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Sunday, August 9, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Passengers Only -- Water Could Be The Way Out Of Gridlock

YOU STAND ON THE BEACH well south of Kingston and wonder. Kids drop crab nets off the long dock, a heron walks stiff-legged across the exposed sand. It is a day you can see the dark profile of downtown Seattle over the Magnolia bluff, Mount Rainier to the south and, behind you, the Olympics.

So near to Seattle, yet so far. So perfect, really.

You wonder if it was much different when slender, steam-powered boats chugged in from Ballard in the 1920s and '30s, dropping off mail and picking up berries for the Pike Place Market on the return to Seattle.

There still is calm, navigable water; there still is a dock, and some would suggest a need, a need for anyone who has to drive 25 minutes south to Bainbridge Island, pay $4 to park and then look anxiously for a seat on the 7:10 ferry to Seattle.

But there is no boat, not like there used to be when Puget Sound at the turn of the century had such a busy network of water trolleys, buses and trucks that the name Mosquito Fleet hardly needed explanation.

The boats fanned out from Seattle's Colman Dock, nearly running into one another, the bigger ones looking like small passenger liners carrying people, mail and freight to Olympia, Tacoma, Port Townsend, Everett, Bellingham, Victoria, Vancouver and even Alaska, while smaller ones went to Bremerton, Vashon and Bainbridge. The boats didn't just go to them, but around them, making milk-run stops to places that had no other means of getting milk, such as Colby, Manchester, Rolling Bay, Fletcher Bay, Point White, Shine, Harper, Utsaladdy, Keyport, Suquamish, Indianola, Annapolis, Cove, Olalla.

The little steamers reached their peak in the dozen or so years before and after the turn of the century. Hundreds of them, sleek and made of wood, came chirping in the harbor as three ex-presidents - Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison and Teddy Roosevelt - came to town as the Gold Rush to Alaska got under way and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition of 1909 glamorized the grounds of what would be the campus of the University of Washington.

Steamers made the 30-minute trip from Leschi Park and Madison Park to the university during the exhibition for 25 cents. At the same time, they were making four round trips daily across Lake Washington from Kirkland to Madison Park. They were, as the Lake Washington Auto Ferry Service advertised, "the shortest route from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle."

They were everywhere, from Seabeck to Brinnon on the Kitsap Peninsula, from Medina to Roanoke on Lake Washington. In 1910, they moved two million passengers a year.

Wrote Jim Faber in his book "Steamer's Wake," "They operated year-around with virtually no navigation instruments or accurate charts, and in some cases were manned by men who understood neither. The steamers hauled farm wives laden with baskets of eggs and produce; beachcombers carrying sacked clams; Indians hauling vats of fish oil to grease logging-camp skid roads; land promoters and lovers, preachers and con men.

"Unregulated, financed by loans and gall, fueled by cordwood and fierce competition, they were to forge a mass transit system that for 70 years made inter-city travel on Puget Sound a delight."

You wonder if our past isn't our future, that the same proliferation of automobile and macadam highways that sunk the Mosquito Fleet might revive it.

PAUL SCHELL, A PUGET SOUND prophet who has had more ideas about our future than we've had money to make them possible, has this time invested some of his own cash in a company called "Mosquito Fleet." It's a company that wants government help in buying high-speed boats that would carry customers and croissants from Whidbey Island, Mukilteo, Everett and Edmonds to downtown Seattle.

"The only exclusive corridors we have anymore are our waterways," Schell says. "We don't have to worry about tunnels or hills. We have what nature gave us, and we ought to take advantage of it. A return of the Mosquito Fleet might not be the grand solution to our transportation problems, but it can be a low-tech, incremental solution."

At the turn of the century, people weren't commuting as much as they were traveling, moving across maritime waterways for business and pleasure. In some cases, water was the only way out.

In "Steamer's Wake," Faber wrote, "From the beginning it hardly mattered to the early-day creationists where the steamer was headed. Getting there was most of the fun. Just stepping aboard made one buoyant. Pennants snapped. Everywhere brass and paint work gleamed. On deck, the air was clean and, apart from the occasional belch from the steamer stack, free of the milltown's smoky pall - and the constant scream of the saws."

People in Seattle wanted to escape as well. They opted for the 77-minute run to and from Tacoma on the glamorous steamer Tacoma rather than take the somewhat faster, but less pleasurable, train.

The Flyer, burning 24 cords of wood a day, made the same trip in one hour and 45 minutes. Speed was not as important as style.

On the weekends, one could take the spectacular 4 1/2-hour trip aboard the Chippewa from Colman Dock to Union at the foot of Hood Canal and back again, an excursion advertised as "an abbreviated trip to Alaska." All for $1.

A more typical steamer run was by the Kitsap, as described in Katy Warner's book, "A History of Bainbridge Island." It left Poulsbo and stopped at Port Madison, Seabold, Tolo, Venice, Manzanita, Crystal Springs, Pleasant Beach and Fort Ward (all along the west side of Bainbridge) and then went on to Seattle. Each neighborhood along the way seemed to have its own dock and general store.

"The trip from Poulsbo with all of the stops took about two hours," wrote Warner. "The little steamers only made about two trips a day to Seattle. The people loved their steamboats. Sometimes the steamers raced each other for fun. People cheered for their favorite boat."

In 1922, the steam-powered Virginia V hauled passengers and freight between Tacoma and Seattle with 13 stops along the West Pass separating the mainland and Vashon Island. It departed Seattle at 7 a.m. and arrived in Tacoma at 9:45 a.m. It was I-5 for passengers, but to those stops along the way, it was everything, its whistle sounding contact with an outside world.

The sole survivor of the Mosquito Fleet, the Virginia V is docked today in Ballard, a well-kept curiosity, painted and polished by the Virginia V Foundation, but still a sad reminder of those magnificent boats that didn't escape the bone yard. Others include the Tacoma, the Kennedy, the Flyer and the three ships built along America's Great Lakes: the Chippewa, the Indianapolis and the Iroquois. The Chippewa and the Indianapolis were rebuilt to carry cars, but all were eventually a victim of the automobile.

In 1928, the new Highway 99 was opened from Seattle to Tacoma, 10 miles shorter than the old route. Labor strikes, better roads, car ferries and several bridges all made the little boats ineffective and unnecessary.

As the routes became less prosperous, they also became more expensive and less dependable. Citizens clamored for better service. Sensing a need to do something, the state of Washington in 1951 purchased the privately-owned Black Ball Line of ferries, and the Mosquito Fleet was flattened like a bug under a highway system of bridges where there could be bridges and large, car-carrying ferries where bridges wouldn't reach.

Smaller, less profitable routes could be discontinued. No longer would the boats need to make the trip to Suquamish or Port Ludlow. The highway was improving between Olympia and Bellingham; traveling between those cities over water, not land, seemed ridiculous.

Lunches on cloth-covered tables, strolling on the deck, watching the Smith Tower rise above the Seattle skyline - those were days gone by. (space)

Early this summer, Marilyn Barnes sat on a folding chair in the bowels of the 300-passenger Spirit of '76, a diesel-powered boat moving people two miles from Port Orchard to Bremerton, a real remnant of the Mosquito Fleet.

"I save $75 a month, I don't have to spend time looking for a parking place and, besides, this is a nice little jaunt each day," she says on her 10-minute trip to work at the shipyard in Bremerton. She could have driven the eight miles around the bay at Bremerton from Port Orchard, but for 70 cents and liberation from her car, she decided not to.

Bill Somers worked as a deckhand on the Manitou for its run from Seattle to Rolling Bay on Bainbridge Island during the early 1930s while a student at the University of Washington. Now he is curator of a wonderful collection of Mosquito Fleet history - from foghorns to fables - at his Museum of Puget Sound in an old winery near the town of Grapeville, between Bremerton and Shelton. "I've always been fascinated by the Mosquito Fleet," he says in front of a picture of the Tacoma. "It seems to me the concept might be good today if the idea is to get people out of their cars."

Ideas flow as freely and reach as far as Puget Sound itself.

- A yuppie boat from Whidbey Island to Seattle - Paul Schell's new Mosquito Fleet - equipped with cellular phones and fax machines.

- Another fleet moving people from the new village of Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island to Seattle just as it did 75 years before.

- The Washington State ferries running 300-passenger boats from Southworth and Kingston to downtown Seattle, much as they're doing now from Vashon Island and Bremerton.

- Other, smaller boats making places like Manchester and Indianola more accessible than they are by road.

- Rush-hour traffic reviving interest in runs across Lake Washington, even to the University of Washington.

Is the Mosquito Fleet about to buzz again?

The politicians say no, the marine experts say not likely, the public doesn't seem to know or care, but the dream lives on because it deserves to.

Back in 1923, the Marine Digest noted, "A Saturday or Sunday afternoon on any of the Western Washington highways will quickly convince one that the auto has about reached its zenith as a medium of pleasure. If the weather is fair, the roads are crowded and there is not much fun in either driving or in riding. The broad reaches of the Sound and the waters of Lake Washington now invite the pleasure-seeker, offering him freedom from the reckless driver, the absent-minded pedestrian or the contrary cow."

Today the auto seems to have reached its zenith as a medium of transportation, as well. More highways, more automobiles - the equation never changes. But in an era when we are not building more highways, and cars pile up in rush hour, the waters again beckon. If only it were possible to move people quickly enough, cheaply enough and frequently enough across our waters.

