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:
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.
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.]