Walter Coates begins ferry service across the Columbia River via Puget Island in June 1925.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 12/13/2006
  • Essay 8029
See Additional Media
In June 1925, Walter Coates begins regular service across the lower Columbia River using twin eight-car diesel ferries. He operates one ferry between the town of Cathlamet and Puget Island, both in Wahkiakum County, and a second ferry between the other side of the island and Westport, Oregon. The two-ferry river crossing is made possible by the opening of a road across the two-and-a-half-mile-wide island. Coates uses an old Buick to shuttle foot passengers from one ferry to the other. Ferry service between Cathlamet and Puget Island ends after a bridge opens in 1939, but in 2006 a ferry still runs between Puget Island and Westport. The ferry Wahkiakum, operated since 1962 by the Wahkiakum County Public Works Department, is the last ferry operating on the lower Columbia.

In the 1920s, water routes provided the primary, and often the only, means of transportation for residents of the lower Columbia River, as they had for thousands of years. In Wahkiakum County, the state highway connecting Cathlamet, the county seat, to Longview in Cowlitz County did not open until 1930, with extensions westward coming later. Until then, not only Puget Island but many communities on the mainland were accessible only by water. Steamboats and sailing schooners carried passengers and freight between Wahkiakum towns and river destinations like Astoria and Portland, while small fishing boats and skiffs provided local transport.

First Cars

When automobiles appeared, they had to be loaded awkwardly onto steamboats not designed for the purpose or else carried to their destination by barge. That changed for Puget Island in 1925 when a gravel road across the island was opened and Walter Coates began car ferry service. At first, the eight-car, diesel powered Cathlamet carried cars from Cathlamet across Cathlamet Channel to Little Island (a small island separated from the main body of Puget Island by a narrow slough that the Puget Island road crossed), then around to the far side of Puget Island and across the main channel of the Columbia and up Westport Slough to Westport, Oregon.

By June 1925, Coates had put an identical eight-car, diesel ferry, the Westport, on the Westport to Puget Island run. Cars could now take the Cathlamet from the Wahkiakum County mainland to Little and Puget islands, cross the island on the gravel road, and board the Westport for the crossing to Oregon. Coates used an old Buick touring car to transport foot passengers and ferry crews over the Puget Island road between ferry terminals.

Coates sold the ferry service in 1932, fearing that as the highway on the Washington side extended downriver he would lose business to the Astoria ferry. But the two-ferry river crossing at Puget Island continued under other owners until 1939, when the opening of the Puget Island-Cathlamet Bridge (now the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge) eliminated that ferry crossing.

Last Ferries

By then Elmer Danielsen and his wife owned and operated the Puget Island to Westport ferry. In 1948, the Danielsens built for the run the Alamar, a 14-car ferry that cost $43,700. After the Danielsens ended operations in 1959, Wahkiakum County took over the ferry service, using leased equipment for several years.

In 1962, the County commissioned construction of a new ferry, the Wahkiakum. It cost $46,000, featured a navigation system and twin diesel engines providing 300 horsepower, and accommodated 12 cars on its 36-by-75-foot deck. The Wahkiakum has made the one-and-a-half mile run between Puget Island and Westport ever since. Operated by the Wahkiakum County Public Works Department, it operates 365 days a year, making at least 18 runs a day.

The Wahkiakum is the last ferry on the lower Columbia and (along with the Keller and Inchelium-Gifford ferries in Eastern Washington) one of only three Columbia River ferries still operating in Washington.

Sources: "Wahkiakum County Public Works Department," Wahkiakum County website accessed November 30, 2006 (; "Other Pacific NW Ferry Services," Washington State Ferries website accessed November 30, 2006 (; "The Puget Island Ferry," Highways of Washington State website accessed November 30, 2006 (; Toll ferry at Puget Island, Wahkiakum County; Legislative Study (Olympia: Washington State Department of Highways, 1970); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Ferryboats on the Columbia River, Including the Bridges and Dams (Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1974), 18, 21-23; Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven: A History of Wahkiakum County (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1997), 99-104.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You