Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Steamboat Days on Lake Washington

Back in the early days of Madison Park, at a time when we were the principal port connecting Seattle to many of the towns on the Eastside, steamboats plied the Lake daily and their passengers thronged our dock on their way to or from work, school or shopping in Seattle. On weekends, Seattleites flocking to Kirkland and to other points in the “country” mingled on the dock with Eastsiders coming into town to play or shop. At that time, the Park played the kind of “vital link” role that Edmonds or Mukilteo play today for their communities “on the other side.”

The first motorized vessel on Lake Washington was reportedly a boat called the James Motrie, which arrived in 1870, according to the Seattle Times. The earliest passenger-carrying steamboats on the Lake were small vessels such as the Xanthus and the Cyrene, most likely the boats shown in the colorized postcard above. The Cyrene was primarily used for Lake cruising, rather than for scheduled service. As regular passenger traffic on the Lake increased, larger vessels were introduced, often built in Lake Washington shipyards, such as an early one located at Sand Point. The Acme was another early Lake cruiser:

In 1890’s and early 1900’s there were many different operators with boats plying the Lake, but as the new century gained momentum a former Lake Washington boat captain, John Anderson, became the dominant operator with his Anderson Steamship Co. He built a shipyard at Houghton (now Carillon Point in Kirkland) and ran his boats over much of the Lake, making landfall at as many as 50 different locations. Anderson took advantage of tourist interest in Lake Washington during the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in 1909, operating 12 different boats on various lake runs.

The Kirkland was an early sidewheeler introduced into the Lake:

By 1911, Madison Park had regular scheduled passenger service eight times a day to Kirkland and Juanita and seven times a day to Houghton and other communities in the Kirkland area.

This was in addition to sightseeing cruises that also originated at the Madison Park dock. Leschi was also a major transportation hub at that time, with scheduled service to Mercer Island, Medina and Bellevue.

The development of the auto resulted in some changes to transportation across the Lake, with at least one of the larger passenger ships, the Urania (shown above) being converted to carry a few cars as well as passengers. But the passenger-only mosquito fleet continued to exist alongside the auto-ferries, since the smaller boats were able to land at many more locations, and in any event most people did not have their own cars. Tragically, many of the early Lake steamships were the victims of poor technology and safety procedures, burning and often sinking to the bottom of the Lake. (The website of the Submerged Cultural Resources Exploration Team has the fascinating stories of three such wrecks, including that of the Urania, shown below after its 1914 burning off of Houghton).

In spite of these an other hazards, robust passenger-only ferry operations continued through the Great Depression and into the years of the Second World War. One of the boats with the longest record of service (1915-1945) was the Ariel, which was owned and operated by Marcus and Henry Johnson. Former Washington Governor John Spellman, whose family moved from Broadmoor to Hunts Point during the 1930’s, well remembers taking the Ariel (shown above) into Madison Park when he was a student at Seattle Prep during the early war years.

On a typical day, he recalls, the boat would touch docks in Houghton, Yarrow Point, Evergreen Point, Medina, and Hunts Point before making the run across the Lake to Madison Park. The captain would only pull into one of the Eastside docks if he saw someone was waiting to be picked up, otherwise it was on to the next. Steaming in the fog could be dangerous, and some mornings the boat took much longer than its normal 30 minutes to cross, with the captain tooting the steam horn periodically to listen for echoes.

The Johnsons regularly let kids into the cabin, but the adult passengers generally flocked to the lower deck, in the middle of which were the engines, sunken a bit below the deck level and surrounded by a railing. Passengers enjoyed playing cards or checkers to pass the time, and in winter it was the only place on the boat that was warm. Spellman can remember listening to the Billy Conn-Joe Lewis fight on the radio while crossing on the the Kirkland ferry one evening. He also tells of a memorable day when a black Labrador jumped off the dock at Hunts Point and swam all the way across the Lake in the wake of a sailboat. The dog, he recalls, got to ride on the boat going back.

During the war the passenger ferries carried large numbers of workers at the Houghton shipyard to and from their jobs. Spellman recalls that after the Ariel docked at the side of the Madison Park ferry dock in the afternoons, many of the returning shipyard workers high-tailed it into the dock restaurant and bar, where there were plenty of pin-ball machines and several of those early motion-picture machines. That’s probably where the restaurant made most of its money, Spellman believes. In any event, the restaurant did not outlast the end of the ferry runs in 1950.

Spellman feels that something was lost when the floating bridges eventually eliminated the need for passenger ferries on the Lake. Perhaps feeling like many present-day commuters from Vashon or Bainbridge, Spellman remembers commuting by boat across the Lake as simply a less-hectic, more joyful experience: “Simply put, it was a much more civilized time. You greeted and talked to fellow passengers--and you didn't honk your horn at them.”

Readers wishing to learn more about the history of steamships on the Lake should check out the Wikipedia article and note the book references cited at the end, in particular H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest by Gordon R. Newell.

[Pictures of the Kirkland and the Ariel, courtesy of the Kirkland Heritage Society, from Our Foundering Fathers by Arline Ely.]

1 comment:

  1. This is a great blog entry and a wonderful collection of pictures! Lake Washington buffs might also be interested in a video recently created about the history of the I-90 bridge (and transportation prior to the bridge) as told by Mercer Island's 90-year-old Historical Society co-president. Enjoy!
    With kind regards,
    Joy Johnston, Communications Coordinator
    City of Mercer Island


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