Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heritage: Saving the Steel Electrics?

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - For much of my life, the Washington State Ferries fleet contained operational floating museums. Time finally caught up with the four "Steel Electric"-class vessels about a year ago, and rather than at least one being preserved for history, it appears that all four will be scrapped.

The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930's had nearly as large of an impact on commuting across Puget Sound in Washington State as it did locally in California. The car ferries that previously crossed San Francisco Bay became surplus, and many were purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company that at the time operated the majority of ferry services in the northwest corner of the United States.

The ferries were re-named from local California names to Chinook Jargon native names upon their arrival in the Pacific Northwest, and many were extensively rebuilt. In their new forms, they became the core of the ferry system serving Vashon Island, the Kitsap Peninsula, the Olympic Peninsula, Whidbey Island, and the San Juan Islands from the Washington state mainland.

In 1951, the state of Washington took over most of the former Puget Sound Navigation Company's routes and ferries. Soon thereafter, a modernization program gradually led to the retirement of many of the former San Francisco bay transplants. Four, however, were retained by the state and came to symbolize the system, their silhouette forming the official logo of Washington State Ferries to this day. These vessels, all built in 1927, formed the "steel electric" class for the state.

While extensive rebuilding in the 1980's changed their appearance considerably, it also gave them a life extension. As cars increased in size, their capacity and usefulness was diminishing, but they were still regulars as the "inter-island" ferry in the San Juans--and they were the only boats that could operate into Keystone Harbor on Whidbey Island and hence had a monopoly on the Port Townsend-Keystone route.

All that started to come to an end in the spring of 2007 when cracks were found in the hull of the Klickitat. As the vessels started to be more closely inspected, stern tubes in the Illahee had to be replaced, and work had started to do the same on the Quinalt. However, while that was going on, it was determined that corrosion on the Quinalt had proceeded to the point that 60% of the steel in the hull would need to be replaced. Besides being a major expense, it would mean that the grandfathered safety status of the boat with the Coast Guard would end, so there was little choice except to retire the Quinalt. On 20 November 2007, the other three vessels were withdrawn from service, and officially retired on 13 December 2007. Their eighty-year careers, more than sixty on Puget Sound, had come to a close.

With other problems to deal with, the ferry system quietly put all four boats up for sale. Quietly, in September, all four were sold to Environmental Recycling Systems, which intends to tow them to Mexico for scrapping. This move angered preservationists. However, with the preservation of the Kalakala art-deco ferry, the clearly most prominent of Puget Sound ferries, having been through many problems since its return from Alaska in 1998, it seems unlikely that any action will be taken to undo the sale for scrap.

A petition drive is in progress, so perhaps a way will be found to preserve at least one of the boats that served in the west for 80 years.

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