Streamlined Art Deco Ferry KALAKALA listing in Tacoma

On Friday, March 25, 2011, Steve Rodriguez of announced that the former non-profit organization dedicated to saving and preserving the ferry KALAKALA would become a for profit entity. At the same time, it looked like his dream of saving the the unique vintage ferry was literally sinking as the ship took on water causing a list of up to 25 degrees to port, during low tide at her berth on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, Washington.  The former Black Ball Line and Washington State Ferry has been at this location since September, 2004.  Various efforts to find a use and a home for the 1,417 gross ton vessel have not come to fruition.  Although specific causes of the problem were unknown as this is written, it seems one of the pumps aboard the vessel quit working and at low tides water flows into the openings.  It rights itself on the rising tide but settles lower each time due to the water that has entered.  Reportedly, the pump has now been replaced and the ship is on an even keel once again.

KALAKALA's curious profile on Hylebos Waterway, Tacoma, Washington, August 12, 2005. Photo © Shawn J. Dake
KALAKALA in lay up on Hylebos Waterway, Tacoma, Washington, August 12, 2005. Photo © Shawn J. Dake
KALAKALA's stern on Hylebos Waterway, Tacoma, Washington, August 12, 2005 Photo © Shawn J. Dake

Few ships have had as unlikely a history and career as the KALAKALA which translates as “Flying Bird” from the native Chinook language.  Launched in 1926 as a conventional double-ended steam ferry designed for service on San Francisco Bay, the then named PERALTA operated for Key System Ferries following her 1927 maiden voyage.  Her career in the Bay Area was cut short in 1933 when an arson fire destroyed the Oakland terminal and also set the unlucky ferry ablaze.   She burned to the hull and was declared a total loss.  Instead of being destroyed Captain Alexander Peabody owner of the Puget Sound Navigation Company, the Black Ball Line, purchased the hulk for $6,500.00.  He had her rebuilt into something the world had never seen before.  As the world’s first streamlined ferry the KALAKALA had an Electro-welded superstructure with no rivets, curves everywhere, accented by rows of giant portholes along the vehicle deck and the passenger cabin fore and aft.  It was like a silver Airstream trailer sailing across the water.  In this form, the ship made her debut on July 3, 1935.  As reconstructed the KALAKALA could carry 1,943 passengers and up to 110 cars.  Her length was 276.5 feet with a beam of 55.7 feet and a draft of 16 feet.

KALAKALA at Victoria in 1957. Photo courtesy Steven J. Pickens.

The ship became part of the newly formed Washington State Ferry fleet in 1951.  It sailed for them until October 2, 1967 when it was retired.  Another bizarre turn of events found the former ferry heading to Alaska for a new role as a crab-processing plant in Alaska.  After moving around for two years the ship was taken to Gibson Bay at Kodiak, Alaska where it was floated ashore at high tide and became a land-locked seafood plant.  The story could have ended there but instead when this role was over preservationists put forward plans to refloat the ship and bring her back to Washington.  After 10 years of wrangling, the ship was refloated and towed back to Seattle arriving to a triumphant welcome on November 8, 1998.  It was first moored in Lake Union before moving to its present location.  Even if the ship remains afloat, the KALAKALA may not have much time left.  The Coast Guard was aboard on Friday to analyze the structural integrity.  Neighboring businesses have lost patience with the presence of the old ship and detractors claim it could pollute the environment.  According to Steven J. Pickens, an expert on Washington State Ferries, “If the KALAKALA did keel over, she would cause quite a problem for navigation, although if I remember correctly, all the old fuel oil was removed long ago.”  Steve Rodriguez himself estimates it would cost approximately $14 million to complete a full renovation, although some minor interior improvements have been made at the dock.  This is one of the most unique vessels in history and deserves a better fate than this, but the odds of saving her grow longer with each falling tide.

KALAKALA approaching Port Angeles in 1957. Photo courtesy Steven J. Pickens.

Thanks to Steven J. Pickens

For a detailed history of the KALAKALA please see his website at

Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

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.
Shawn Dake

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