Twenty thousand years ago, a glacier as tall as six Space Needles whittled the valley between the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, leaving a complex inland seascape. The First Nations people who followed the melting ice observed the freshly carved Puget Sound and concluded a canoe would be mighty handy.
In a geological blink of an eye, settlers descended upon the sound. Private ferries popped up to serve public foot traffic. The sheer number buzzing around the sound gave rise to the unofficial name of the “Mosquito Fleet.” Of these, only the 1921 Virginia V remains functional as a museum ship in South Lake Union.
By the 1920s, automobiles and quality roads began to connect the region, but deep inlets meant that the ferry adapted to take cars. After World War II, the privatized ferry system became a monopoly. After several steep fare hikes, the public supported the state’s purchase of the entity. Many thought this acquisition temporary, as there were plans to build bridges across Puget Sound. Geology remained insurmountable—too deep, too rough, and too much shipping—although they did manage to bridge the narrow Hood Canal.
“Nineteen vessels do between 450 and 500 daily sailings on ten routes. It’s the most extensive ferry system in the United States and the fourth largest in the world.”
In 1959, the state commissioned new ferries with an iconic design. Squat and broad with two bows and two bridges, its two-faced shape reminiscent of the Roman god Janus that resides over beginnings and endings. Built to last 60 years, the youngest ferry in the fleet, Suquamish, finished in 2018, does not look much different from the oldest, the Tillikum, built in 1959.
Beneath the surface, a sleek hull with a propeller on either end propels the ferries 16 to 23 miles per hour. Traditional vessels require a lengthy docking process. Ferries use a terminal that receives the bow like a catcher’s mitt and ramps for cars and passengers to load and unload. With one propeller pushing and the other pulling, no time is wasted turning around as it approaches its destination. The forward propeller powers up to gently arrest the mass of a floating parking lot weighing up to 5400 tons. Nineteen vessels (plus four benched for auxiliary and repairs) do between 450 and 500 daily sailings on ten routes. It’s the most extensive ferry system in the United States and the fourth largest in the world, with 24.2 million riders—second only to Hong Kong’s 26 million. The ferries are safe too. Besides some minor collisions with pleasure boaters and some enthusiastic dockings, no one has been killed in an accident in its nearly 70-year history.
As the twenty-first century races on, there are no serious discussions about replacing ferries. Though talk of tunnels under the Puget Sound occasionally makes the news, the Washington State Ferry fleet sails on. Painted on their green and white double bows are names inspired by the First Peoples of this place and languages still spoken but not often understood. Names like Tillikum and Tokitae, Chinook trade jargon for “friendship” and “nice day, pretty colors” and Squamish, “the people of the clear salt-water,” will invoke this place as long as the mountains meet the sea.