did not find agreeable. After acclimating to the high level of convenience and low fares of the ferry service during the war, the public expected that level of service to continue into the post-war era. They did not realize that the huge cut in ferry traffic due to the end of war based production in the Sound made continuing the ferry service at the WWII level unrealistic and fiscally unfeasible. However, regardless of feasibility the public wanted the rates and service to remain relatively unchanged. The beginning of 1947 saw a 60% rate hike on the ferries, reductions in service and proposed pay cuts to ferry employees, which spurred a march on the state capitol by a discontent public, a series of strikes and walkouts by ferry employees, and a legal battle between the Puget Sound Navigation Company and the Northwest Washington Community Council (NWCC). The council, which consolidated public dissent to the changes to the ferry rates and service under the leadership of lawyers on the Vashon Islands, advocated a state run ferry system that they figured would reduce fares and steady ferry scheduling. The battle now raged in the state legislature, and the three way negotiations and discussions between the Washington Department of Transportation, the Puget Sound Navigation Company under the leadership of Peabody, and the NWCC began.
A series of strikes and walkouts plagued the negotiations, stranding thousands of commuters. The state frantically searched for ways to organize ferry transportation without using Peabody’s fleet. Disorganization and chaos ensued until finally on December 30, 1950 the state of Washington purchased all of the equipment and facilities used in Black Ball’s operations for 4900000$. The state would begin operating the ferries on June 1, 1951. The most ridiculous part of this entire affair is the fact that after the government takeover, the rates and schedules remained the same and the only things that changed were the color of the boats and the signaling call of the fleet, now called the Evergreen Fleet. Illogical and unfounded public opinion on ferry rate increases and scheduling changes, which were ultimately unavoidable, ended the Black Ball Line. This demonstrated the high number of complex factors that play a role in the evolution of Puget Sound water transportation.
Intended to only serve a temporary transportation role until the creation of several cross-Sound bridges the newly formed Evergreen Fleet has survived and continues to serve the Puget Sound. After acquisition of the PSNC, the state bought two diesel-powered ferries from Maryland in 1953, and built three additional ferries from 1954-1959 to supplement its fleet. Fares continued to increase under state administration during the sixties, however two notable state created improvements to the system occurred during the time period. In 1964, the state opened its own ferry repair and maintenance facility at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island. In 1966, a 3 million dollar ferry terminal opened on Seattle’s waterfront. The terminal includes 3 slips and 24 lanes, which reflects the large number of cross-Sound auto traffic in and out of Seattle. By the end of the decade, the state spent an additional 22 million on new vessels dubbed “superferries,” for their enormous size and capability of transporting commercial trucks. Low revenues and a scramble to invent new ways to make money off ferries, ideas such as offering tours of engine compartments and the actual implementation of alcohol sales on ferries, plagued the 70’s. In 1977, the ferries passed under the jurisdiction of the Transportation Commission. The commission consists of governor appointed members who serve for six-year terms. They set policy while the Washington State Department of Transportation actually runs the Washington State Ferry System (WSF). The Commission first decided to modernize several ferries originally built in 1927 in order to keep them in service until the end of the century. They then granted the largest state contract in history to a largely unknown local company Marine Power to construct several smaller vessels, which resulted in several sub-standard ferries and then years of legislation where the state tried to get its money back, in yet another state run ferry system debacle. The 80’s included more fare increases, decreasing passenger loads, and poor interior design, leading some to yearn for the good old days of the Black Ball Line and Captain Peabody. (Neal, Puget Sound Ferries: from Canoe to Catamaran, an Illustrated History.)
The fleet expanded again from 1997 to 1999 with the arrival of the Jumbo Mark II-class vessels, Tacoma, Puyallup and Wenatchee. Each vessel carries 2500 passengers and 212 vehicles. Construction of a new high-speed passenger-only class ferry, the Chinook, was also completed during this time frame. The Snohomish, the Chinook's sister ship, was completed from 1999-2001. Outside of the Puget Sound, Washington State Department of Transportation Eastern Region operates the toll-free Keller Ferry for vehicles on the Columbia River. Still plagued by inefficiency, the taxes used to fund operating and capital expenses have been raised over the years in order to cover growing operating and capital costs. In 2000 the State’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Recommendations, set a goal of 90% farebox recovery for ferry system operational costs within 20 years. In response to this recommendation the Washington State Transportation Commission mandated that the ferry system farebox generate a minimum of 60% of the system’s operating expenses. The remaining percentage is provided by tax support from the State. These taxes are collected mainly through gas tax and other transportation taxes levied throughout the state. In fiscal years 1998 and 1999, the ferry system generated revenue to cover 65% and 66% of its operating costs, so the goals set are being met so far.
