Washington State Ferries: A Fleet of Its Own

A historical look at Washington’s ferry system and how a fare war between a private ferry company and the state government resulted in the system’s manifestation.

For more than 65 years, Washington State Ferries has helped Puget Sound-area residents get where they need to go. A lifeline service for island residents, a time-saver for commuters, and a scenic way for visitors to take in the splendor of the region, Washington State Ferries is an essential component of Washington state’s transportation system. It’s also the largest ferry system in the United States.

Washington’s ferry system didn’t always consist of the distinctive white and green boats that make up Washington State Ferries’ current 22-vessel fleet. In fact, when ferryboat services first became available in the Puget Sound region, Washington State Ferries didn’t even exist.

From the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, ferry operations in the Puget Sound were maintained by a number of privately owned transportation companies, known as Mosquito Fleets. Comprised of steamers and sternwheelers, these fleets shuttled passengers to and from locations, including Ballard, Port Blakely, and Vashon Island. By the 1930s, however, many of the smaller fleets dismantled, leaving only two major lines remaining — the Black Ball Line, owned and operated by the Puget Sound Navigation Company, and the Kitsap County Transportation Company.

2003.111.453.7 Courtesy Washington State History Museum.

MV Vashon unloading vehicles and passengers circa 1955. Courtesy Washington State History Museum.

2003.111.234.109 Courtesy Washington State History Museum

The infamous MV Kalakala operated in the Puget Sound from 1935-1967. Courtesy Washington State History Museum

In 1935, however, a strike called by the Masters, Mates & Pilots and Ferryboatmen’s Union left the Kitsap County Transportation Company in a state of distress. Already treading in financially turbulent waters as a result of low ridership, the 33-day strike was the tipping point for the Kitsap County Transportation Company.

In a historical document titled The Black Ball Line, former Black Ball Line ferryboat captain and Edmonds resident Grahame F. Shrader recounts the events that followed the strike. “At the end of the 33 days, with no agreement reached, the issues were submitted to arbitration and service restored. But the strike had its side effects. (Kitsap County Transportation Company) operations, vessels, and men who sailed them had been absorbed by (Puget Sound Navigation Company), creating a monopoly and leading to abandonment or consolidation of several routes, and, before long, ending the era of steamboats on the Puget Sound.”

By the early 1940s, the World War II economy was booming, and Black Ball Line ridership also was up. The company had to add additional vessels to its fleet to keep up with the demand. After construction of the San Francisco Bay Bridge was completed, for example, Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries liquidated its fleet, and Puget Sound Navigation purchased 17 of the company’s ferryboats, 14 of which were put in service between 1937 and 1944.

However, after the war ended, the economy began to slow, and the Black Ball Line saw a decline in its ridership, as well. In order to compensate for the lack of revenue, Puget Sound Navigation Company made an attempt to increase its fares, first by 10 percent, and then an additional 30 percent.

As a state-regulated entity, Puget Sound Navigation Company filed a request for a fare increase with the state of Washington in July 1947. After months of arguing, the state eventually denied its request.

Despite the state’s denial, Puget Sound Navigation Company decided to raise its fares regardless, initiating what would become a political tug of war. The three years that followed were rife with litigation, until on Dec. 30, 1950, Puget Sound Navigation Company accepted the state’s offer to purchase the Black Ball Line, the largest privately owned ferry system in the United States.

The $4.9 million sale included most of the Black Ball Line’s ferries the terminals, and routes.

Washington State FerriesWashington State Ferries was officially established on June 1, 1951, but, according to Washington State Ferries’ Senior Planning Manager Ray Deardorf, it was never intended to be long-term.

“It was viewed in a lot of quarters as merely a stopgap until cross-Sound bridges could be built,” Deardorf said.

By the early 1960s, however, it became evident that the bridges would never come to fruition. Several proposals for cross-Sound bridges were made, but none were able to pass the Legislature. “By then, sentiment had changed,” Deardorf said. “Also, the ferry system had gotten money to expand service.”

In the mid-1960s, federal funds were issued to build four superclass vessels, improving service on several routes. Other significant improvements included the construction of the Hood Canal Bridge, which provided a more direct route for individuals traveling to and from the Olympic Peninsula and reduced the number of ferries they needed to take from two to one.

Most recently, Washington State Ferries has invested in new vessels for its fleet. Seven new vessels have been added since 2010, providing replacements for many of the fleet’s older vessels that are ready for retirement.

However, while ridership currently is up, Deardorf said it hasn’t always been this way, and ridership still has not returned to the systemwide levels Washington State Ferries’ experienced in the 1990s.

A number of factors have contributed to Washington State Ferries wavering ridership. In 1999, for example, a statewide voter initiative passed that caused the ferry system to lose much of its funding. This loss of funding led Washington State Ferries to raise its fares, which resulted in reduced ridership. Ridership rates worsened with the economic downturn of 2008, and things continued to get worse before they got better.

