Puget Sound's historic "Mosquito Fleet" consisted of many hundreds of steamships that steamed from port to port around the sound from the 1850s to the 1930s. They were so numerous that people said they resembled a "swarm of mosquitoes." The heyday of the Mosquito Fleet ended in the 1930s when competition with rail and road transportation put the fleet out of business.
From the days of the earliest tribal canoes to the early 1930s, Puget Sound and the Inside Passage (the sheltered channel of water that runs between the British Columbia/Alaska coasts and the islands) constituted the major transportation corridor of the Northwest. Along this corridor, stretching from its southern reaches near Olympia, north to the Alaskan Panhandle, nearly everything people needed moved by water transport.
Eventually, thousands of steam vessels, large and small, were built to move settlers, troops, farm produce and livestock, machinery, timber, the mail, and everything else needed to build and serve the settlements that sprang up along the coastline. Every settlement, no matter how small, had a pier or float. These "whistle stops" were their link to the greater community.
The Little Fairy
Although other early steam vessels ventured into Puget Sound, such as the Hudson Bay Company’s Beaver, the diminutive and under-powered Fairy was the first steamer to provide regular service among Puget Sound ports. This San Francisco side-wheel steamer began regular service between Olympia (population about 50) and the new settlement of Seattle in 1853, just after the Denny party arrived at Alki. Steam power promised more reliable service -- something that could be scheduled -- than did the sailing ships that were at the mercy of Northwest’s fickle winds.
After a boiler explosion sent the Fairy to the bottom of the Sound in 1854, the small sloop, Sarah Stone, quickly replaced her. Several other steamers tried their luck on Puget Sound, including Traveler, Major Tompkins (nicknamed Pumpkins), Resolute, and Wilson G. Hunt. Most eventually met with disaster in one form or another.
The Great Eliza Anderson
Steam power was not firmly established on the Sound until 1859 with the arrival of the 140-foot side-wheeler Eliza Anderson from Portland, Oregon. "Old Anderson" would be the first of many grand steamers on the Sound, and she proved to be a gold mine for her owners. Her name became a household word during her 40-year career. Many other grand steamers soon followed, including:
- North Pacific
- T. J. Potter
- George E. Starr
- Bailey Gatzert (named after the Seattle businessman and later mayor).
A Swarm of Steamers
By the 1870s, Seattle’s central location within Puget Sound contributed to the city’s emergence as a major maritime transportation hub. The coal bunkers at the foot of Pike Street and the busy sawmill at Yesler’s Wharf also contributed to Seattle’s preeminent position. By 1876, Seattle was homeport to more steamers than any other city on Puget Sound. By the turn of the century, 19 of the 25 established routes stopped in Seattle.
The halcyon years of the Mosquito Fleet lasted from the 1880s to the early 1920s. Over the years, some 700 or more individual steamers (there have been larger estimates) were part of the Mosquito Fleet. Each community, no matter how small, depended on the steamers for their link to the greater community.
Individual steamers became linked to significant events that shaped the social history of the Northwest. On the evening of November 18, 1906, 45 people, a large portion of the working force of the Port Blakely Mill, perished when the small steamer Dix was cut in two by the steam schooner Jeanie.
The steamer Verona carried approximately 250 Wobblies (labor activists in the Industrial Workers of the World) from Seattle to Everett on November 5, 1916. There a dockside confrontation with the police resulted in the death of two deputies and five activists and the wounding of many others. This day would become known as "Bloody Sunday" or the "Everett Massacre."
The fastest and grandest steamers were put on the best and most profitable routes. The Seattle-Tacoma route was served by such famous steamers as
- H. B. Kennedy
- Tacoma -- the fastest steamer of all.
This route was one of the last routes to survive competition from the electric interurban lines and later from the rapidly developing highway systems with their automobiles and trucks.
The End of an Era
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, regular passenger and freight service among Puget Sound communities had reached the end. The completion of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in 1935, released a fleet of diesel-electric auto ferries that would soon come to Puget Sound to replace the old Mosquito Fleet vessels. The last scheduled run occurred in 1939. There is only a handful left; the rest were scrapped or left to rot, replaced by the cars and trucks on the Interstate 5 corridor and by Washington state’s modern ferry system.
The last remaining steam-powered survivor of the Mosquito Fleet is the National Historic Landmark Vessel Virginia V. She was built in 1922 to serve the communities along Colvos Passage on the west side of Vashon Island. She was restored for use as a working museum and excursion vessel and is once again steaming on throughout Puget Sound as a living reminder of Puget Sound’s historic Mosquito Fleet.