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Lake Transportation

To The First Eastside Settlers, Lake Washington Was A Beautiful Barrier To Progress

Article by Matthew McCauley

Photography by Kirkland Heritage Society

Originally published in Kirkland Lifestyle

To the first Eastside settlers, Lake Washington was a beautiful barrier to progress. 

The lake provided access to Seattle, their main contact with civilization. To Seattle speculators the lake’s eastern shore lured promising potential fortunes to be made in natural resources such as coal and timber. A canal connecting the lake and Sound was envisioned within a few years of Seattle’s 1852 founding, and building the canal would make the lake essentially a well-protected freshwater harbor, creating an opportunity for industrialization. 

Writing in 1934, R. H. Collins, Kirkland’s first mayor, said of the early days, “Separated from Seattle as we are by Lake Washington, transportation has always been a vital problem in the development of this section.”

Canoes and rowboats were the first transport on the lake, but when coal was discovered at Newcastle in 1863, steamboats became a necessity for towing coal-laden barges. In 1868, the tiny Fannie—the first powered craft on the lake—appeared. In those days, lake level was nine feet higher than it is today.

At the south end of the lake, the Black River drained out of the lake near where the Cedar River flows in today. The Black River joined with the White River, which then fed into the Duwamish River, which in turn flowed into Puget Sound.

During times of high water, it was possible to bring a boat from Puget Sound up the rivers and into the lake. The arduous process sometimes took weeks and often involved winching the boat through the shallows and removing wind-felled trees from the river. Local Native Americans were often hired along the way to help. By the 1870s several other boats had made the arduous passage up the rivers. These boats towed coal barges and carried passengers across the thickly forested lake. 

To reach their new homesteads many of Kirkland’s earliest settlers loaded all their belongings on these 40 to 65-foot vessels. One such pioneer was Juanita settler Elisa Forbes, who said in 1939 that the tiny vessel her family first rode across the lake in 1877 looked more like “a ship’s boat” than a steamer because it was so small.

After it became practical to build boats on the lake in the late 1880s the lake soon had a small fleet. When Kirklanders Captains George Bartsch and Harry Tompkins bought a section of waterfront land for their boat yard from the Curtis family in 1901, they set a course for Houghton development that lasted until after World War II. The tiny yard was located at today’s Carillon Point. They also operated boats on the lake under their B&T Transportation Co. banner. 

In 1900 King County launched The King County of Kent and contracted B&T to operate the first double ended ferry to ply the lake between Kirkland’s new ferry slip at the end of Kirkland Avenue and that of Madison Park, but the boat had design flaws and operated at a non-trivial financial loss. 

Captain John Anderson bought controlling interest in B&T’s fledgling boatyard, changing the name to Anderson Shipyard, which he ran in conjunction with the several lake steamboats he already owned and operated under the sister company Anderson Steamboat Co. Anderson immigrated from Sweden and by 1888 found himself in Seattle where he took jobs on various saltwater vessels until he landed a deckhand job on the lake in 1891 on the C.C. Calkins and later became fireman on the Kirkland, built by Kirkland co-founder, publisher and developer Leigh Hunt (Hunt’s Point’s namesake).

Anderson’s steamers served the Eastside and Mercer Island. He built a number of double decked excursion style steamboats in anticipation of the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition, a large, international event held in 1909 on what is now the University of Washington campus. He also built a number of double ended ferries, including the King County of Kent’s replacement, the Washington of Kirkland and the Washington’s replacement, the Lincoln of Kirkland, which ran between Kirkland and Madison Park until 1940, when the floating bridge connecting Seattle to Mercer Island opened and ended the service out of Leschi and reduced that out of Madison Park. The smaller ferry Leschi took over the Madison Park-Kirkland route. 

The long-awaited canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound opened in 1916--lowering the lake 9-feet in the process—thus opening the lake to seagoing vessels. Anderson sold the shipyard in 1923 to Charles Burkhardt, Alaska Consolidated Canneries’ owner, who changed the name to the Lake Washington Shipyard. It spent its remaining years making mostly sea-going ships. In 1934-35 it transformed a burnt hull into the iconic art deco ferry Kalakala and during World War Two built axillary ships for the US Navy, including about 25 seaplane tenders and four submarine net tenders. Post-war vessel construction slowed to a trickle and its last vessel was launched in 1967. 

Anderson Steamboat Co. dominated lake transportation, but automobiles were there to stay and his beautiful excursion boats were slipping into obsolesce. By 1922 King County had car ferries running on Madison Park-Kirkland and Leschi-Roanoke (Mercer Island)-Medina routes, all operated at a substantial loss. That year Anderson contracted with the county to operate its Lake Washington Ferries—they still lost money, but a whole lot less--a position he held until his 1941 death. He died childless, but his brother, Albert, who worked with him has several families of Anderson descendants living in Kirkland today.

The Lake Washington Ferries lasted another decade until the Leschi made the final run in the summer of 1950.

Photo 1 - The native Duwamish People crafted the first vessels to ply the lake. The native man in the bow lived on Portage Bay. The photographer was the first white baby boy born in Seattle, Orion O. Denny, whose Eastside summer home grounds were bequeathed to become today's O.O. Denny Park. 

Photo 2 - The French family settled in what became Houghton in 1872. Harry, the grown son, built the first frame home in the Eastside in 1874. A hobby photographer, Harry used his wooden box camera to capture these images of his parents Samuel Foster "Foss" and Caroline with the steamboat C.C. Calkins in the spring or summer of 1890. 

Photo 3 - The image with Caroline only reveals the steamer Kirkland, owned by Kirkland co-founder, publisher Leigh Hunt's Jackson Street Cable Railway. The Kirkland ran out of Leschi and after disembarking there most passengers boarded a streetcar for a ride down Jackson street to the business district, then today's Pioneer Square and vicinity. This was Kirkland's boom period when it underwent rapid transformation from wooded lakeshore to an envisioned, burgeoning steel manufacturing town.

Photo 4 - The Kirkland at dock, c.1889, probably at the foot of Market Street, looking southeast across Moss Bay to a then practically undeveloped Lake Street. Primarily a passenger vessel, but if hay needed to be hauled then it was. The Kirkland's end was inglorious, during the Klondike gold rush in 1898 Seattle was full of fortune seekers heading up to the diggings and practically anything that would float was bought, stolen or bartered for. Hastily stripped of superstructure and machinery, she was converted to a humble barge and hauled down the Black River and into Elliott Bay, where she was quickly loaded up, towed north to Alaska and never heard from again.     

Photo 5 - Captain John Anderson stands proudly as his wife Emily christens the excursion passenger steamer Aquilo just before Seattle received tens of thousands of visitors and the eyes of the world in 1909 for hosting the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition on the site of today's University of Washington campus. Anderson began his Lake Washington career in 1891 as the lowly deckhand on the C.C. Calkins soon graduating to fireman on the Kirkland. By his death in 1941 he had built, owned or had control over most of the lake's steamboats and ferries.     

Photo 6 - The twin queens of Lake Washington during its 1900s golden age of steamboating were Capt. John Anderson's Fortuna and her sister Urania. The Fortuna ran primarily out of Leschi, serving the landings and private docks on Mercer Island and today's Bellevue. The Urania served mostly the more northern routes, from Juanita Bay south to the Points.

Photos 7 & 8 - No longer content to just walk on, by the 1910s lake travelers and commuters wanted to drive their automobiles once on the other side and the shift started to double-end ferries to accommodate motor vehicles. The Fortuna was robbed of her beauty and radically transformed into a utilitarian double end ferry, seen here in the 1920s transporting a Boy Scout troop through the locks. She was scrapped a few years later.      

Photo 9 - Anderson Steamboat Company's 1909 route map, 

Photo 10 - The Houghton built, Anderson Steamboat Company's twin Aquilo and Triton, loaded to the gills with excursion passengers in 1909. 

Photos 11, 12, 13 - The King County Port District's first ferry, the problem plagued, double-ender King County of Kent was condemned and replaced in 1908 by the larger steam-powered Washington of Kirkland. The second photo of Kirkland's crude ferry slip was taken from the Washington that year from the Washington's upper deck. The lake was 10-feet higher then, the slip was at the end of Kirkland Avenue at about where The Slip restaurant is located today.    

Photos 14-17 - 

Like the old King County, the Washington proved unsatisfactory and we see her replacement, the steam-powered Lincoln of Kirkland, on the ways at the Anderson Shipyards in Houghton (today's Carillon Point) shortly before her launch in late 1914.The image was captured by the famous northwest photographer, Darius Kinsey.

Kirklander Earl Etzler (1886-1945) sits off Houghton with his beloved pup in the stern of his runabout, the Teal, with the Lincoln in the background. Etzler was the first Kirkland man to enlist for WWI and returned from France after the war with a beautiful young french bride, Jeanne (1898-1956). After the war, Earl went to work for the Lake Washington Ferries and the Etzlers built a home on State Street. Earl became a purser on the Lincoln and is seen front row center, with the white hat, in the 1920s group photo.

Photos 18-19 - The Kirkland (1930s) and Madison Park (1910s) ferry slips.

Photos 20-21 - The venerable ferry Lincoln was replaced in 1940 with the smaller Leschi, seen here in 1946. She was steam-powered when launched in 1913 abut was later refitted with diesel machinery. Many Kirkland seniors still have fond memories of both the Lincoln and Leschi. A popular summer childhood activity was diving down to the lake bottom next to the slip to recover coins tossed in by amused passengers. Her last run was in August 1950 and she was taken to the Sound where she operated until retirement in 1967. She was taken to Alaska and beached in Prince William Sound's Shotgun Cove, near City of Whittier, and used as a cannery until 1986 until being abandoned. Her carcass stubbornly clings to intertidal existence.    

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