On August 12, 1926, Charles Enoch Peabody (1857-1926) dies in a Seattle hospital after surgery for appendicitis, leaving behind one of his eight sons, Alexander Marshall Peabody (1895-1980), to run the family-held Puget Sound Navigation Company (PSN). Commonly known as "Cap" Peabody, Alexander will serve as company president until 1951, when he sells most of his vessels, docks, and routes to the state of Washington for creation of the Washington State ferry system.
Charles Enoch Peabody was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 4, 1857, descended from generations of whaling skippers and sailors. His grandfather, Captain Alexander C. Marshall (1799-1859), was part of a New York family associated with the venerable Black Ball Line, established in 1818 to carry passengers and freight between New York and Liverpool.
Before the Black Ball Line was founded, sailing vessels did not sail on a set schedule. They would pull into dock and wait until their holds were full before departing. Sometimes they remained in port for weeks. The Black Ball Line initiated what was a revolutionary concept at the time: scheduled service. Along with fast and reliable vessels, the company offered "generous hold space for freight and were lavishly appointed for passengers with staterooms and common dining areas for first-class passengers, complete with whale-oil lanterns and silver service" ("Black Ball: 200 Years Strong").
Alexander Marshall’s daughter Cornelia (1829-1909) married Enoch Wood Peabody (1822-1873); the couple had at least two children. As a young adult, their son Charles worked in the financial district on Wall Street and then tried his hand at farming in Minnesota. In 1882, he arrived in Seattle as a special agent for the U. S. Treasury Department, managing the U.S. Revenue Cutter service on Puget Sound. The Revenue Cutters, a federal service established in 1790, provided port and coastal security, enforced customs and maritime laws, and carried out other naval duties. Today it exists as part of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Along with the Revenue Cutter service, Peabody got involved in several business ventures, including managing a sawmill with his future father-in-law, timber baron William James Macaulay. In 1891, Peabody married Harriet Lilly Macaulay (1869-1944) and the couple had eight sons.
In 1894, Peabody and several associates founded the Alaska Steamship Company. The timing was fortuitous: When gold was discovered in northwestern Canada in 1896, miners and their supplies needed reliable transport north. "Although the small vessels proved unequal to the task of serving Alaska, their owners found them eminently suited to local hauling. Charles Peabody pulled back and formed the Puget Sound Navigation Co." ("'Cap' Peabody, Man of the Sea ..."). PSN was organized in 1898 and incorporated in September 1900, listing its assets as $50,000.
An Economic Powerhouse
By 1904, Alaska Steamship, Puget Sound Navigation, and affiliated companies employed more than 600 men and spent about $1 million annually on labor costs, supplies, and boat-building. "The rise of Charles E. Peabody in the steamship business has been rapid. He started with the old steamer Willapa in 1893. This boat was operated on the Southeastern Alaska run. Mr. Peabody bought the steamer Rosalie in July 1897. From this boat Mr. Peabody built up a steamship business which ... promises to be one of the largest interests in the Pacific Northwest" ("Peabody Line to Keep Old Name"). Within a decade, Puget Sound Navigation was using the trade name Black Ball Line, flying under the same flag that Peabody’s ancestors had made famous: a black ball on a solid red field.
On its way to dominating cross-sound traffic, PSN merged with or acquired smaller steamship companies on Puget Sound, including Thompson Steamboat Company and La Conner Trading and Transportation Co. Around 1919, Peabody decided to convert his passenger-centric fleet to car-carrying ferryboats. In 1921, the company spent $100,000 and 40 days converting the Whatcom to an auto ferry. "By the mid-1920s ferries were being specifically designed to carry automobiles and they were being built with diesel rather than steam engines" (Puget Sound Ferries, 64).
On August 9, 1926, Peabody, at that time chairman of the board of PSN, suffered an attack of appendicitis and underwent emergency surgery at Providence Hospital. He died on August 12 at the age of 69, leaving behind his wife and sons. The majority of his estate, valued at about $750,000, was left to his widow. Each of his eight sons inherited $5.
The Next Generation
Peabody’s third son, Alexander Marshall Peabody, followed most closely in his father’s footsteps. Born in Port Townsend on June 24, 1895, and educated in Portland, Alexander studied agriculture for two years at Cornell University before turning his attention to the sea. In 1916, he signed on as a ship’s apprentice and worked his way up to second mate. During World War I, he joined the U.S. Navy, and after the war he continued to climb the maritime ladder – chief mate, master, and then commander of the freighter Eastern Cloud. He was commonly known by his friends and associates as "Cap" Peabody.
In November 1929, Alexander Peabody became president of Puget Sound Navigation. Dapper and distinguished, but also stubborn and autocratic, he would run the company for more than 20 years, consolidating ferry lines, buying older vessels at rock-bottom prices, ignoring union and worker demands for more pay or fewer hours, and shutting down service to all of Puget Sound when his request to raise rates was denied. "A large-framed man with a forceful bass voice and a strong personality ... Peabody had a deep dedication to the free enterprise system. Many Seattleites who knew him saw in Peabody, with his homburg, his prominent if not meticulously maintained moustache, his expensive cigars, and his individualism, some resemblance to the captains of industry of earlier days. By 1936, he had a monopoly on Puget Sound, as rivals succumbed to labor woes and even a few sinkings. Critically, he was able to expand his fleet even during the Depression with the cut-rate purchase of 17 used car ferries" ("How Puget Sound’s Last Pirate ...").
In 1947, Peabody shut down the entire ferry system when the state denied his request for a 30 percent fare increase. Service was resumed after a week, but there were renewed calls for the state to take over the system. After a years-long battle, in 1949 the state agreed to purchase most of the vessels, docks, and operational routes belonging to Puget Sound Navigation. This formed the basis of Washington State Ferries, which began operations in 1951. Peabody relocated what remained of his company, now called Black Ball Ferries, Ltd., to British Columbia, and retained the right to one Canada-U.S. route: Victoria to Port Angeles. Renamed Black Ball Ferry Line in 2008, the company in 2023 still sailed the M. V. Coho between those two cities. Peabody died on October 14, 1980, in Bellevue at the age of 85.