Between the 1880s and 1920s, an armada of steamships known as the Mosquito Fleet was a main means of transportation on Puget Sound. Often jerry rigged, usually reliable, occasionally less seaworthy than they should be, and always more functional than fashionable, the ships steamed across the waterway transporting people and goods. By sailing nearly anywhere there was water, the Mosquito Fleet was essential to the growth of Puget Sound by allowing people to live anywhere along its 1,332-mile shoreline and still stay connected to the world around them. In the time before roads and extensive rail lines, the vessels were threads that helped knit together community.
Coming of the Steamer
For millennia, water was the primary travel corridor in Puget Sound. Although no evidence exists from the earliest time that people entered the region more than 12,500 years ago — because any wood, hide, or bark boats would have long decomposed — canoes were the primary transport for probably the last 5,000 years. Archaeologists favor that date because that is when the climate reached conditions favorable to the widespread growth of western red cedar, the best tree for canoe making. Over the millennia, the residents created beautiful, functional canoes that helped forge the culture of the region for its Indigenous residents.
With the arrival of European settlers, water travel began to change. First to arrive were sailing vessels (Coast Salish canoes could also be equipped with sails, made of hide or bark, but would have been about half the length of George Vancouver's (1757-1798) 96-foot HMS Discovery). In 1836 the reliance on wind and human energy to power boats lessened when steam-powered transportation reached Puget Sound in the form of a legendary vessel, the Beaver. It was built on London's Thames River for the Hudson's Bay Company as a paddlewheeler, then converted to a sailing ship to travel to the United States. The Beaver arrived in April 1836 at the HBC's Fort Vancouver, where workers converted the 101-foot boat back to a steam-driven paddlewheeler. (Sometimes listed as the first steamer on the Pacific Ocean, it was not. Earlier steamships include the Rising Star (1822) and Telica (1825), which operated in South America; the Forbes (1830) and King-fa (1832) in China; and the Sophia Jane, Surprise, and William the Fourth (all 1831) in Sydney, Australia.)
Curiously, the Beaver wasn't actually wanted at Fort Vancouver. In 1832, George Simpson, governor of HBC in North America, had requested a steam vessel from London, writing that it would "afford us incalculable advantage over the Americans ... making us masters of the trade." Fort Vancouver's Chief Factor at the fort, John McLoughlin (1784-1857) responded that a steamboat "is not required and that the expense incurred on her ... is so much money thrown away" (Letter of September 30). McLoughlin queried London, asking that if the boat did not perform as expected, did he still have to keep it, or could he send it home or sell it?
(HBC was a proto-corporation and McLaughlin had to send his balance sheet to London each year and justify his expenses. It was challenging to make the trade in the Columbia District profitable because of the costs involved with supporting the forts and because of the losses to accidents on the waterways, such as explosions, groundings, and sinkings.)
Determined not to use the Beaver, McLoughlin sent it north on June 18, 1836, to various HBC forts. The steamer made it as far as Fort Tongass, near Ketchikan, Alaska, before returning south, arriving at Fort Nisqually, in Puget Sound, on November 12, 1836. Over the next several decades, the Beaver plied the Sound, carrying goods, people, and machinery. It clearly proved that steam-powered vessels were the way to go for the new settlers.
The only problem was who owned the Beaver: the British. The newly arriving Americans wanted their own steamship. In September 1852, the editor of The Columbian, the first newspaper north of the Columbia River, wrote that "the business men on the Sound, as well as the traveling public, have heretofore experienced the most serious inconvenience" because of a lack of steam navigation ("Steamers in the Sound"). Thirteen months later, Puget Sound's residents got their wish with the arrival of the sidewheeler Fairy. Traveling from San Francisco on the deck of the bark Sarah Warren, the little boat reached Olympia on October 31 and became the first American-owned steamer on Puget Sound.
In November, the Fairy's owners advertised that it would steam north from Olympia to Steilacoom on Mondays and Wednesdays. Every Friday, it would also travel to Alki and Seattle. A one-way ticket to Steilacoom cost $5. For an additional $5 passengers could reach Seattle and Alki. This at a time when an ordinary laborer made $2 to $3 per day and a mechanic $4 to $6 ("Business Of The Session"). In the 1895 volume Lewis and Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, an unnamed author described the Fairy as "small and slow and cut no great figure in Puget Sound navigation," mostly because it blew up on October 22, 1857. The little boat was not alone in having a short life on the Sound.
