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.
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.
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.