Ferry service between Port Townsend and Edmonds returns, after a 40-year absence, on February 21, 1979.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/20/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5080
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On February 21, 1979, ferry service between Port Townsend, located on the northeast point of the Olympic Peninsula at the entrance to Puget Sound, and Edmonds, located in southern Snohomish County north of Seattle, resumes after a 40-year absence. The 160-car ferry Kaleetan makes the first run from Edmonds to Port Townsend and back. It is the first ferry to ply the route since the Chetzemoka did so in 1939. Inaugurated eight days after part of the Hood Canal Bridge sank during a severe storm, cutting a key highway link between the Olympic Peninsula and the rest of the state, the new run supplements existing ferry service between Port Townsend and Keystone on Whidbey Island. But it is only temporary -- it will be discontinued a year later, to the dismay of merchants and residents in both Edmonds and Port Townsend.

The previous Edmonds-Port Townsend run had ended on April 30, 1939, when the Puget Sound Navigation Company's ferry Chetzemoka blew its landing whistle there for the last time. The rise of automobile transportation had made the boat run, like many others that used to connect communities around Puget Sound, unprofitable. The 1961 opening of the Hood Canal Bridge further increased highway travel, providing a much more direct route for residents and tourists wishing to drive between the Olympic Peninsula and the population centers of Central Puget Sound. The bridge, the first floating bridge ever built across tidal salt water, stretched more than a mile across Hood Canal, a long natural fjord separating the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, near its mouth.

More Ferries Needed

The sinking of the bridge's west half on February 13, 1979, cut that crucial highway route and made the temporary return of the Edmonds-Port Townsend route a necessity for Washington State Ferries. Without the bridge, the only routes between the Olympic Peninsula and Central Puget Sound were either to drive south down the west side of Hood Canal and access the eastern Sound via the Bremerton ferry or the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or to take the ferry from Port Townsend to Keystone on Whidbey Island (the ferry terminal on the west side of the island that would be renamed "Coupeville" four decades later in 2010, although it is some five miles from the city of Coupeville), and then use the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry or the Deception Pass Bridge to reach the east shore of Puget Sound.

Within days of the bridge collapse, delays were mounting on the Keystone-Port Townsend and Clinton-Mukilteo ferry runs. Ferry officials immediately put the Keystone-Port Townsend run on its summer schedule, with nine round trips per day instead of the usual February schedule of five, and began making preparations for one of the system's 160-car "superferries" to provide direct service between Edmonds and Port Townsend, "the first new ferry route in many years" for Washington State Ferries (Lane, "Ferry-bus Shuttle Seen ...").

Necessary preparations to accommodate larger ferries at Port Townsend than used on the Keystone run included dredging the ferry slip, strengthening the wing walls, and working with the city to provide parking and staging areas for the additional automobile traffic. By Wednesday, February 21, eight days after the bridge went down, the new Edmonds-Port Townsend ferry route was in operation.

Short-lived Return

On the Kaleetan's first trip, she carried an Edmonds delegation, headed by Mayor Harv Harrison, which was greeted by a Port Townsend delegation on arrival. The return trip to Edmonds was delayed for a short time due to problems with an overheight truck. Ferry officials had to juggle vessel assignments in order to free up the Kaleetan. The 260-car Walla Walla was taken off of the Seattle-Winslow run and put on the heavily utilized Seattle-Bremerton run. The 160-car Elwha took over the Winslow run. The 100-car Klahowya was placed on the Edmonds-Kingston run, previously used by the Kaleetan. All of these shifts allowed the passage of more automobiles across Puget Sound.

The reinstated Port Townsend-to-Edmonds ferry boosted traffic in both cities, snarling streets but bringing more business to merchants on both ends of the run. To their dismay, the route lasted less than a year. On February 9, 1980, the Tillikum made the last run between Edmonds and Port Townsend, and was then moved to the Vashon Island run, freeing up the Nisqually to provide car-ferry service across Hood Canal, where the sunken bridge was still more than two years away from being rebuilt. The Nisqually ran between Lofall on the eastern, Kitsap Peninsula side of Hood Canal and South Point on the Olympic Peninsula side, a few miles south of the bridge location. It supplemented the cumbersome service provided by two barge ferries put in place after the bridge sank, which had been the subject of ongoing complaints by Olympic Peninsula residents. The Lofall-South Point ferry run remained in service until the Hood Canal Bridge reopened in October 1982.

In addition to responding to complaints about service across Hood Canal, Department of Transportation officials pointed to declining travel on the Edmonds-Port Townsend run when they ended it in February 1980. Despite efforts by officials and business leaders in both Edmonds and Port Townsend to revive the car-ferry run, and a short-lived effort later that year to operate a private passenger-only ferry, which was abandoned after two weekends, ferry service between Port Townsend and Edmonds was again a thing of the past.


"Port Townsend Ferries are Back After 40 Years," Enetai , February 26, 1979, p. 10; Stephen H. Dunphy and Richard Buck, "Shortest Distance Is a Long Drive," The Seattle Times, February 14, 1979, p. B-12; Bob Lane, "Ferry-Bus Shuttle Seen for Hood Canal," Ibid., February 16, 1979, p. A-10; Lane, " Port Townsend Ferry Run Ready," Ibid., February 20, 1979, p. A-6; Lane, "Port Townsend Ferry Traffic Backs Up," Ibid., February 23, 1979, p. A-1; Herb Belanger, "Port Townsend Mayor Wants Ferry Service Kept," January 31, 1980, Ibid., p. C-8; "75-car Ferry to Begin Regular Lofall-South Point Service," Ibid., February 6, 1980, p. B-5; "Private-ferry Owner Closes Down Edmonds-Port Townsend Service," Ibid., June 18, 1980, p. A-15; Janice Hayes, "Snack No More at Lofall -- Hood Canal Bridge Is Back," Ibid., October 25, 1982, p. C-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Hood Canal Bridge sinks during a severe storm on Tuesday, February 13, 1979" (by Priscilla Long), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 13, 2016).
Note: This essay, including its title, was revised on February 13, 2016.

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