Ferry Rhododendron enters service on April 17, 1954.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 2/21/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5262
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On April 17, 1954, the ferry Rhododendron enters service on Puget Sound. Washington State Ferries (WFS) bought the ferry, originally named the Governor Herbert R. O'Conor, from the Maryland State Road Commission. This is the first ferry WSF buys after taking over the ferry system from the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1951. The Rhododendron is put on the Lofall-South Point run on Hood Canal.

Coast to Coast

The Governor Herbert R. O'Conor was built in 1947 for use on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. With the recent completion of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the Maryland State Road Commission had little more use for the ferry.

Washington State Ferries, still a young organization, was experiencing growing pains. More ferries were needed in the fleet, but building new ferries took time and money. Rather than spend close to $2 million for a new vessel, the agency looked elsewhere. The O'Conor cost only $300,000, with another $200,000 used in rehabilitation work.

In November 1953, the boat left Baltimore under tow, and spent the next month traveling to Seattle via the Panama Canal. For the next three months she underwent retrofitting and performed in sea trials. During this time, the vessel was renamed the Rhododendron, after Washington's state flower.

Ten Minutes Each Way

The Rhododendron was 226 feet long, with a beam of 67 feet. Her 1,600 hp engines allowed her to travel at a speed of 12 knots. Originally, the vessel carried a crew of 13 who lived aboard the boat four days a week and spent three days at home, in what the WSF called the "touring-watch system."

The day before the Rhododendron was placed into service, she performed a trial run for newspaper reporters and other dignitaries. Leaving Colman Dock on the Seattle waterfront, she traveled to Winslow on Bainbridge Island, and then headed south. Halting at Alki Point she performed alternate half-circles, returning to Colman Dock after an hour and a half on Puget Sound.

When placed in service, the Rhododendron was put on Hood Canal. Although the cross-canal trip only took 10 minutes, the Rhododendron proved to be a bottleneck breaker years before the completion of the Hood Canal Bridge in 1961.

Fifty-eight Years of Service 

The Rhododendron served Washington ferry riders for 58 years. A major overhaul in the early 1990s extended its life for two decades, which it spent on the Tahlequah/Point Defiance run between Vashon Island and Tacoma. When the newly built Chetzemoka replaced the Rhododendron on that route in January 2012, WSF retired the old ferry.

Later that year, WSF offered the Rhododendron for sale at a public auction with a minimum bid requirement of $300,000 -- exactly the price (ignoring inflation) that WSF had paid for the vessel nearly six decades earlier. One bid, for the minimum, was received, but the bidder did not go through with the purchase. Instead, in February 2013, WSF sold the Rhododendron for $275,000 to Atlantic Capes Fisheries, Inc., which operated shellfish farms on the East Coast and on Vancouver Island. ACF subsidiary Island Scallops planned to remove the vessel's engines and use it as a floating platform for handling scallops at several Vancouver Island scallop farms.


M. S. Cline, and G. A. Bayless Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1983) p. 317; "New Ferry in Service Saturday," Seattle Post-Intelligencer April 16, 1954, p. 8; "64-Car Ferries -- Project Timeline," Washington State Ferries website accessed April 17, 2014 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Ferries/64CarFerries/timeline.htm); "WSF Weekly Update," November 30, 2012, and March 1, 2013, Washington State Ferries website accessed April 17, 2014 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/weekly); "Washington Ferry Rhody Sold to BC Scallop Farm," The Seattle Times, February 28, 2013 (http://seattletimes.com/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Public views refurbished ferry Rhododendron on May 18 and 19, 1991." (by Alan J. Stein), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 17, 2014).
Note: This essay was updated and corrected on April 17, 2014.

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