Legacy of the Mosquito Fleet

Colman Dock Circa 1913, Courtesy UW ArchivesWords // Peter Marsh

If you’ve ever missed a ferry and watched it depart without you, you understand how
the expression “missing the boat” originated!

It’s frustrating enough to make some people nostalgic for the good old days of the Mosquito Fleet, when ferryboats by the hundreds plied the waters of Puget Sound, and there was always time to wait for one more fare/passenger.

Looking at the faded images of those bygone days, it’s easy to forget that there were problems back then as well.

Unlike the Lake Washington Ship Canal (featured in the September, 2016 issue) or the Washington State Ferry system, the Mosquito Fleet was – as its name implies – entirely de-centralized, and for most of its life independent from almost any government oversight. This was a blessing on the small routes where everyone knew the captain and the schedule was flexible, but not so on the main routes when one of the well-heeled owners succeeded in driving the competition out and establishing a monopoly.

Steamship TJ PotterThe development of ferries was an essential part of the settlement of the Northwest. In the pioneer era, the early roads around Puget Sound were just muddy tracks, and the waterways were the only reliable way to transport passengers and freight over any distance. This gave the region around Puget Sound a huge advantage over the rest of the state. The first white settlers in the 1850s naturally chose land close to the shoreline, and soon began to construct simple log canoes or rowboats for fishing and transport.

Citizens rowed their boats or rode their horses to the nearest pier, which was the center of community life in those days. The pier was the place where the settlers could meet, trade goods, and hear the news from the rest of the state. Some enterprising fellow soon built a boat big enough to safely carry a few passengers and their boxes and charge for trips to the nearest market or county seat. Small ferryboats were cheap to build, could be rowed or sailed, and could carry passengers, lumber, or animals if necessary. And of course, they stopped at every pier along their route until they had filled every inch of space.

As soon as there was enough lumber, livestock, or crops to ship, coastal sailing vessels would anchor nearby and hoist the cargo aboard by hand. But, as we all know, the wind is unreliable on the Sound, so the first long-distance ferry service in the 1850s that managed to stay even close to schedule used Native Americans paddling big log canoes. They carried passengers and mail from the village of Seattle to the capital in Olympia. It took two to three days with camps set up on the beach at night.

The steam engine was the solution, but building boilers and engines was a highly specialized business. Fortunately, the California Gold Rush of 1849 brought hundreds of sailing ships round Cape Horn. Some had auxiliary steam power and found their way north into Washington where they became the first powered ferries and spent their last years here. When the hull was scrapped, the engine was saved and installed in a newer boat, a tradition that continues to this day.

The last remaining steam-powered ferry, the Virginia V, launched in 1922 and proudly runs on an original 1898 steam engine cast at the Heffernan Machine Works on Lake Union in downtown Seattle. Smaller Mosquito Boats like this tended to lead a fairly uneventful life, chugging between the small ports and islands, but the biggest boats were more concerned with making money than winning friends and were quite likely to abandon a route if it proved unprofitable.

The Unsinkable Eliza Anderson

One of the earliest and most famous of the big steamers built in the Pacific Northwest was the sidewheeler Eliza Anderson, launched in 1859 in Portland, Oregon where there were a number of riverboat builders. She was 197 feet long, 25.5 feet on the beam, and was equipped with a steam calliope that could blast a selection of popular tunes, making her a favorite at the dockside. She was all wood, powered by a low-pressure boiler driving a basic single cylinder walking-beam engine, and was destined to have many more adventures than anyone could imagine.

Before she departed for Puget Sound, news arrived of the Fraser River Gold Rush. The owners took her straight to Victoria, Canada where they saw an opportunity to make some extra money. There was a complete lack of roads or trails into the mainland of British Columbia, so U.S. steamers were allowed to work on the Fraser up to Fort Langley on payment of a $12 “sufferance” to the local authority per run. After two round-trips, the Eliza Anderson returned to Victoria carrying $40,000 in gold dust. By June, the captain, Tom Wright, decided he could make a profitable run carrying newly-rich miners south to Olympia.

He arrived there for the first time on July 9, 1859 and found that Puget Sound had already become a shipping point for supplies and gold seekers. After a few round trips to Seattle, the Eliza Anderson was back on the Fraser, fighting the first of many “fare wars,” this one with the Canadian steamboat Otter. Fares were driven down from $10 per passenger to 50 cents. When the Otter gave up, fares shot right back up to a profitable $6 per passenger. However, business dropped off in the winter and the Eliza Anderson turned to the Olympia-Victoria mail run in December, 1859.

