Folks climb aboard the futuristic ferry Kalakala on Lake Union in Seattle on September 7, 1950.

Long before motorized ships chugged through our regional waterways, wooden canoes conveyed indigenous people through Puget Sound’s collection of craggy inlets. Travel by boat in these parts was, and still is, essential.

By the late nineteenth century, ferry boats were a popular mode of transportation for well-to-do Seattleites and workers alike. Both groups rode privately run steam-powered ships to work; laborers sailed daily from homes in town to jobs at sawmills on Bainbridge Island. In 1888 the City of Seattle offered the first regularly scheduled ferry service in the Sound, hauling passengers, wagons, and cattle from West Seattle to downtown in just eight minutes. By the early 1900s the “mosquito fleet” and its 700-odd small steamers traversed some 34 Puget Sound routes, many of which are still used today.

In the 1930s the art deco flair and futuristic contours of the Kalakala made the vessel an attraction unto itself. But the Washington state ferry system as we know it was born in 1951, when the state purchased the Black Ball line of vessels from a reluctant Captain Alexander Peabody, whose Puget Sound Navigation Company had a near monopoly on regional ferry crossings. Ships received a paint job that’s still familiar today—white with forest green trim. Over the years, the fleet was modernized to carry bigger cars and more passengers. More than half the members of this so-called original Evergreen Fleet were built in the ’50s and ’60s. Many are since retired, but some continue to operate, such as the Tillikum, a 60-year-old ship that will cruise as a service relief vessel for her remaining years until the next generation of ferries emerges. —Rosin Saez

Passengers fill the Kalakala's curvy interior in 1951.


Wild on the Waves

From missing persons to medical crises, a list of outlandish tales at sea.

► In 1983 the captain of the Elwha steered into Orcas Island’s Grindstone Harbor to impress a woman, since dubbed “the siren of the San Juans,” with a closer look at her waterfront home. Instead he ran aground, causing $250K worth of damage.

► An ESL educator and author from Bellevue abandoned her van and purse on a Bainbridge-bound ferry in 2009. She was never seen again.

► While boarding the Bainbridge–Seattle ferry in 2012, a woman went into labor. The “any doctors on board” call fetched a midwife, an OB/ GYN, and two EMTs. Baby Lucy came into the world just as the vessel came in to dock.

► The Life Ring Award honors ferry employees for bravery in times of emergency, but last year it went to a passenger: A Navy nurse saved a man whose heart had stopped by performing CPR for 14 minutes straight until they arrived in Kingston.

► In December 2018 an irate Bremerton man, antsy to make the boat, cut the line at Colman Dock and rammed into a ferry worker with his Mercedes. He was later charged with felony assault. And, no, he didn't make the sailing. —Anne Dennon

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