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The ferry Leschi makes its last run, ending ferry service on Lake Washington on August 31, 1950.
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On August 31, 1950, the ferry Leschi makes her final run between Kirkland and Seattle. Nearly 70 years of regularly scheduled passenger service upon Lake Washington comes to an end. The opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940 has brought about the ferry system's gradual demise. A band of loyal patrons try to maintain its operation to the bitter end, but to no avail.
The Ferry Beginning
Boat service began on Lake Washington in the late 1800s, when steamers were the only easy form of transportation to the Eastside. One of the first vessels used to transport goods and travelers eastward was the Squak, a 41-foot, flat-bottomed steam scow built by Edward F. Lee in 1884. The Squak plied the waves of Lake Washington and also made trips up Squak Slough and Squak Lake (renamed Sammamish Slough and Lake Sammamish) to Tibbets Landing (site of Issaquah).
The Squak sank in a storm on Christmas day, 1890, leaving her captain, Frank Curtis, boatless and jobless. Curtis, along with his sons Al and Walt, went into business for themselves, and commissioned Lee to construct the Elfin, a 60-foot ship with a 13-foot beam. Beginning on July 4, 1891, the Elfin made six round trips a day started at 7:10 a.m. from Northup's Landing (renamed Yarrow Bay), to Kirkland and Houghton on the east side of Lake Washington, then onto the foot of Seattle's Madison Street on the west side of the lake, for a fare of 10 cents each way.
Fire destroyed the Elfin in 1900, but by then the lake was awash with boats. The Curtis family had their own shipbuilding business on Yarrow Bay (on property that would become the Lake Washington Shipyard), and other boats such as the Peerless, the Mist, the Kirkland, and the Mary Kraft were transporting passengers and goods back and forth across the lake.
That same year, the King County Port Commission established a public ferry on Lake Washington at the insistence of Kirkland residents. The steamers were too small for wagons and horses, and made too many stops along the shoreline. The King County of Kent became the first double-ended ferry on the lake, and offered a direct route between downtown Kirkland and Madison Park. Soon after, the larger Washington of Kirkland took over the run.
Captain Anderson's Follies
Little steamboats competed with the county, but one by one Captain John Anderson, an entrepreneur and an expert on operating a boat business, bought them up. By 1908 the Anderson Steamboat Company had cornered the market on all independent boats, and Anderson had opened the Anderson Shipyard south of Kirkland. His Urania and Fortuna were the speediest boats on the lake.
Since the county-run ferry had a regular schedule, Anderson used this to his advantage. He'd simply show up at the public ferry dock a few minutes before the Washington, scoop up the passengers and zip away. Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Port Commission. Kirkland businessmen were also upset, because of the reductions in the public ferry's receipts. The city was dependent upon their business.
After much legal wrangling, Anderson was ordered to stay away from the ferry dock at the end of Kirkland Avenue, although he could still use other county docks free of charge. But Kirkland's dock was the best for business, so Anderson's business suffered. But Anderson recovered.
By 1920, the ferry system was running deeply into financial straits. The public who once clamored for a county-run ferry turned fickle and now complained that the ferries were better off privately owned. So, the county appointed Captain John Anderson as superintendent of ferries. If anyone knew how to run a ferry system, it was he.
Although Anderson wasn't able to turn a profit for the Lake Washington Ferry System, he was able to staunch the flow of red ink. From 1922 to 1935, he kept the county's losses at only $114,000. This quelled the taxpayers, and Anderson being at the helm of the ferry system kept both public and private sectors happy.
But in 1940 the Lake Washington Floating Bridge opened, marking the beginning of the end of ferries on Lake Washington.
A Bridge Too Far
When the bridge opened on July 4, 1940, the ferry Lincoln had been the only ferry on the Kirkland-Madison run for 25 years. Launched in 1915, one year before the lake was lowered in the creation of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the Lincoln was an institution, having never missed a scheduled trip. Weighing in at 580 tons, she was the largest ferry ever to run on Lake Washington and her roominess and speed made her a favorite with commuters. But, in the new era of bridges, she was an antiquity from days gone by.
