Turning Point 9: The Sound and the Ferry: The Birth of Washington State Ferries

  • By Alan J. Stein and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 6/02/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9309
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The ninth essay in HistoryLink's Turning Points series for The Seattle Times traces the history of ferry transportation on Puget Sound beginning with Native American canoe transportation, continuing through the Mosquito Fleet, Captain Alexander Peabody's Black Ball line, and the inception (on June 1, 1951) and development of Washington State Ferries.  This article was written by Alan J. Stein and the staff of Historylink.org and published in the Times on June 1, 2001.

Almost as long as there have been people along Puget Sound, there have been boats to ferry them across its waters. From carved canoes to sailing ships to steam, diesel, and electric powered vessels, local travelers have striven for the quickest and most efficient way to visit distant shores throughout the Sound. For the past 50 years, the primary method for millions has been to ride aboard a Washington State ferry.

Washington State Ferries began serving the public on June 1, 1951, amid a perfect storm of politics and economics. Privately owned ferries had plied the waves for decades prior, but the state had never undertaken such a maritime venture before. At the time, there seemed little choice but to take the plunge.

Fare Deals

Issues of reliability and affordability led the state to enter into the ferry business in the first place. During the 1930s, as the era of passenger-only “mosquito fleet” vessels waned, the Puget Sound Navigation Company became the leader in auto-ferry service on Puget Sound. Also known as the Black Ball Line, the company's strong-willed but affable head, Captain Alexander Peabody, had achieved a virtual monopoly for cross-Sound traffic.

Peabody kept fares low during World War II to aid in the war effort, but afterwards sought substantial increases at a time when the cost of living was skyrocketing. The State Department of Transportation, which regulated public transport, initially granted his request for a 10 percent increase, but balked in 1947 when Peabody sought a 30 percent rate hike. The state temporarily allowed this, but made it contingent on a review of the Black Ball Line’s earnings, operations, rates, services, and facilities.

Needless to say, ferry riders weren’t thrilled with rising fares. Adding to their woes, a maritime strike shut down the ferry system for most of a week, stranding thousands. Citizens and government agencies helped out by providing war-surplus landing craft, buses, light aircraft and yachts to transport commuters from shore to shore and around the sound.

On July 4, 1947, state officials announced the results of their fact-finding mission. They deemed a 30 percent increase unwarranted, but granted Peabody 10 percent, which meant that he had to refund two thirds of each fare retroactive to the beginning of the year. This only applied to commuters who kept their receipts. Most of them did.

Captain Peabody was apoplectic. Having spent most of the temporary rate hike on boat repairs and wage increases, he now faced a loss. He responded by threatening to shut down the ferry system completely, which won him few friends.

The public had already been through one shutdown, and didn’t want to scramble through another. Some commuters looked into starting ferry systems of their own, and others pressed for the creation of floating bridges across Puget Sound. Civic groups appealed to Governor Mon C. Wallgren to step in and create a state-run system to provide competition against what they perceived as a monopoly. Some people felt that the state should just buy out the ferry company and run it as a public utility.

Affairs of State

Wallgren was facing re-election and reluctant to take any precipitous action, but Peabody forced the issue. He tied up his boats in February, 1948, stranding thousands of commuters. Ten days later Peabody arranged lopsided agreements with Puget Sound county governments to resume service, with Black Ball taking all the money and the counties taking all the risks. Local officials didn’t like it but they had little choice given the urgency of the situation.

This time it was the public’s turn to be outraged. Commuters were tired of being held hostage and of paying their own ransom, and many wished the government would launch its own ferry system. Even those who didn’t like the thought of a government-run ferry system felt that it was a necessary short-term fix until numerous planned bridges could be built across Puget Sound, negating the need for ferries altogether.

With this mounting support, Governor Wallgren moved to develop a state ferry system under the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority. Little good it did him, as he lost the 1948 election to Republican Arthur Langlie, a firm believer in free enterprise, but no friend of Captain Peabody’s. Throughout his campaign, Langlie had stressed that it was Peabody who had pushed the state into one vulnerable position after another.

For the next year, Peabody and Langlie went back and forth on the issue in public and private. Peabody remained adamant about retaining control of his ferries. Langlie retorted that he and the public had lost confidence in Peabody’s operation.

Fair Sailing

After much bickering and back-room dealing, both sides came to an agreement. On December 30, 1949, it was announced that the state would buy most of the equipment and operations of the Puget Sound Navigation Company. With little fanfare, Washington State Ferries began service on June 1, 1951, with reflagged Black Ball ferries.

Skeptics of state operations were soon proved wrong. Washington State Ferries restored a level of professionalism and reliability that Puget Sound commuters had not experienced since the end of World War II -- while keeping fares affordable. In fact, adjusted for inflation, today's ferry fares are comparable to, and in many cases less than, rates that were charged in 1951.

State control also proved to be more than a temporary fix as highway engineers faced reality and scrapped expensive schemes for a web of cross-Sound bridges. Modern ferries have become indispensable links in the region's highway system, and also one of the state's top tourist attractions, while carrying more than 26 million passengers each year.

Washington State Ferries have crossed a great distance in just 50 years, and weathered more than a few storms, yet one fundamental fact of regional life remains the same. From the first canoe to the Jumbo Mark II, you still need ferries to get around Puget Sound.

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