The Kalakala was originally built by the Moore Shipbuilding Company and named the Peralta. She hesitated on her 1927 launch, the sure sign of a bad luck ship, according to many seafarers. For six years, she operated as the Peralta, a double-ended ferry on the Oakland to San Francisco run. But on the night of May 6, 1933, the Peralta burned to her waterline. Alexander Peabody, president of Seattle’s Puget Sound Navigation Company, purchased the hull for $10.00 and towed it to the Lake Washington Shipyards in Kirkland for a dramatic redesign.
Peabody wanted a new ferry to accommodate increasing traffic between Seattle and Bremerton, home of the United States Navy Yard and gateway to the Olympic Peninsula. He needed a fast, dependable ferry to make eight roundtrips each day through the fogs and currents of Puget Sound. Peabody assembled a team at the shipyard to design a revolutionary superstructure that would transform the Peralta’s charred wreckage into the extraordinary Kalakala, “the flying bird,” in the Chinook Indian jargon.
At its debut in 1935, the Kalakala was the largest and fastest ferry on Puget Sound, a bold statement of imagination from the depths of the Great Depression. To enable her to achieve the desired speed of 18 knots, the team redesigned Kalakala as a single-ended ferry with a 3000-horsepower diesel engine, the largest ever installed in a ferry. To reduce drag, the Kalakala’s running lights were inset into the bridge and the lifeboats were recessed into the stern on either side.
The ship demonstrated the latest aerodynamic principles. From a distance, the Kalakala looked like a great silver seaplane. Its sleek futuristic shape was sheathed with steel plates, welded rather than riveted together, and then coated with gleaming aluminum paint. Electric welding was a new technique in shipbuilding, allowing flexibility in design. The Kalakala was a bold departure from traditional marine architecture.
From the start, a number of participants claimed design credit for the Kalakala, and the puzzle remains unsolved today. Some accounts credit engineers from the Boeing Company or craftsmen from Lake Washington Shipyards. Others credit Alex Peabody or his mother, Mrs. Charles Peabody. The grandest tale is that Norman Bel Geddes designed the Kalakala. Certainly his streamlined designs inspired the Kalakala team, but the great avant-garde industrial designer had no direct hand in the ferry. Louis Proctor, one of The Boeing Company’s two model makers, carved the builder’s wooden model while temporarily laid off by the airplane manufacturer. Shipbuilders used Proctor's model in lieu of drawings to construct Kalakala's stylish new superstructure.
Inside, the Kalakala was a luxurious ferry by local standards. Accommodations would do credit to an ocean liner, enthused Pacific Motor Boat in 1935. The Kalakala's five decks boasted ample room for 2,000 passengers. There were three large observation rooms and a sun deck, as well as the famous double-horseshoe lunch counter. The ladies’ lounge was finished in harmonizing shades of brown, and 500 velvet-upholstered easy chairs offered comfortable seating in the public areas.
Below the auto deck, the Kalakala provided shower rooms and lockers for the comfort of Bremerton shipyard workers, as well as the men’s lounge and bar. In 1935, local observers remarked, “This vessel represents twentieth-century progress.”
After only a year on the Sound, the Kalakala was a tourist attraction. She drew one million riders during each of her first six years on the job, carrying workers to the Bremerton shipyard by day and partygoers on dance cruises by night. The Kalakala boasted her own eight-piece orchestra, The Flying Birds, whose music was piped throughout the ship for dancing. Into the 1960s, the Kalakala was a favorite choice for special excursions and summertime cruises to Port Townsend and Victoria.
The ferry is also remembered for less flattering reasons. As the Peralta, she had been a bad luck ship; as the Kalakala, she was renowned for noise and vibration, and suffered accidents from her first days on Puget Sound. The ship's streamlined superstructure partially blocked the view from the pilothouse, and the Kalakala was prone to collision. She ran into a dozen other vessels including the tug turning her around in Victoria Harbor and her own companion ferry on the Bremerton run, the Chippewa. The Kalakala struck the Colman ferry terminal in Seattle dozens of times during her career, causing increasingly costly damage to the dock.
The Kalakala sailed Puget Sound for 32 years. Perhaps 30 million passengers rode the ship during her lifetime in Seattle. She sailed out of the Depression and into Century 21, the 1962 World's Fair. But her days were numbered. In 1935, the ferry could accommodate 110 automobiles; by 1967, only 60 automobiles fit on her cardeck. As fewer passengers walked onto the ferry, the Kalakala grew increasingly expensive to operate, her safety record raised concerns, and she needed a major overhaul. The Kalakala was auctioned off in 1967 to an Alaska fish packer for $101,551. The ferry’s new owners converted the ship to a floating fish processor; then in 1972, grounded her as a cannery on Kodiak Island.
Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis first saw the Kalakala in 1985 and determined to bring her home. In 1991, he founded the Kalakala Foundation to return the prodigal ship to Seattle, and restore her to new life. In the summer of 1998, the Foundation purchased the vessel from the City of Kodiak. On June 24, 1998, Seattle’s streamlined ferry floated free, and was towed home to Seattle’s waterfront, arriving on November 6, 1998, to welcoming crowds.
The foundation’s efforts to restore the Kalakala did not meet with success. The old ferry was first moored at Pier 66 on the Seattle waterfront for five months in an effort to attract financial support. The foundation needed $1 million to bring the vessel into dry dock and from $5 million to $12 million to fully restore it. In March 1999 it was moved to the north shore of Lake Union and moored. There the Kalakala received complaints as an eyesore and as a hazard. The foundation slipped further into debt and the property owner issued an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. In March 2003, the foundation filed bankruptcy, its assets (the Kalakala) valued at less than its liabilities ($1.2 million).
In September 2003, after a complicated and disputatious auction, Tumwater entrepreneur Steve Rodrigues purchased the ship for $135,560, planning to make it into a dinner theater. Because the Kalakala had been evicted from Lake Union, he got the ferry moved to Neah Bay. That arrangement lasted until the Makah tribe sued to have the ferry removed. The U.S. Coast Guard and the State Department of Natural Resources also ordered Kalakala out. In September 2004, Rodrigues had the derelict towed to a new berth on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma.