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Thursday, April 16, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Hidden Past

Before The Bridge -- From 1870 To 1950, Most Eastsiders Who Wanted To Cross Lake Washington Traveled By Ferry

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

When you ride a tour boat from Kirkland's Marina Park, it's easy to wonder what it would be like to take a ferry from Kirkland all the way across Lake Washington to Seattle.

Such a trip used to be commonplace. For more than 80 years, ferries were the chief way to cross the lake.

At the peak of service before World War I, dozens of ferries stopped at countless docks around the lake. They serviced sizable communities such as Kirkland and Bellevue as well as family docks - hence the term "mosquito fleet" - with ferries operating more like taxis than scheduled buses.

In a memoir of the steamer Dawn, a 55-footer built in 1914, Madelon Moore Konker tells of runs made from Leschi to Eastside stops named Lake, Merrimount, County, Franklin, Zimmerman's, Alymore's, Proctor and Thompson, and to private docks - including one where a woman always got on board in her bathrobe and finished dressing on the ferry.

It's been nearly 50 years since the last lake ferry offered scheduled passenger service.

That ferry, the Leschi, made its final run from Madison Park to Kirkland Aug. 31, 1950, with Capt. Frank Gilbert at the wheel. That day, he turned over command to Merle Adlum, who took the Leschi to a Vashon Island run. It later became a cannery vessel and sank in Alaska.

One person who saw the Leschi on Lake Washington was Frank Rosin, who grew up along the Kirkland lakefront near the ferry dock.

"I watched it make its last run across the lake with a tear in my eye," recalls Rosin, who was 15 then and fondly remembers the cross-lake trips. "It was exciting to me."

People would play cards on the 20-minute crossing, he recalled, and a woman named Olga Dunkle ran the lunch service.

Customs of the time separated the seating areas by gender, with women congregating on the north side and men on the south side, where they could smoke.

But the cross-lake ferries were not always filled with such pleasantness. Histories describe plots to thwart competition, battles over who would run the routes, continual struggles over money, and a collapse that finally came as tolls were removed from the Mercer Island floating bridge.

"Think of it, a full load on the Leschi was equal to the number of people crossing the floating span in 10 seconds during rush hours," wrote ferry Capt. Robert Matson in a 1990 history of the lake ferries, published by the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

The golden years

Boat travel on Lake Washington originally involved canoes and rowboats, but the first power vessel was a craft named the James Mortie, which arrived in 1870.

Other boats followed, but service got a considerable boost in 1890, when a developer named Charles Calkins built a resort on Mercer Island, named it "East Seattle," and had a 74-foot craft built for the run from Leschi. Named the C.C. Calkins, it was launched March 21, 1890.

A young man named John Anderson was quartermaster, and by the time he was 22, he'd become captain. It was Anderson who would largely guide the future of cross-lake ferries.

Born in Sweden, Anderson went to sea as a cabin boy and arrived in Seattle in 1888. By 1892, he was able to acquire a half interest in a 52-foot steamer named the Winnifred for $1,500. The Winnifred soon was making runs to Newcastle and carrying dancers on moonlight excursions, but she burned at Leschi in August 1894. Anderson used the insurance money to buy an 80-foot ferry boat named the Quickstep.

Anderson was adept at moving the boats up the Black River at the south end of Lake Washington, pulling them over sandbars at high water to reach the lake; the river and the route disappeared when the Ballard Locks opened in 1917 and the lake's level was lowered.

Anderson discovered there was a strong market for excursion cruises, and began running a yacht named the Cyrene around Mercer Island in 1903, with money from the cruises providing a major part of his financing for decades.

In 1906, many of the lake runs were combined under the name of the Anderson Steamboat Co., with Anderson as president.

Anderson also excelled as a shipbuilder, first operating a shipyard in Seattle near Leschi and later moving it to what is now the site of Carillon Point in Kirkland. The first vessel built there, the 95-foot Atlanta, was launched in 1908.

Anderson's timing was perfect. By 1909, the year of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the site of what now is the University of Washington, Anderson was running 12 boats.

"That was the golden year of steamboating on Lake Washington. For 30 years, Anderson was an important figure on the lake," reported the late Lucile McDonald, a local historian, in one of her books, "The Lake Washington Story."

Around the turn of the century, a controversy over public and private ownership developed. King County began to run a ferry, named the King County of Kent, from Leschi to numerous Eastside sites. But the vessel seemed to be jinxed, getting stuck in a mud bank at her launching in 1899. The county ended up losing about $100,000 a year on the lake operations, according to the 1983 book, "Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound."

After years of fighting, Anderson was appointed King County superintendent of transportation in 1919. By 1921, the county had lost so much money the routes were put out for lease, and Anderson took over the lake routes.

In 1922, Anderson expanded his cruises, taking as many as 300 riders at a time on the lake and Puget Sound.

"Anderson recognized that most of his money on Lake Washington had been made, not by providing ferry service, but by providing pleasure cruises and sightseeing tours," wrote Kline and Bayless.

Fighting the bridges

Paved roads were already becoming a threat to lake travel, and what would prove the ultimate threat was being discussed. In 1929, the Marine Digest reported that talks were going on at the Frye Hotel in Seattle about building a bridge across the lake.

Bridge talk faded with the 1929 stock-market crash, but was revived by 1939. That January, King County canceled Anderson's lease on the Lake Washington ferries as the state and county moved to build a floating bridge to Mercer Island. Anderson fought the bridge. A lawsuit ensued and was settled out of court. The Mercer Island bridge opened in 1940; Anderson died in May 1941.

The Madison Park-Kirkland run continued for about 10 years after the bridge opened, with the city of Kirkland appointing operators. The run was successful during World War II, when shipbuilding was booming at the Houghton shipyards. But ridership fell after the war, and came to an end after tolls were removed from the Mercer Island bridge in 1949. At that time, the Leschi was carrying about 1,500 riders a day.

On the Leschi's last run, a Seattle Times reporter, Robert Heilman, reported that Gilbert, the captain, "seemed to avert his eyes," and his chin trembled as he handed over control to Adlum.

In July 1950, the Eastside Journal, a weekly newspaper in Kirkland, reported on Page 1 that talks were under way for a second lake bridge, and that a traffic survey was being done. At the time, some 19,000 vehicles were crossing the Mercer Island bridge daily, and "20,000 to 37,000 is considered capacity," the paper noted.

The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge opened in 1963. Now each lake bridge carries more than 100,000 vehicles daily.

Peyton Whitely's phone message number is 206-464-2259. His e-mail address is: pwhi-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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