Reaches The End Of Her Days
Shawn J. Dake
Original Kodachrome slide, circa 1955-59 when she sailed summers between Port Angeles and Victoria. From the collection of Steven J. Pickens.
An usual postcard view, very early in her career (Note: no support under the “flying bridge” which began to sag after the first year in service) passing Point White in Rich Passage. From the collection of Steven J. Pickens.
The streamlined Art Deco ferry, m.v. KALAKALA will soon be scrapped. Karl Anderson, the current owner of the ship, said he plans to have the KALAKALA towed from the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma where it has been idle and deteriorating for the last 10 years. The silver ferry was once the most famous attraction in Seattle before the Space Needle changed the skyline in 1962. The domed superstructure of the 276.5 foot long ship was completely smooth, pieced together with electro-welding; a first for any ferry in the world. No rivets were used in the construction. In many ways she resembled a giant Airstream trailer, or as some said, a shiny slug sailing across the waters of Puget Sound. The KALAKALA carried her last passengers on August 7, 1967 when she was withdrawn from commercial service. Since then, her story has been a most unlikely one of survival, first in Alaska, followed by a triumphant return to Seattle, then many more years of uncertainty. Now, if plans come to fruition, the KALAKALA will be towed away at high tide on January 22, 2015, to a graving yard on the nearby Blair Waterway in Tacoma, adjacent to Concrete Technology where it will be demolished. Neither the Coast Guard nor the Army Corps of Engineers issued any comments concerning the removal plans, although they have previously expressed concerns about the integrity of the vessel. A 2011 report read in part, the condition of the ship’s steel “is highly wasted, brittle and corroded.” The interior has long been stripped of its fittings and with the deteriorating condition of the ship, her last voyage was probably inevitable.
A very early postcard view of the KALAKALA in her first year of service. From the Collection of Steven J. Pickens.
Steven J. Pickens, author of The Ferries Of Puget Sound (Arcadia Publishing, 2005) offered this very concise summation of the KALAKALA on his outstanding website www.evergreenfleet.com . “It is unlikely that there is a more famous Puget Sound ferry than the M/V KALAKALA. For years the silver-painted art deco ferry was the most notable icon of Seattle and the Puget Sound area. It wasn’t that she was the fastest (she wasn’t) or the most luxurious (that title arguably went to the CHIPPEWA) or did she sail the longest of any ferry on Puget Sound. There is no denying she was certainly the most unique vessel to ever sail Puget Sound waters, from her curved art deco design to her double horseshoe lunch counter to her teeth-rattling vibration. Constructed from the ashes of the passenger ferry PERALTA, the KALAKALA was seen as more than a mode of transportation she was a symbol of progress and hope in the dark days of the Great Depression.
PERALTA: an original snapshot of her underway. From the Collection of Steven J. Pickens
PERALTA /YERBA BUENA interior. (Steven J. Pickens collection)
During the day she filled the role of ferry transporting thousands of workers to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. By night she was an excursion boat, serving as an inexpensive distraction from the events of the day, offering live music and dancing until midnight. For nearly thirty-five years the KALAKALA made her way to and from Seattle and Bremerton, sometimes taking trips up to Victoria or other ports. Sometimes she made hard landings, sometimes not. She was both loved and hated by crews who took pride in their unique vessel but hated polishing the miles of brass. She was also the pride of her officers who knew she was something special, but also feared for her lack of visibility, poor handling and habit of clobbering docks. She endured an exile in Alaska longer than her service on Puget Sound, and then returned to home waters to face a future even more uncertain. She remains a ship of hope, but a hope filled with ambiguity. Love her or hate her, no one will ever be able to deny the KALAKALA her place in history.”
PERALTA fire (S.J. Pickens)
The KALAKALA began in a very different form in 1927. At that time, she was a fairly conventional two-funneled, double-ended San Francisco Bay ferry, launched as the PERALTA. Along with a sister, the YERBA BUENA, the pair were considered luxurious for the time, as they served in the fleet of the Key System Ferries. While her sister lead a charmed existence, the PERALTA suffered many mishaps, some of them serious. It culminated on the night of May 6, 1933 when she burned down to the hull in an arson fire that started on the company pier where she was tied up. In Washington State, Captain Alexander Peabody saw an opportunity to acquire the remains of the destroyed ferry, which he towed north to the Lake Washington Shipyard near Kirkland. There the hull was trimmed down to a beam of 55.7 feet and on top, a superstructure was constructed like nothing the world had ever seen before. At the height of the depression, she was the height of Art Deco design. All curves and oversized portholes throughout the vehicle deck and the passenger accommodations. As reconstructed, the KALAKALA could carry 1,943 passengers and up to 110 cars.
Black Ball Line advertisement.
KALAKALA with the Olympic Mountains behind her.
A “real photo” postcard showing an aerial view of the KALAKALA sailing at full speed. From the collection of Steven J. Pickens.
The KALAKALA made her public debut on July 3, 1935. She became the instantly recognizable flagship of the Puget Sound Navigation Company, better known as The Black Ball Line. In normal service the ship made up to eight daily roundtrips between Seattle and Bremerton. She was also used for “Moonlight Cruises” where passengers could board for as little as one dollar and dance the night away to the sounds of the Flying Bird Orchestra playing from 8:30 p.m. until a little past midnight. The ship’s name meant “Flying Bird” in the native Chinook language. During World War II, one of her primary duties was ferrying workers to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. After the War, the KALAKALA returned to her old ferry route, but was also used periodically on international voyages to Victoria, British Columbia from Port Angeles, Washington and on excursion cruises from Seattle. Black Ball sold the ship in 1950, with the KALAKALA becoming a part of the newly formed Washington State Ferries fleet in 1951.
A fine starboard view of the KALAKALA arriving off Victoria, B.C 1946. Steven J. Pickens collection.
KALAKALA idle in Neah Bay in 2002. Photo by Steven J. Pickens.
The hull has now been in the water for 88 years, except for a period of time partially buried in the mud of Alaska. The decks are now rusted and light peeks through holes in the corroded skin of her superstructure. Despite the good intentions of those that brought her back to Seattle, no one stepped forward with the funds to save her. Lack of maintenance over the last decade sealed her fate, leading up to this inevitable end. Karl Anderson came into possession of the KALAKALA in November, 2012 on behalf of his privately held Tacoma Industrial Properties, when he foreclosed on the ship for more than $4,000 in unpaid dockage fees at the property along the Hylebos. While generous in his support of the ship over the years, he realistically can see no future for the old ferry.
Although stripped of nearly all original fittings, her interior still shows traces of what once was, such as this wrought-iron and brass stair railing. Photo by Steven J. Pickens, 2002.
A detail of the aft staircase railing. Photo by Steven J. Pickens, 2002.
Whether an attempt at humor, or a semi-serious proposal, Anderson wrote a letter to Kia Motors offering up the estimated 2,000 tons of scrap metal to the Korean automaker to produce a limited edition concept vehicle to be called a “Kia Kalakala.” In the letter he states, “I think with a few minor modifications your Kia Sedona could be produced in a limited collector’s edition of a ‘Kia Kalakala’ with a dash plate certifying that it contains metal recycled from the historic KALAKALA.” In a very long and unlikely career, stranger things have happened. This is just the latest, and possibly last, in the unusual saga of one of the most famous ships to have ever sailed on the West Coast.
KIA KALAKALA concept SUV design by Karl Anderson
With sincere thanks to Martin Cox and Steven J. Pickens.
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
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