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Steel-electric ferries leave rugged legacy
Vessels sit in Eagle Harbor awaiting end.
One year after they were yanked from service, the four remaining steel-electric ferries still rest at the maintenance yard in Eagle Harbor, awaiting one last trip.
WSF has sold the the 81-year-old boats to Environmental Recycling Systems, which plans to tow them to Mexico where they’ll be scrapped for parts and metal.
It will mark an unceremonious end for ferries that served the Puget Sound for more than 60 years. The steel-electric ferries will leave in their wake a generation of memories and a legacy of rugged reliability.
When they were first introduced to Washington in 1940, a varied fleet of ferries was already crisscrossing Puget Sound.
Ferries operated by Puget Sound Navigation Co. (also known as Black Ball Line) served six Kitsap County communities, according to the book “Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound“ by M.S. Kline and G.A. Bayless. Along with the modern routes, boats ran from Seattle to Manchester and Suquamish, and from Fletcher Bay on Bainbridge’s west side across Rich Passage to Brownsville.
With the Agate Pass bridge still a decade away, 14 sailings from Seattle to Eagle Harbor connected Bainbridge’s rural communities to the mainland. Bremerton was the busiest Kitsap route, with 15 daily sailings to and from Seattle. The fast growth of the U.S. Naval Shipyard in Bremerton had PSNC seeking more boats to help shuttle workers and supplies across the Sound.
Meanwhile, ferry service in the San Francisco Bay Area was an industry in decline. Once a thriving extension of railway companies, ferries were experiencing a precipitous dip in demand following the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and other new connections in the Bay Area. PSNC had already bolstered its fleet with surplus ferries from San Francisco and it jumped at the chance in 1940 to buy six diesel-electric-powered ferries – built in 1927 – when they became surplus.
For $330,000 the company bought the Fresno, Lake Tahoe, Mendocino, Redwood Empire, Santa Rosa and Stockton – later re-christened the Willapa, Illahee, Nisqually, Quinalt, Enetai and Klickitat, respectively.
Among the men who towed the six boats north to Seattle that summer was islander and ferry skipper Oscar Lundgren, the first of many Lundgrens to work aboard the steel-electrics. His son, Robert Lundgren, said the tow boats were caught in a vicious storm, which nearly sank the Illahee.
“They ran into a storm off the coast of Oregon one night,” Robert Lundgren said. “Guys on the tugs, they cut the Illahee loose, and it was still floating the next morning.”
The steel-electrics helped anchor ferry service in Puget Sound as World War II brought a wave of activity to Kitsap County.
When the state bought the Black Ball Line in 1951, the six steel-electrics were among 16 boats absorbed into a new Washington State Ferries fleet. During the 1950s, WSF overhauled the steel-electrics, widening their hulls and reconfiguring their decks.
In the 1960s, WSF sold the Enetai and Willapa, which had been converted into single-ended ferries. Today the Enetai, under its original name Santa Rosa, is moored off the San Francisco waterfront and used as a floating entertainment center, complete with ballroom and bar. The Willapa also was returned to California and refitted as a storage center.
The remaining steel-electrics were refurbished again in the 1980s.
Robert Lundgren, who skippered ferries from 1958 until retiring as WSF fleet commodore in 1986, said the boats were plagued by mechanical issues in their early years in Puget Sound, but over time became very reliable.
“You could depend on them once they got the bugs worked out,” Lundgren said.
A generation of Puget Sound residents grew up riding the ferries, and many still harbor fond memories.
Robert Lundgren’s son, Stephen, worked his way through college on WSF boats. He recalls the well-appointed cabins of the steel-electrics, which seemed to hearken to the golden era of steamships.
“Like any other islander of the mid-century days, I would return home from Seattle aboard the Illahee,” Stephen wrote in an e-mail, “and all I have to do to remember is hold one of those solid, cream-tan coffee mugs (which are probably still tucked into the back corners of many island kitchens), fill it up with strong, hot coffee and remember the galley on a rainy, rough evening crossing, as cigar smoke wafted up forward from the stern smoking salon; I walk up through the cabins of dozing commuters, poker games of decades-long bidding, and tuck myself out on the lee deck, into a sheltered corner below the wheelhouse, to watch the late rays of the sun setting over the south Olympics.”
Stephen’s nostalgia isn’t shared by Edward Hagemann of Seattle, who from 1967 to the late 1980s worked as a ferry engineer and designer for Nickum and Spaulding Co.
The steel-electrics may have been reliable and cozy, but their safety was very questionable, Hagemann said. While the boats underwent two major overhauls, they were continually grandfathered under U.S. Coast Guard regulations, rather than being upgraded to meet increasingly stringent safety standards. Extensive fire prevention measures implemented in the 1940s didn’t find their way onto the steel-electric boats, which have extensive wood trim and other combustible materials, Hagemann said.
More disturbing, Hagemann said, were the boats’ single-compartment hulls. They were never retrofitted with multiple compartments, which would help them maintain buoyancy if a collision penetrated one section of the hull. The steel-electrics’ outdated safety standards made them accidents waiting to happen, Hagemann said.
“I would have liked to have seen them go in the 1980s,” he said.
Instead, WSF continued to use the steel-electrics until November 2007 when they were yanked from the Port Townsend-Keystone route after cracks and pitting were discovered on the hull of one of the boats. Since then they have been stored in Eagle Harbor awaiting sale.
WSF listed the vessels in July on eBay with a minimum bid of $350,000 per boat, but received no offers. Because the ferries’ grandfathered status under Coast Guard standards had lapsed, they could not be used again as passenger vessels.
In September WSF announced it was negotiating a deal with Recycling Systems to unload all four boats for $500,000. WSF spokesperson Joy Goldenberg said no date has been set for the removal of the steel-electrics.