Captain Wright set the schedule at one trip to Olympia and one trip to the Fraser River every week. On Thursday, at the inconvenient hour of 0300 hours, she’d steam back to Olympia, laying over there on the weekend. On the route up Puget Sound, the Eliza Anderson stopped at Steilacoom, Seattle and Port Townsend. Fares were $20 a person, freight $5 to $10 a ton, and cattle $15 a head. Her name soon became a household word, but not always in a positive way. It was said that “no steamboat ever went slower and made money faster.”

In the early 1860s, there were no telegraphs in Puget Sound, and mail carried by steamboat was the fastest way of transmitting news. The the U.S. Post Office Department paid $36,000 per year for mail transport. On November 27, 1860, the Eliza Anderson brought the news to Port Townsend of Abraham Lincoln’s victory three weeks after the November 4 election. As the population of Puget Sound rose after the Civil War, the outlying settlements quickly grew into towns by exploiting their natural resources, producing vast quantities of lumber and canned salmon that were all hauled to the big ports by the local steamboats.

Eliza Anderson // Courtesy of UW Libraries Special CollectionsBy the 1870s, there were hundreds of ferries on about 40 established routes on the Sound and they all needed a steady supply of coal to keep the steam pressure up. Seattle was emerging as a major maritime transportation hub with one notable advantage. Coal was available on the waterfront. It was supplied by the mines at the south end of Lake Washington via a tortuous route of wagon, barge, portage, barge, and early railroad from Lake Union before the ship canal opened.

Many fast, luxurious vessels were built specifically for service between the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia with the hope of a high profit margin. One of the biggest was the 283’ Yosemite, which routinely boarded more than 1,000 passengers. However, the easiest way to get rich was by putting the competition out of business by fair means or foul. In 1871, the Eliza Anderson finally lost a fare war, which ended with the customary non-compete agreement, whereby the Eliza Anderson and the company’s other boat, the Olympia, were laid up.

The Eliza Anderson became out of date and fell on hard times until a 72-ounce gold nugget was discovered in the Cassiar District of British Columbia in 1875. The old boat was repaired and once again loaded with mining gear and prospectors for the run up the Inland Passage. When the Cassiar rush gave out, she returned to Seattle, where she sat between 1877 and 1883 and eventually sank at her moorings. In 1883, she was raised, pumped out, cleaned up, and put on the run from Seattle to New Westminster, British Columbia. This time the competition was the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company that was bidding to monopolize all water and rail transport in the Pacific Northwest.

The Eliza Anderson ran on a shoestring and forced the fare down to $1. She was winning the battle until she was seized by the Canadian customs collector for carrying illegal Chinese immigrants. The owners were forced to sell the old boat to the Puget Sound and Alaska Steamship Company, which ran her again on the Victoria route. In about 1890, the Eliza Anderson was laid up again, this time on the Duwamish River as a gambling hall. She would have ended her days there except for the discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory.

Gold seekers were willing to pay for a passage on anything that floated, and the old Eliza Anderson was dragged out of retirement one more time. The Moran Shipyard in Seattle gave her a quick haul out, patched her up, and sent her out to join a flotilla of five worn-out hulls popularly described as “floating coffins.” One was the veteran steam tug, Richard Holyoke, towing three of the hulks. The trip north was, needless to say, a floating fiasco that mercifully ended without loss of life at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. After a steam pipe explosion and a collision with a dock, the Eliza Anderson was finally abandoned by her passengers, and sat at anchor in Dutch Harbor until March, 1898 when a storm washed her up on a beach where she slowly broke up.

The end of an era

The golden years of the Mosquito Fleet only lasted from the 1880s to the early 1920s. The Seattle-Tacoma commuter run was one of the last routes to survive competition from the electric inter-urban railway lines in the early 1900s, and later from the rapidly developing highway system. The last big passenger ferry was built of steel in Tacoma, named after the city and launched in 1913. She was steam-powered, propeller-driven, 215 feet long, and could make the run from Seattle to Tacoma in 77 minutes dock to dock.

But by 1930, the Tacoma had made her last run. The completion of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in 1935 released a fleet of six 256-foot modern diesel-electric auto ferries built in 1927. They were sold in 1940 to the Puget Sound Navigation Company, also known as the “Black Ball Line.” In 1951, the Steel Electrics and almost all of Black Ball’s fleet was purchased by the newly-formed Washington State Ferries (WSF). WSF ran them every day for over 55 years in true Mosquito Fleet fashion; until the hulls begin to fail in 2007.

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Additional photos courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives & University of Washington Libraries Special Collections