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Originally published April 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 25, 2007 at 10:41 AM

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Missing the boats: a look at retired Washington State ferries

In all, the state has disposed of 18 old ferries, from the oldest, the Chippewa, built in 1900, to the most recent, the Tyee.

Seattle Times staff reporter

They sit at the bottom of the ocean from California to Alaska, these old state ferry boats that for years traversed Puget Sound and ended up with an ignominious death.

Or not.

Some are still alive, though on life support, and a couple are even having a glorious second coming.

In all, the state has disposed of 18 old ferries, from the oldest, the Chippewa, built in 1900, to the most recent, the Tyee.

Steve Pickens, who knows them all, has researched their histories and posted them on his Web site, www.evergreenfleet.com.

It was a labor of love, said the Anacortes man who has had the Web site running for eight years and has a ferry-postcard collection in the hundreds.

"It's always been part of my life," he said. "Growing up on the Kitsap Peninsula I watched boats segue from steamships into ferries."

He said his favorite boat was the San Mateo, which in 1947 started on the Seattle-Suquamish route. "She was a little different. She was the last steam-powered ferry in operation on the West Coast, and there were little touches of a bygone era elegance: stained-glass windows, wooden benches, carved posts."

But it has a sad ending, he said. On his Web site he writes, "In 1994, she was purchased by a Canadian man and towed up to the Fraser River. [The owner's] plans included a dance studio, museum and other uses, but sadly he did nothing to the vessel. The San Mateo, pilfered of many of her fittings, sat and slipped further and further into decay. Eventually she crossed the line of being completely impractical to restore. Her ownership is now somewhat in doubt and it appears that the San Mateo may likely be hauled off for scrap."

And then there is the Kulshan, which Pickens said has the unique distinction of being among the most loathed ferries to ever sail Puget Sound waters.

"While a dependable boat, she was never popular," he said. "Her open deck and flattened profile was often greeted with, 'That's the ugliest ferry I've ever seen' by many commuters used to full-service ferries with large passenger cabins and galley service. The Kulshan didn't have either."

Here are thumbnail sketches of some of the other retired ferries:

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Vashon: The Vashon was one of three ferries built for the Kitsap County Transportation Co. between 1925-30. After the Washington State Ferries began in 1951, the Vashon moved to the San Juans, where it worked for the next 18 years. Sold in 1982, the ferry lingered on the waterfront near Colman Dock for a few years. Supporters of the ferry were unable to raise the money to bring it to Friday Harbor for use as a restaurant or floating resort. After being used as a hostel in Port Townsend for one summer, the ferry was taken to Alaska by its owner, planning to use the vessel as a supply boat. Outside of Ketchikan in June 1986, the Vashon ran aground and eventually sank.

Klahanie: Arriving here in 1938, the Klahanie worked the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Harper route from 1950-58. Retired in 1972, it spent a few years at Eagle Harbor, then was purchased in 1975 to be a floating shopping center and restaurant in California but never moved south. Questions were raised about who actually owned the vessel at the time, and it was seized by U.S. marshals. It was sold again and ended up in the mud along the banks of the Duwamish River, rotting away. The ferry either caught or was set on fire in late July of 1990. In 1998, when the first Superfund monies arrived to clean up the river, the carcass of the Klahanie was finally broken up.

Kehloken: In 1937, this all-wood ferry sailed into Puget Sound, where it worked on a Bainbridge Island run. While at work on the route, it was the ferry that was loaded with Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island who were sent to internment camps. It sailed through Puget Sound for 35 years before it was retired in 1972, and sold for $25,000 in 1975. The new owner towed the ferry to Lake Washington to be converted into a club house and restaurant. After four years of lingering on the lake, it was set ablaze in 1979 and burned to the waterline.

The hulk was cleaned up and taken over by the Department of Natural Resources. What remained of the Kehloken was towed to Possession Point on Whidbey Island and intentionally sunk for use as an artificial reef. Today, the Kehloken site is a popular spot for scuba divers.

San Mateo: In 1947 the San Mateo started on the Seattle-Suquamish route, and was used throughout Puget Sound. It made a final run from Edmonds to Kingston in 1969. It remained at Eagle Harbor until 1971, when the Washington Parks Department bought the ferry to turn it into a museum. It was towed to Lake Union, and for the next 30 years money was funneled into the vessel and restoration work was started on and off. Talks of turning it into a McDonalds fell through, and it looked as if the San Mateo was destined to be scrapped. In 1994 it was purchased by a Canadian man and towed up to the Fraser River, where the owner planned to convert it to a dance studio, museum and other uses, but he did nothing to the vessel. Ownership is now somewhat in doubt, and the ferry likely may be hauled off for scrap.

Kalakala: It is probably the best-known of the retired fleet because of its checkered history. The Kalakala made its official debut in 1935 and was used primarily on the Seattle-Bremerton run. For a dollar, passengers could dance to swing music broadcast live from the boat and it was the most-popular ferry in the fleet. It made its last run in 1967, moved to Eagle Harbor and was put up for sale. Sold to the owner of American Freezerships, the Kalakala was moved to Ballard and during the year had most of its interior gutted. Cannery equipment was installed, and it was readied for a long trip to Alaska.

It was later abandoned until Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis while working as a fisherman, caught sight of the ferry stuck in the mud on Kodiak Island. That started his campaign to save the boat and return it to Washington. It eventually was returned to Seattle, after an absence of 30 years.

But after struggling for years to raise the money, the Kalakala Foundation filed for bankruptcy. The ferry was sold at auction. The third-highest bidder eventually got the boat. He tried for months unsuccessfully to move it from Lake Union and finally took the boat to Neah Bay, where the Makah Tribe had offered to give the historic vessel free moorage. That offer soon soured when the Kalakala damaged the pier where it was moored. On Sept. 24, 2005, the ferry was moved to Tacoma.

"She's just marking time," said Art Skolnik, an architect who was involved in the boat's preservation. "It can still have a future."

Enetai: After arriving in Puget Sound in 1940, it worked for years on the Bremerton run. Taken out of service in 1968, it spent time in Eagle Harbor until it was purchased by Hornblower Yachts, which restored the ferry to its old Southern Pacific look and is now used for parties. It currently is moored at Pier 3 in San Francisco.

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