Washington State Ferries: Born From A Rates War
In 1948, at the height of discontent over a Puget Sound transportation controversy, a group of agitated locals, nicknamed the “Vashon vigilantes,” prevented the ferry Illahee from docking.
A local business man, two candidates for governor and a network of traversing boats came to a head over a seemingly simple issue: how much to charge to cross the waterways between cities and islands.
Building A Monopoly
From the 1920s to the 1940s, Captain Alexander Peabody ran the Black Ball Ferry Line, buying up small ferry companies that made up the Mosquito Fleet, until he acquired a virtual monopoly on ferry crossings on Puget Sound.
During WWII, his boats transported thousands of workers to wartime jobs in towns like Bremerton at reduced rates.
In 1945, after the conclusion of the war, Peabody petitioned the state to let him raise his fares by 10 percent, and then another 30 percent two years later.
Peabody “really felt that he did his job during the war,” said Alan Stein, staff writer at HistoryLink and author of “Safe Passage.” “He kept rates low and now that the war is over, he wanted some recompense for that.”
But the state was not enthusiastic about the latest raise, in part because the public had already seen the postwar cost of living going up.
While the issue was being debated, Peabody’s boat engineers went on strike. The boats were tied up and 10,000 commuters on Puget Sound couldn’t get to work. Buses, planes and private charters tried to plug the gap; but it was clear that Peabody had secured a monopoly on the traveling public.
After the state denied his 30 percent fare increase request in 1948, Peabody decided to exercise his monopoly and tied up his boats again.
“This was a red flag for people,” Stein said. “You can't have somebody saying, 'I'm just going to stop the ferries today.'”
Peabody attempted to sidestep the stalemate with the state by working directly with county authorities to run his ferries. The fares were higher and lines longer, but the state didn’t interfere.
But the same couldn’t be said for Vashon Island residents. During the first shutdown, an effigy of Peabody was hung out over the jetty. The second disruption of services compelled residents to form their own ferry district, buy up some dodgy old boats and run them independently.
Peabody responded by sending his ferry Illahee over to the island on May 15, 1948, with strict instructions to not come back empty.
“The owner of the hardware store, George McCormick, who was also the ferry commissioner over there, opened up his business and told people 'Take pitchforks, pool cues, shovels — whatever you can — go down there and repel that ferry,’” Stein said.
The wives of the Vashon vigilantes came to serve refreshments to their husbands, but soon took a more active part. “The captain saw this and decided to try once again and the boat swooped in. They all threw their coffee down and went down and pushed it away,” Stein said.
The Illahee limped back to Seattle in defeat.
The Flag Lowers
Public clamor for the state to take a hand in the ferry service continued to grow, but inquiries, studies and reports ultimately yielded little progress.
Governor Monrad Wallgren, a Democrat from Everett, was up for reelection in 1948 and tried to get the state to issue bonds to buy Peabody out. But the Legislature defeated his proposal, thus opening up a window for a rival. Arthur Langlie, a free-enterprise, pro-business Republican, saw Wallgren’s political failure as an opportunity and won the governorship from the incumbent.
“When he got elected,” Stein said, “Peabody thought it was clear sailing: ‘he'll be on my side.’ The problem was that Langlie thought that Peabody was giving free enterprise a bad name. In fact Langlie at one point called Peabody a robber baron, which just outraged Peabody.”
After years of constant wrangling, Langlie instead was able to secure the sell-off of Peabody’s ferry business to the state with a hand-over date of June 1, 1951. The state ultimately paid a weary and resigned Peabody $4.9 million for most of his ferries, the terminals and routes themselves.
“At midnight, the Black Ball flag was lowered for the last time and the Washington state flag went up,” said historian Steve Pickens. “At one point during the morning run, the Chippewah crossed with Black Ball livery on one side of her funnel and Washington State Ferries on the other as paint crews were painting away throughout the day.”
In Washington, fears that the state takeover represented a socialist tendency were easily soothed, partly because for Governor Langlie and many others, state ownership of the ferries was only ever intended as a temporary measure. Most people believed that in 10 years ferries would be obsolete – they'd be superseded by a network of bridges across Puget Sound.
Peabody took the pay-off from the state and invested elsewhere. His niece, Nina Peabody O’Neill, said he and his wife Marie ended up in Canada. Peabody started buying up smaller operators in British Columbia and built a modern fleet which was bought out by BC Ferries in 1965. He was apparently pleased with the deal and retired from the sea.
Of his run in Washington state, O’Neill said “Uncle Alexander did a damn good job.”
Read part two, 'Washington State Ferries: Replacing Aging Icons'
Correction 2/19/2014: The broadcast audio of this story gives the wrong title for Steve Pickens' book on the Washington State Ferries. Pickens’ book is called "Ferries of Puget Sound." Thanks to listener Gloria Mairs for correcting the course.
Funding for this story was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW board of directors and listener subscribers.