But even if that were possible, where do we park the cars of those riding the boats? The Suquamish Indian Tribe understandably refuses to let its waterside community - a perfect terminal for ferry traffic - be transformed into a parking lot so passenger-only boats might move people directly to Seattle and thus save the congestion, time and cost of heading for the jumbo ferries leaving Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge.

Even now, the Washington State ferries operate the country's largest fleet of car-and-people-moving boats: 22 vessels, 20 terminals, nine routes, 22.5 million passengers last year.

While the state tries to expand passenger-only service to downtown Seattle from Southworth near Bremerton and from Kingston in north Kitsap County, there are the major problems of building docks, finding parking and even finding reliable ferries. The new passenger-only boats from Vashon and Bremerton have been unusable for weeks at a time, prompting state officials to consider their replacements even though they were purchased in 1990 for $2.5 million each.

Moreover, the state complains that passengers pay ($3.30 round trip to Kitsap County) for only 20 percent of the replacement costs. The remaining 80 percent is subsidized by taxpayers. On the other hand, the state claims each car ($6.65 for the car and driver) it carries pays nearly half the costs involved. Clearly, it would rather move cars and people than just people. (space)

Still, the unloading of the Walla Walla each morning in Seattle on the early run from Bainbridge is a stunning statement of what might be. Nearly 1,300 passengers, cyclists and motorcyclists leave the boat behind without their automobiles.

They've saved gas, and money for parking. They don't have to worry about downtown congestion and are free to reboard at their discretion by avoiding car lineups. They are the new Puget Sound commuter, but they are the old one as well.

And they do it without much help on either end. One lonely bus awaits the flood of humanity pouring through Colman Dock. The new Metro bus tunnel is a stiff, four-block walk up the hill to Third Avenue, and then another three blocks either north to the University Street Station or south to the station at Pioneer Square.

Where was the planning?

Returning home to Bainbridge, there is a fleet of Kitsap County transit buses to move the passengers around and off the island, but there is no high-speed lane to let them escape the congestion of the parking lot, and no police officer to direct traffic, even though a significant amount of the island's population is involved.

It works, but it doesn't. The round-trip commuter ticket of $1.90 is far below comparable mass-transit costs in other cities, but the state tells us that is possible only because of the 200 automobiles it carries below to help defray costs.

Said State Rep. Karen Schmidt of Bainbridge: "The notion of picking up people in sparsely populated areas is like having the whip-and-buggy doctor return. What we are trying to do now is move people in mass quantities, but that involves car ferries as well as passenger ferries."

But passenger-only travel, Mosquito Fleet travel, if you will, might be more frequent and more flexible than that provided by the larger car ferries. The state, however, refuses to believe ferrying people from point to point makes economic sense. (space)

A remarkable example of how it can make sense, of then and now, of good management and service, is the Horluck Transportation Co., which has moved people from Port Orchard to Bremerton since the 1930s with little fuss, no cars and no state subsidy.

How do they do it?

"If you don't give service, you're dead," says 67-year-old Albert Lieseke, whose grandfather bought Horluck Transportation in 1929. "We give them as many trips as we can, and then we keep costs low. We do our own maintenance, and we don't have the management the state does. Here, everybody works."

Lieseke is the chief mechanic. As the day's foot traffic ebbs and fails to test the capacity of his three larger boats, he puts one of two 50-passenger boats - water taxis, really - into service with one person as captain and crew, piloting the boat, jumping off to tie it up, collecting tickets, a bus driver at sea.

Horluck Transportation moves 1,800 people a day, most of them shipyard workers, but some on their way to Seattle via the Washington State ferry from Bremerton. Bare bones, really, folding chairs sitting on Astroturf rugs covering what on a chartered trip is a dance floor, a bucket filled with sand for an ashtray. Seventy cents each way for the 10-minute trip. Frequent, flexible, fast.

Up north, Marty Behr, the owner of the new Mosquito Fleet, has other ideas. He wants to provide an alternate to Interstate 5, one that is less stressful and less expensive than driving and parking your own car, and more luxurious and productive - but not less expensive - than riding the bus.

Right now, Behr operates a charter-boat service from Everett, the San Juans and Whidbey Island. He believes that with the same kind of capital subsidy transit-bus companies receive - the federal government pays 80 percent of equipment costs - he can operate service to and from Seattle without subsidy.

How? The boats would continue charter work during non-commuter hours. Behr would run four trips during peak commuter times and charge $10 round trip for regular riders from South Whidbey, Mukilteo and Everett and $7.50 from Edmonds. His fleet would have two 150-passenger boats running at a top speed of 27 knots, and one 300-passenger boat capable of 35 knots. He projects a commuting time of 55 minutes from Whidbey and Everett to Seattle and 35 minutes from Edmonds to Seattle.

"When the Mosquito Fleet died," Behr says, "it was because traveling by car just got easier and easier and easier. Today travel is getting tougher and tougher. The trip to Seattle is more demanding today and costs more than we would charge when you figure in the cost of downtown parking."

Unlike Horluck's people mover, Behr's yuppie ferry would have meeting rooms, gourmet food, reserved seating on the boat, reserved parking off it, cellular phones and fax machines to make the time more productive. "We don't think there will be a huge demand for this type of commute," Behr says, "but we think there is a demand."

There has always been a demand. In their book "Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound," M.S. Kline and G.A. Bayless tell that in 1923 the Port Blakely Mill Co. on Bainbridge Island signed a contract with the Kitsap Transportation Company for high-speed ferry service to Seattle. With the collapse of its lumber mill, the company wanted to develop 1,000 acres for home buyers with direct ferry service to Seattle a major lure.

Now, 70 years later, Port Blakely is still trying to develop the 1,000 acres around the historic deep-water port, and again in its plan is direct ferry service to Seattle.

Because it can't compete by law with the state runs from Bainbridge to Seattle, Port Blakely would operate its ferry only for residents of the community. It would lease the fleet of Harbor Tours boats early and late in the day, when they are normally tied to the dock.

Charles Wilson of Port Blakely estimates such a run would cost $4 round trip, twice that of the state ferry but without the cost of parking on the Bainbridge side and with the convenience of door-to-door service.

Meantime, the state is trying to start passenger-only runs to Seattle from Southworth and Kingston, the latter a public/private partnership in which the state would lease a boat from the Victoria Clipper fleet.

"We're convinced the ridership is there," says Schmidt, who is an enthusiastic advocate of ferry service in an otherwise unenthusiastic Legislature. "The problem is getting a dock built and supplying adequate parking and bus service to the dock."

Ed Hagemann is a naval architect who developed modern ferry fleets on the West Coast for years with the Seattle firm of Nickum & Spaulding. He likes the idea of passenger-only traffic, but worries if all the components for a successful run can be put in place.

"We're looking not just at boats, but at a system, one that starts the moment the passenger walks out of the house and considers everything in between. For a system to work, it must be time- and cost-competitive, it must be reliable and it must operate in a fairly large time window.

"In my mind, you have to be extraordinarily selective where you introduce the run." (space)

Any return of the fleet will likely be a mixture of public and private service, the state providing the larger boats from Kingston, Southworth and possibly Suquamish, with the private companies trying to do business where it is needed, as Horluck's has done for years.

The state thinks centralized and is in the process of securing $210 million in bonds to begin design work and construction of three new jumbo ferries, jumbo enough to carry 218 vehicles and 3,000 passengers, replacing the Spokane and the Walla Walla on the Bainbridge run, releasing those boats to handle the Edmonds-Kingston route.

Albert Lieseke of Horluck's thinks decentralized, as the Port Blakely ferry would be. The state thinks big boats of high speed; Lieseke thinks small boats and frequency.

The future is a mystery. The thought of a bridge to Kitsap County persists. Will there be rail service along I-5 so fast and so good it makes north-south water travel silly? Will Kitsap County continue to be a lure to those on the crowded Eastside because of its cheaper, more rural land?

How crowded will our highways get, how many people will be able to telecommute from home and only travel occasionally to the city, just how important will speed be in the equation?

Every knot of speed on the water costs heavily in terms of money spent on fuel, time lost to repairs of high-performance engines, and the damage done to the environment. Faster, especially at night or in the fog, can also be more dangerous.

"I just don't think speed is that important," continued Lieseke. "Take them when they want to go and where they want to go. For years the state ran a ferry into Bremerton that was either too early or too late for the start of the shipyard shift. The schedule met the state's needs for using a crew, but not those of the passengers." The debate will rage even among those who could be served. Does more water traffic open up shoreline hamlets, or bury them?

It seems a matter of scale - big boats and big parking lots for big places, little boats and few parking places for little places, people moving sensibly, comfortably and cheaply again without their cars. Puget Sound - a highway of unusual beauty and capacity.

The heron persistently pecks for food, but blanches at the splitting whistle of the Virginia V steaming toward the dock. Time to take the 4:30 boat back to Seattle.

BLAINE NEWNHAM IS A SEATTLE TIMES ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND SPORTS COLUMNIST. HARLEY SOLTES IS PACIFIC'S STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER.

Published Correction Date: 08/12/92 - Incorrect Information For Two Historical Photos Accompanied This Article On The Return Of The Mosquito Fleet. The Cover Pictured The Steamer Camano Making The 10- Cent Trip From Downtown Seattle To Luna Park On Duwamish Head And Then On To Alki Point. The Photo On Page 10 Shows The Vashon Dropping Off Passengers At Three Tree Point Near Burien Around 1917.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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