However, since 2012, Deardorf said ridership has been on the rise. “In 2017, we had the highest ridership year in 15 years,” he said.

Washington State FerriesAs the region continues to grow, transportation remains at the forefront of the conversation. With commuters spending more time in their cars sitting in gridlocked traffic, state, county, and city officials are looking at creative ways to diversify public transportation offerings.

Earlier last year, for example, Tacoma City Council Member Ryan Mello proposed a fast foot ferry from Tacoma to Seattle that would help cut commute times significantly. After seeing the success of the Bremerton Fast Ferry, which shuttles commuters from Bremerton to Seattle in as little as 30 minutes, Mello recognized the benefit a similar ferry service from Tacoma to Seattle could provide to residents in the South Sound.

A feasibility study, which will be conducted over the next several months and is expected to be completed by the end of this year, will determine the viability of a project like this, looking primarily at things like: What will it cost? What infrastructure is needed? And will people ride it?

“Anecdotally, I know people are excited,” Mello said, “but we need the data to drive our decisions.”

Community enthusiasm is clear, as evidenced by the outpouring of support on the Tacoma-Seattle Fast Foot Ferry Advocate Facebook page.

“I really hope this materializes,” one of the page’s followers, Bobby Yarnall, wrote in response to a post on the Facebook page. “I can hardly believe it doesn’t already exist. Why not connect Puget Sound’s two most popular cities by ferry?!”

Looking even further ahead, Washington State Ferries currently is in the middle of developing a Long Range Plan that will identify goals for the ferry system through 2040.

With current projects, improvements, and proposals all designed to expand and improve Washington State Ferries for years to come, the nation’s largest ferry system appears to be moving full steam ahead.

Washington State Ferries

Courtesy Washington State Dept. of Transportation

Washington State Ferries By the Numbers

Largest ferry system in the United States:
24.5 million riders in 2017

Second largest ferry system in the world for number of vehicles carried:
10.5 million per year

22 auto-passenger ferries

Approximately 1,800



(Numbers provided by Washington State Dept. of Transportation)


A Day in the Life with Ferry Captain Mike Schilling

Everett resident Mike Schilling has been a ferryboat captain for 26 years. Before climbing the ranks and earning the title of Staff Master, MV Kittitas, Schilling served as a Chief Mate, Able Bodied Seaman, and Ordinary Seaman. He’s been with Washington State Ferries for a total of 44 years. We connected with Schilling to gain a firsthand perspective of what day-to-day life looks like working as a ferryboat captain for the largest ferry system in the United States.

Q: What drove you to become a ferry captain, and what did that path entail?

A: I wanted to handle the ferries (make landings), and liked navigating vessels better than loading cars. To become qualified to work as a ferry captain, it took me 11 years to accumulate enough experience, plus taking U.S. Coast Guard examinations for Mate, Master and First Class Pilot. Becoming a Chief Mate at Washington State Ferries is like getting an undergraduate degree, and becoming a Captain is like getting a master’s or doctoral degree.

Q: What does a day in the life of a ferry captain look like?  

A: I work on the Mukilteo/Clinton run, where we handle the most vehicles annually in the whole Washington State Ferries fleet. On a typical eight-hour day, we will make eight round-trips, 16 landings, load and unload 1,600 to 2,000 vehicles and 3,000 to 4,000 passengers.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?  

A: Taking care of administrative tasks in this digital age, when we’re supposed to be connected but often are not.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of the job?  

A: Can’t beat the view from the office, and the great folks that I work with on the boat and at the terminals.

Q: What are three lessons or life skills you’ve learned from being a ferry captain?  

A: Stay calm, know your job, and know your people.

Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d share with an aspiring ferry captain?  

A: Learn as much as you can along the way, because you’ll never know when you’ll need that knowledge and experience.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?  

A: Spending time with my family, enjoying live music, skiing, and biking.


Ridership Statistics

Washington State Ferry MapAnacortes/Sidney, B.C.
Annual Ridership: 109,202
Vehicles Carried: 38,345

Anacortes/San Juans
Annual Ridership: 2,018,494
Annual Vehicles Carried: 950,768

Port Townsend/Coupeville
Annual Ridership: 806,823
Annual Vehicles Carried: 365,546

Annual Ridership: 4,105,396
Annual Vehicles Carried: 2,257,709

Seattle/Bainbridge Island
Annual Ridership: 6,528,640
Annual Vehicles Carried: 1,932,508

Annual Ridership: 4,135,698
Annual Vehicles Carried: 2,147,822

Annual Ridership: 2,778,680
Annual Vehicles Carried: 697,561

Fauntleroy/Vashon/ Southworth
Annual Ridership: 3,110,901
Annual Vehicles Carried: 1,761,762

Annual Ridership: 190,442
Annual Vehicles Carried: 105,480

Point Defiance/Tahlequah
Annual Ridership: 843,932
Annual Vehicles Carried: 473,924

(Numbers and map provided by Washington State Dept. of Transportation)

is a staff writer at 425 magazine. Email her.
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