AMLI Residential
Back Arrow
Back to Blog Home
Around The Area

A Brief History of the Washington State Ferry System

Mar 27th, 2023

Ever been on a Washington State Ferry?

If not, you should!

Here’s a brief history of the WA State Ferry system that has been transporting people for nearly two centuries!

History of ferries on the Puget Sound

Early Seattle history

Seattle isn’t all that old of a city in terms of European settlers. In fact, there’s a tortoise that, at the time of this writing, was born almost a decade before white settlers arrived at Alki Point and who is still alive and kicking today!. 

(The tortoise’s name is Jonathan, by the way, and he was born in 1832).

Fun facts aside, it goes to show that in the grand scheme of things, the Puget Sound’s European-American history isn’t all that old. 

Now, Native Americans and indigenous peoples had been traversing the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years, and they used handmade canoes to expertly navigate the rivers and waterways in and around the Puget Sound. The first appearance of a steamship in the Pacific Northwest was only in the 1830s, when the Beaver arrived from London to provide service to coastal regions from the Columbia River up to Alaska. A decade later in the 1840s, settlers from Portland, Oregon, made their way into the Puget Sound and established their small town of Seattle on the eastern shores of Elliott Bay.

Seattle was established as a lumber town and, as such, needed to be accessible by water in order to transport lumber back down to Portland and California. There were no roads or highways then, either, and not only did people need boats to travel down to California, but they needed boats just to get from their homes on the shore to the town, to the forests and anywhere else they needed to go. 

In short, waterway transportation was vital to the survival of early Seattle settlers in the 19th century. 

The Mosquito Fleet

The first American steamboat to operate in the Puget Sound was the Fairy, which arrived from San Francisco in 1852. This steamboat was the first to maintain a set schedule around the sound, and it opened up more opportunities for trade, transportation and industrialization in the area. 

More boats were introduced as steamboat travel became more and more popular, and by the 1870s a handful of privately-owned and company-owned steamboats operated on the Puget Sound. Though popular, steamboat travel was not without its difficulties, as the fog, mist, rain and complex waterways caused many a steamboat to sink into the murky depths. 

There was also the constant risk of running a coal furnace on a wooden ship — the risk of fire.

Fire, incidentally, was what boosted the steamboats’ popularity even higher toward the end of the 19th century. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 led to a boom in population in the decade following the city’s reconstruction, causing steamboat travel to grow in demand — that, as well as the bad roads and difficult land terrain that made driving, walking or riding almost impossible. 

By the first two decades of the 20th century, the Puget Sound’s ferry services were nearly entirely made up of what was called “the Mosquito Fleet” — a collection of small steamboats zipping across the waters of the Sound with people, animals, food, supplies, merchandise and anything else that needed to be transported. This web of boats allowed people to live almost anywhere on the shorelines and islands in the Sound, all while remaining connected to the growing towns, city and the larger world around them. 

Fall of the Mosquitos and the rise of the Ferries

Steamboat travel through the Mosquito Fleet remained the primary mode of transportation for residents of the Puget Sound until the 1920s, when more focus was put into road infrastructure and automobile ownership began to rise. 

Safety inspections had also steadily increased as more and more accidents were attributed to faulty construction, inadequate safety measures and poor lifeboat conditions. As the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service cracked down on enforcing stricter safety rules, more and more boats failed to meet the standard and were retired, abandoned or sold. 

By 1929, only two steamboat lines remained operating in the Puget Sound — following a strike by the ferry worker’s unions in 1935, there was just one. The single remaining company, Black Ball Line, attempted to stay in business by raising passenger fares, but the state prevented them from doing so and, in the late 1940s, the last steamboat line in the Mosquito Fleet shut down. 

The Washington State government bought the assets from the shut-down Black Bell Line in 1951 and reinstated several lines in order to keep up with the demand for transportation. The state also commissioned a few automobile ferries from the Puget Sound Dredge and Bridge Company in 1953 to facilitate transportation around the Sound, though there were plans in place to replace the ferries with a system of bridges around the islands. 

Those bridge plans, as we can see now, were never approved, and the WA State ferry system continued to commission larger and larger ferries to keep up with the increasing automobile and passenger population. The day-to-day management of the system was shared by both the Toll Bridge Authority and the State Highway Commission until 1977, when they were both absorbed into the Washington State Department of Transportation.

WA State Ferries today

The WSDOT continues to run the ferries to this day, and its extensive fleet of 21 ferries connects around 23 million passengers to Tacoma, British Columbia and everywhere in between each and every year. The impressive collection of ferries varies from simple 64-car vessels to giant 202-car behemoths, with a passenger carrying capacity ranging from 800 to a whopping 2,500 through the fleet. 

Next time you’re on a ferry for a tour, for a drive, for a work trip or for a priceless view of the city, take a good look at the cold waters and forested shores of the Puget Sound. Chances are that 200 years ago, someone just like you was staring out at the gray, misty Washington shores with the same cool wind nipping at their nose as they watched the waters pass quietly by. 

Who’d have thought, huh?

Bon voyage!

Pin it!

Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/debannja

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

Arrow icon.View All Posts by Colleen Ford
share this post