The history of Vashon Island’s ferries is long, colorful, and often contentious. In the early years, the island was served by the steamships of the “Mosquito Fleet”—so-called because they were as numerous in the Puget Sound as a fleet of mosquitoes. Running from the late 19th century through the 1930s, these privately owned boats served over thirty docks on the island at their peak.
Japanese American farmers on Vashon Island used a variety of docks to transport their produce to Seattle, Tacoma, and beyond. When Augie Takatsuka was a child, his parents, Yohei and Aya, shipped their berries on Mosquito Fleet boats from Portage, where he’d been born in 1921. Peggie Nishimura Bain’s family also used the steamer dock at Portage, and switched over to the new Portage-Des Moines ferry dock when it was built in 1916. Later, the family relocated across the water to Des Moines, and on moving day, Peggie, who was no older than eight or nine, drove two younger siblings down the hill to the ferry in a wagon
The Vashon Island, the new diesel-powered automobile ferry built specifically for the Portage-Des Moines run, was the first of its kind on Puget Sound. The $45,000 vessel was capable of carrying forty cars and two hundred passengers, and was launched from McAteer Shipbuilding Company on June 28, 1916. The Seattle Times covered the event in high style, highlighting eleven year-old Margaret Case’s ceremonial smashing of a bottle of “real champagne”—having drolly reported at length on the frantic search for the precious beverage.
The Portage and Des Moines sites had been chosen over Vashon Heights or Vashon Landing and Three Tree Point and Seattle through a vigorously contested election, which included allegations of fraud and—not for the last time, in ferry history—threats of legal action. The thirty-minute service began on November 20, 1916, with four daily trips. The fare was ten cents per person, or per sheep or hog; cattle, mules, and horses rode for fifteen cents each. Run by the King County roads system, which had just built a new brick highway from Seattle to Des Moines, the Portage route would appear in special Times features describing “motoring tours”—a glamorous new pastime.
1916 also saw the opening of the Tahlequah dock service to Tacoma, and support for a north end alternative never waned. In 1919, King County opened a third service from Vashon Heights to Seattle, and the Portage-Des Moines run eventually succumbed to the competition in 1922. After operating for many years as an oil dock, it was eventually converted to a fishing pier, and has been run by the Vashon Park District since 1995.
Author: Vince Schleitwiler