The Major Tompkins, a 97-foot propeller-driven ship, arrived at Olympia on September 20, 1854, having traveled from San Francisco to Port Townsend, where the citizens saluted the steamer with blasts from their Colt revolvers. Not to be outdone, Steilacoom's joyous residents blew up stumps in celebration. In Olympia, the Columbian's editor responded by gushing over the prospects of the Tompkins carrying freight, passengers, and best of all, mail, which prior to this time had not had the most reliable service. But less than six months later, on February 25, 1855, the Pumpkins, as some described the short and squat Tompkins, crashed into rocks near Esquimalt, on the south end of Vancouver Island. No one died, but the Major Tompkins was destroyed.
Soon after, the Traveler arrived from San Francisco, like the Fairy, on the deck of another ship. It became the first boat to steam up the Duwamish, Nooksack, Snohomish, and White rivers, but it, too, was short lived, sinking in March 1858 with the loss of five lives.
The Eliza Anderson Turns a Profit
The first successful steamship was the Eliza Anderson, a 140-foot side-wheeler. Built in Portland of Douglas fir in 1858, it began the Olympia-to-Victoria run in January 1859. People said of the Eliza that "no boat in Puget Sound history went so slow and made money so fast" (Newell, 22). Not only did its owners reap a financial benefit by carrying the mail throughout the Sound, they also charged high passenger fees. Traveling from Olympia cost $12 to reach Seattle and $20 to go to Victoria per person; cattle ran $15 a head and sheep $2.50. In contrast, a ticket from San Francisco to Portland aboard the steamer Brother Jonathan ran $5 for a cabin and $2.50 in steerage. When competing steamers tried to horn in on the Eliza's route, the Olympia-Victoria ticket could drop as low as a dollar but would quickly return to its inflated rate when the competitor withdrew. Like most steamers on the Sound, though, Eliza's productive years did not last long. By the 1870s, it had lost out to faster vessels, and spent the rest of its career in less glamorous circumstances. The Eliza's final resting place was Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, where it had been taken in 1898 in hopes of benefiting from the Klondike Gold Rush.
With the success of the Eliza Anderson and other steamers, Puget Sound became home to the Mosquito Fleet. Legend holds that the term originated when a reporter for a Seattle newspaper wrote, "At five o'clock in Seattle the little commuter steamers scurry off to their destinations like a 'swarm of mosquitoes'" ("Who Coined ..."). No such quote has been found in a local paper. The term actually appears as early as October 1777 in a letter written by New York governor George Clinton (1739-1812), who described a "Musquito Fleet" on the Hudson River. The term also showed up in reference to the War of 1812 and the Civil War. One of its earliest uses around Puget Sound comes from the Tacoma Daily Ledger of February 21, 1889. An unnamed author wrote, "The Mosquito Fleet is the name very aptly applied by L. F. Cook to the swarms of small steamers that skim over the green waters of the Sound between Tacoma and numerous small ports" ("The Mosquito Fleet").
This was the peak period for the Mosquito Fleet, when hundreds of vessels skimmed across Puget Sound. No one knows exactly how many boats eventually comprised the fleet during the decades the boats operated. Estimates range as high as 2,500, though maritime historian Joe Baars thought it was closer to 700. An A-to-Z list of names features the Alida, Black Prince, C.C. Calkins, Dix, Elwood, Flyer, George E. Starr, Hyak, Inland Flyer, Josephine, Katahdin, L.T. Haas, Maude, Nisqually, Otter, Potlatch, Quick Step, Rosalie, State of Washington, Telegraph, Urania, Verona, West Seattle, Xanthus, Yellow Jacket, and Zephyr.
Nor is there a precise definition of the fleet. Often called "pointy-enders" because so many had a narrow hull and long, tapered bow, the boats ranged in size from the 19-foot Polky to the 283-foot Yosemite, but were predominately about 90 feet long. Many were made of wood, but they could also be made of steel or iron. Most had flat bottoms with very shallow drafts to facilitate access. Nearly all of the vessels were steam-powered and about 70 percent were propeller driven; the rest were paddlewheelers, either stern or side, known by some as paddle-wagons.