She was retired, and replaced with the Leschi, ironically, an older boat originally built by Captain John Anderson. The Leschi was constructed as a sidewheeler in 1913, but had since been rebuilt as a ferry boat, giving her a more modern appearance. Kirkland commuters dealt with the adjustment of riding a different boat, but soon took a liking to her.
The new floating bridge was miles away and required a toll. This maintained the Leschi's usefulness to Kirkland residents, and many still preferred a relaxing ferry ride. With the outbreak of war in 1941, the ferry brought many workers to the Lake Washington Shipyard, which built sub-tenders and other small naval vessels for the war effort. In fact, the years 1942-1945 were the only years that the ferry system saw a profit.
After the war, the demise of the Leschi came into sight. She was considered too old and too slow, and her passengers dwindled. By 1949, the bridge was paid for, and the tolls came off. Ferry service would have ended right there, if not for the perseverance of a coalition of Kirklandites who refused to let go.
End of the Line
In August of 1949, Kirkland Mayor Harry Everett asked King County to subsidize the ferry for $7,500. King County officials hemmed and hawed, while ferry officials looked for ways to decrease costs. The King County commissioners eventually turned down the request. The last run was scheduled for January 30, 1950.
Just after the "final run," the Leschi got one last chance. On February 2, 1949, King County, the City of Kirkland, and the Inland Boatmen's Union agreed to a trial arrangement whereby the crew would operate the boat and would not make any claims against the city if the revenue did not cover the payroll.
Prices were raised and the ferry ran throughout the summer, but the short paychecks for union members proved to be too little. Ideas were floated to replace the Leschi with passenger-only ferries like the Silver Swan or the Shearwater but nothing came to pass. This time, there would be no last minute reprieve.
At 9:15 in the morning of August 31, 1950, the Leschi left Madison Park for the last time. At 9:35 she tethered in Kirkland, never to serve again on Lake Washington.
Washington State Ferries later bought the Leschi for use on Puget Sound. In 1968, she was sold to a fishing company in Alaska, and was towed north for use as a salmon cannery. After years of hard labor she was abandoned and has since capsized. She now lies listing in the muck near Valdez -- an ignominious end for the last regular service ferry boat on Lake Washington.
Arline Ely, Our Foundering Fathers (Kirkland: Kirkland Public Library; 1975), p. 73-80, 89-90, 112-116; "State Assistance for Ferry Sought," East Side Journal, August 25, 1949, p. 1; "County Commissioners Reimburse City $2,592 for Dock Maintenance," Ibid., December 29, 1949, p. 1, 12; "Final Fight for Ferry is Fomented," Ibid., January 26, 1950, p. 1, 10; "Lake Ferry Service May Be Restored," Ibid., February 2, 1950, p. 1; "Union May Operate Leschi Ferry," Ibid., May 11, 1950, p. 1; "Leschi, Belle of the Lake Since 1913, Kissed Good-Bye Here Today," Ibid., August 31, 1950, p. 1; "A Little Bit of Kirkland has Disappeared Forever," Ibid., July 7, 1966, p. 13; "Sale of Leschi Dashes Hopes of Its Return Here," Ibid., November 27, 1968, p. 13.
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Ferry Leschi departing from the Kirkland ferry dock, 1940s
Postcard courtesy Bart Ripp
Ferry Leschi on Lake Washington, 1940s
Lake Washington ferry schedule, 1943
Courtesy Kirkland Heritage Society
The Steamer Squak on Lake Washington, 1890s
View of Lake Washington from Houghton (Kirkland) with steamer in foreground, 1900s
The sidewheeler Kirkland, Lake Washington, 1890s
The Steamer Elfin, 1890s
Kirkland ferry dock, 1920s
Courtesy Kirkland Heritage Society
Ferry Leschi at Kirkland dock, 1940s
Lake Washington Bridge, 1940s