Today, WSF is the largest ferry system in the United States. WSF serves eight counties within Washington and the Province of British Columbia in Canada. Counties served include Pierce, King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Skagit, Island, San Juan, and Jefferson Counties. WSF’s existing system has 10 routes and 20 terminals that are served by 28 vessels. In fiscal year 1999, the peak passenger year, WSF carried over 26 million people and 11 million vehicles—over one million more walk-on and vehicle passengers and 500,000 more vehicles and drivers than in fiscal year 1997. The WSF has identified major freight routes to be the Anacortes-San Juan domestic run as well as the Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton routes. Bainbridge Island also receives a lot of truck traffic in the early mornings, with freight comprising up to 80% of vehicles on the 5:30 AM trip. The Superferries that began in the 1960’s are responsible for freight being able to travel using the ferry system today.
Issues faced today with regards to ferries include forecasting future economic climates. This includes incorporating likely fuel price increases as well as wage fluctuations as a result of labor union negotiations. Major financial investments in both vessels and facilities will be required to respond to service demands. The Washington State Ferry System also plans improvements to terminal facilities in a complicated environment where local governments and ferry users expect a collaborative process. Some projects take place in shoreline communities where significant Federal and State environmental planning requirements must be satisfied. Significant improvements have been proposed for many terminals. Coordination with local community planning and regional mass transit development is a key part of all projects. Several examples of proposed improvements and the corresponding local communities that need to be worked with include the City of Seattle and the Colman Dock improvements, the Port of Kingston and its property, with Whidbey Island residents about changes to the Keystone dock and holding area, the Mukilteo and Anacortes multimodal terminal projects and the Bainbridge Island terminal. The much smaller cities of Friday Harbor and Port Townsend on the north ferry corridor are currently negotiating the same terminal and local issues with WSF. Local communities usually have concerns relating to traffic congestion, pedestrian and bicycle transportation access, and the potential impact on local businesses, the environment and residents. Citizen and stockholder participation related to changes to parking garages, or other locations where cars coming off the ferry stopover, and vessel size is important to small communities. Ferry officials must also decide whether to keep the existing system-wide maintenance yard at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, or move it to another location. A consultant’s study in 2001 found that moving the yard would save money, but ferry executives disputed that finding, mentioning costs not considered by the consultant, such as new night security, and the cost of tugs needed to bring ferries in and out of the recommended new location of the yard, Pier 90/91 on Elliott Bay. Complicating the decision-making is the fact that the City of Bainbridge Island wants WSF to complete a State Environmental Impact Statement for its current work at Eagle Harbor. This study could raise additional mitigation issues and associated costs.
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Current active ferries on the Puget Sound
The examples listed above are a few of many projects currently underway. The ferries have evolved over the decades, from small vessels to large privately and then state owned vessels. While the economic hardships are clearly visible when dealing with running an efficient ferry system, I think it is evident that the ferries of the Puget Sound are here to stay. They play an irreplaceable role stringing together all of the towns and cities of the region. The physical ferries themselves have proven to be both reliable and efficient at accomplishing their task, maybe one day the officials running the ferries and the general public will be just as reliable and efficient with their expectations. (The League of Women Voters of Washington, Washington State Ferries: Both a Part of the States Highway System and a Mass Transit Provider).
Neal, Carolyn, and Thomas Kilday, Janus. Puget Sound Ferries: from Canoe to Catamaran, an Illustrated History. Sun Valley, CA: American Historical, 2001. Print.
The League of Women Voters of Washington. Washington State Ferries: Both a Part of the States Highway System and a Mass Transit Provider. Seattle: League of Women Voters of Washington Education Fund, 2007. Www.lwvwa.org. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.lwvwa.org/pdfs/studies/WSF_Study.pdf>