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Once the location of a Coast Salish village, Tahlequah was initially called Clam Cove by 19th century settlers, before acquiring its current name in 1920, along with its identity as the site of the major ferry dock serving Vashon Island’s south end.

In 1841, a glowing tribute to the beauty of a Tahlequah sunset was recorded by Lt. Georges Colvocoresses of Charles Wilkes’s U.S. Exploring Expedition, for whom the island’s western “Colvos Passage” would be named. Permanent settlers arrived four decades later, and by 1904, picnickers could pay fifteen cents for a round-trip ride by launch from the boathouse at Tacoma’s Point Defiance. For fifty cents in 1915, tourists from Seattle in curious to see “the Home of the Big Strawberries” could ride the steamers Virginia II and Virginia III down the Colvos Passage all the way down to Clam Cove.

Car ferry service began the following year, and for the next five years, Vashon Islanders had an unparalleled wealth of ferry options, with nine different ferries serving thirty-two docks. In 1920, Pierce County opened a new ferry service from Point Defiance to Gig Harbor and to the dock site now named Tahlequah. The fare to Tacoma was a mere five cents. In 1926, the Skansie brothers’ Washington Navigation Company purchased rights to the service from the county, along with the ferries City of Tacoma and Gig Harbor. In 1941, the service was taken over by the Puget Sound Navigation Company—also known as the Black Ball Line.

After a strike and a rate increase in 1947, voters disenchanted with Capt. Alexander Peabody’s Black Ball Line approved the formation of the Vashon Ferry District, which ran the route until the new Washington State Ferry System took over in 1951. Ships that worked the route included the troubled Vashonia, the venerable Skansonia, and the Fox Island, pictured in a 1941 postcard in the collection of the Sakahara family. In 1967, the Skansonia was replaced by the Hiyu, and fifty years later, both ferries are permanently docked in Seattle’s Lake Union, available to rent for weddings and other special events.

Author: Vince Schleitwiler


Tacoma Ferry Landing at Vashon Island.

From Densho/Sakahara & Tanaka Collection

Ad for Colvos (West) Passage service on Virginia II and Virginia III, from Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1915.

Black Ball Fleet poster, 1941.

Photo from Huntington Library.

Arlene and Lois Sakahara on the deck of a Vashon Island ferry, c. 1940s.

Photos from Densho/Sakahara & Tanaka Collection.

Kazuko Sakahara on the deck of a ferry boat, c. 1930s-1940s.

Photo from Densho/Sakahara & Tanaka Collection.

Ad for Pierce County Ferry System, from the Tacoma News Tribune, August 13, 1925.


Naming Tahlequah

Although the Coast Salish people had established a village at the far southern end of Vashon Island, the Native origin of the name “Tahlequah” is the product of settler history.

At a time when Vashon Islanders had an unparalleled range of ferry options to choose from, the christening of the new Pierce County service in 1920 drew plenty of attention. On May 15th, some 300 people celebrated the opening, at which Tacoma Mayor C. M. Riddell awarded a fifty-dollar prize to Miss Ethel Whitfield, daughter of the owners of the Burton Store, for her winning entry in a competition to name the new terminus, sponsored by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce.

The name, “Tahlequah,” which was also commemorated at the event in a poem composed and read by Vashon Island News-Record editor P. Monroe Smock, was believed to mean “water view” or “pleasant water” in a Native language. The origin of the name is the city of Tahlequah, the oldest municipality in Oklahoma, which has served as the capital of the Cherokee Nation since the 19th century. (Though the meaning of the word is the source of much debate in the Cherokee context, it does not appear to have any connection to water.)

Two decades later, in the summer of 1941, a minor hullaballoo ensued when a mysterious sign appeared on the ferry landing one night welcoming visitors to “Clam Cove, formerly Tahlequah.” Within days, it disappeared just as mysteriously, to the great relief of the “‘let’s call a spade a spade’ fraternity,” as reported by the Tacoma News Tribune. Perhaps dissatisfied by this quick resolution, the newspaper reported on a further controversy over the persistence of alternate spellings of the name, which required a separate editorial and a written inquiry by the U.S. Post Office to resolve in favor of the standard form.

Ad for Washington Navigation Company, from the Tacoma News Tribune, July 3, 1940.

For Vashon Island’s Japanese American community, World War II marked a turning point, defined by the experiences of forced removal and mass incarceration, and only a third returned to the island after the war. Some who did, like twenty-five year-old Augie Takatsuka, bore the additional traumas of military service—for a government that had thrown them and their families into concentration camps.

It was not until December 1945 that the young veteran made his way back home from the war. The combat he’d seen in Italy and France left him nightmares that would persist for many years, as well as a case of trench foot that ultimately cost him his left leg. It had also gotten him reassigned to care for horses and mules, and he liked to say that his “claim to fame,” from his last job before returning, was personally shoveling manure for General Dwight D. Eisenhower!

Perhaps he told that story on that cold New Year’s Eve, riding the last ferry from Port Defiance to Tahlequah. A deck hand asked him if he had a ride; he did not. He didn’t even know where he was going—his parents, Yohei and Aya, had returned in June from Minidoka, but he didn’t know the location of their rental cabin. There was only one car on the ferry, and when the deck hand offered to ask the driver to give him a ride, he balked at first, worried about the driver’s response. Instead, it turned out that the driver was another Japanese American, who knew Yohei and Aya and drove him directly to their door.

Reacclimating to civilian life on the island wasn’t easy for Augie, but before the new year was out, he’d returned to farming. In 1950s and 1960s, the peak years for strawberries and currants on his property that still carries his name, Augie and his workers would be up at daybreak to pick fresh market flats. The rest of the day, they’d pick the “canners,” while Augie would catch the 9 a.m. ferry back at the Tahlequah dock, traveling in a loop through Tacoma and Kent as far as Beacon Hill in Seattle.

By 2007, when Augie passed away, the heyday of Japanese American strawberry farmers was long over, and his property was into its fourth decade as a Christmas tree farm, but the lonely young veteran on the last ferry from Tacoma had become an island fixture, well remembered as a character and narrator of many local tales.

Three soldiers from the famed 442nd regiment in Italy, Augie at right.