Initially, wood was the fuel of choice, but it was replaced by more efficient coal and later by oil. (In the 1890s, King and Pierce counties produced about a million tons of coal annually. By 1911, though, 75 to 85 percent of steamers ran on oil.) Baars described a typical fleet member as "featuring white paint, a rub rail only a few feet above waterline at the main deck's edge; often a cargo deck forward and mostly open to the breeze; many windows both on the main deck and above; and an open promenade space forward, aft, and above the passenger enclosure" (Joe Baars).
Historian and novelist Archie Binns (1899-1971) wrote in The Roaring Land of a boat from his youth called the Old Settler. Built by a Captain Burr in Olympia and regularly steaming between there and Steilacoom, it was "a bastard creation: a common scow with a donkey engine which had been induced on board under false pretense and then persuaded to turn a pair of homemade paddle wheels ... The Old Settler had a loud-mouth whistle, too big for her boiler" (Binns, 28). It eventually died on the tideflats under a Seattle wharf where its engine was taken out to power a printing press.
Like the Fairy and Major Tompkins, the Old Settler was one of many, many mosquito fleet vessels that were abandoned, burnt, dismantled, exploded, re-engined, relocated, sunk, scuttled, or wrecked. In his Ships of the Inland Sea, Gordon Newell calculated that almost 40 percent of the fleet suffered one of these fates.
Into the Nooks and Crannies
Another way to define the vessels that belonged to the Mosquito Fleet is by where they went -- basically anyplace with a enough water to keep them from going aground. The little pointy enders went up rivers, across lakes (Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish had their own fleets), up nearly every cove and inlet, out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and to anyplace where someone lived or needed a ride. How many official stops existed can never be known; all one needed was a dock. In many places around Puget Sound, all that remains of these stops are the pilings that once supported the docks. In some cases, people could simply paddle a rowboat out to meet the passing Mosquito Fleet ship.
Based on sources found at various newspapers and museums, the total in the American part of the Salish Sea was at least 350. An almost A-to-Z list of stops includes Anderson Island, Bremerton, Clinton, Decatur, Edmonds, Friday Harbor, Gig Harbor, Hartstine Island, Indianola, Joes Bay, Kingston, Lisabuela, Manchester, Nooksack, Olalla, Poulsbo, Quilcene, Roche Harbor, Shelton, Twana, Union City, Vashon, Whiskey Spit, and Zenith.
During the heyday of the Mosquito Fleet from the 1880s to the 1920s, the numerous little vessels helped create community on Puget Sound. Equal parts convenience store, gossip mill, and transit system, the fleet allowed people to live anywhere they wanted along the 1,332 miles of shoreline, or even inland, and still remain connected to the larger communities that provided goods and markets. As Lillie Christensen, who lived in the tiny hamlet of Brinnon on Hood Canal in the 1890s, wrote: "There were smiles, tears, laughter and heart break connected with the coming of the steamer that linked us with the outside world ... When the little steamer made twice a week trips, we felt we were really getting somewhere. When we had a daily boat we felt we were really on the map" (Bailey, 21).
"Something Fine and Exciting"
The beginning of the end for the Mosquito Fleet was the advent of the automobile. As roads spread around Puget Sound and connected points formerly reachable only by water, people began to turn away from the little steamers. Wrote Gordon Newel in Ships of the Inland Sea: "Suddenly, in the mid-1930's, the people of Puget Sound found that their Mosquito Fleet was gone. It surprised them and made them a little sad, for the darting white steamers, weaving their foamy patterns on the blue water against the eternal background of evergreen shores and shining mountains had, it seemed always been there. They had been part of the peculiar charm and magic of their lovely inland sea. The small white ships disappeared so gradually that they were hardly missed by the people who used to ride them. Only when they were gone did they begin to look out over the quiet reaches of the Sound and feel that something fine and exciting was suddenly missing" (Newell, 51).
By 2021, only two Mosquito Fleet vessels still existed. The Carlisle II is a 65-foot diesel-powered passenger-only ferry that operates between Bremerton and Port Orchard. Built in 1917, it has run this route since 1936. It is owned by Kitsap County and has a regular schedule. The Virginia V started to ferry passengers of June 11, 1922, between Tacoma and Seattle. It remained in business, more or less, until 1968, when it was purchased and protected. Now listed on the National Register of Historical Places, the Virginia V is docked in Seattle's Lake Union and is available for events and tours.