Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, September 23, 2011

Puget Sound Washington / Mosquito Fleet

Steamer in 1882 Seattle
The Washington State Ferry system offers a unique adventure for the Seattle area traveler. It is definitely a fine addition to your Washington State vacation planner. When visiting Seattle Puget Sound is a main attraction. The modern fleet today was predated by a lot of very interesting history. History that goes back well over a century.

Early Puget Sound

There was probably no better place for steamboat transportation in the 1880's than the Puget Sound in Washington State. The South Puget Sound area at Tacoma all the way north to the Canadian border is a mountain surrounded scenic wonder. The location of Puget Sound dotted with islands and a growing population was ideal for steamboat  transportation. During this time there were  a great many vessels plying the Puget Sound waters.  These busy vessels were referred to as the "Mosquito Fleet", a collection of small steamer lines serving the Puget Sound area during the later part of the nineteenth century and early part of the 20th century. Washington state transportation depended very much on ferry transportation.

From the 1850s to the 1930s privately owned steamships and sternwheelers sailed all along the Puget Sound from the South Puget area all the way north to Canada. Eventually there were thousands of these vessels and local residents said they resembled a “swarm of mosquitoes”. The Washington ferries schedule was quite extensive even during the early years. These ships were very important during the early settlement days because there were no other alternatives to transporting both passengers and supplies.

A Steamboat Named Josephine on Puget Sound

In the late 1800's, there were quite a few routes that the steamboats sailed on both north and south of Seattle. At this time The Josephine was making regular runs between Seattle and the Upper Skagit River in 1878. Not to be confused with, there was another well known steamboat named Josephine that was involved with the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

This was the era where steam power was the mode of transportation energy, both with the railroads and with boats. Steam had it's advantages and unfortunately a few disadvantages as well. Boiler explosions on steamboats was a nagging problem for decades, back to the 1840's and 50's. Many people lost their lives on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Every year there were several accounts of boiler explosion catastrophes in the nation's press. One inherent problem with steamboat boilers was that the boiler itself was located deep within the vessel's infrastructure. If the boiler wasn't monitored properly or if it had design flaws, the outcome was deadly. In a boiler explosion the boat would be torn apart and burn. This happened with the Saluda steamboat explosion at Lexington Missouri. The Josephine had a boiler that was  salvaged from another vessel and overhauled.



Sternwheeler docked on Puget Sound
On January 16, 1883 the Josephine was on her regular run when shortly after 12 noon her boiler exploded. Amazingly, just three short weeks prior to this her boiler received a government inspection and was approved.

The explosion caused the vessel to split in half and the boiler section sunk in about 30 feet of water. Many of the survivors suffered both leg and head injuries. The explosion pushed up the cabin floor and trapped many people.There were many broken or sprained legs, ankles, and feet. One report at the time stated there were nine fatalities. A later inquiry pinned the cause as low water level in the boiler and the vessels commanders were charged with criminal negligence. It wasn't the first time that poor monitoring of a boiler caused loss of life.

The Steamboat Dix


Mount Rainier view from Puget Sound
There was another Puget Sound shipping disaster that was much more deadly. The steamboat Dix which was part of the Mosquito Fleet collided with the three masted schooner Jeanie in Puget Sound.

The accident occurred on November 18, 1906 off Alki Point. The captain happened to be off the bridge at the time collecting fares which was not uncommon in that era. The collision with the schooner pushed the Dix on it's side and it sank within minutes.

 The disaster became known as the worse maritime accident in Puget Sound history. There were various reports of fatalities, mostly between 40 to 50. Thirty-eight people survived. Because the steamer sunk in 600 feet of water, the lost were never recovered. After all these years the wreck of the Dix was finally found by underwater cameras in March 2011.


The Mosquito Fleet steamers of course came in various sizes and the description below will give you an idea of a sample vessel.

Reported in "Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest", "Finest Steamers in the Northwest Appear on Puget Sound Waters", E. W. Wright, Antiquarian Press, Ltd., 1961, p. 375. (Tacoma Public Library)

"The steamer Garland, launched at Port Townsend for Hastings & Horn, was a well built propeller seventy-seven feet seven inches long, seventeen feet six inches beam, and six feet seven inches hold, and was originally intended for towing and freighting. She has recently been lengthened thirty feet, fitted up with handsome passenger accommodations, and has run on the Victoria route."

The Puget Sound Modern Fleet



The original fleet of Washington ferries have been replaced by the larger, modern ferry that carry millions of autos and foot passengers across the sound each year and considered part of the state's highway system very similar to Alaska's water ferries. As of 2011, there are a total of 22 ferries on Puget Sound which are operated by the state. The largest vessels carry as many as 2500 passengers and 202 vehicles. They are painted in a white and green trim paint scheme, and feature double-ended open vehicle decks and bridges at each end so that they do not need to turn around.

Washington State Ferry,Share Alike
To the left is an image of a modern Washington State Ferry. Photo courtesy of Bluedisk from Wikipedia.

 In 1951 the State of Washington bought almost all of the remaining Puget Sound fleet. At that time the remaining line, the Black Ball Line about five vessels. The states intent was to run the ferry service temporarily until bridges were constructed. The bridge construction across the sound never happened and the State of Washington continues to run a total of twenty-two ferry boats to this day.


Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the United States. It carries more automobiles than any other water transit system in America. The ferry system is also a major tourist attraction for the state considering the natural beauty of the Puget Sound region. Some utilize it as a work commuter and others as a vacation adventure.The ferries carry more than 10 million cars per year and more than 22 million passengers per year. The system not only serves eight counties in Washington but also travels to British Columbia and has 17 terminals along the sound.You can catch the ferry a short 11 miles from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

There's another interesting historic site on Puget Sound. Constructed in 1891, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was a strategic U.S. military asset in both World War One and World War Two. Situated near the city of Bremerton on Sinclair Inlet, the Puget Sound naval Shipyard was America's first dry-dock and repair facility in the Northwest capable of handling the largest ships.  At the conclusion of World War Two, the shipyard work changed from repair work to the deactivation and storage of Pacific Fleet vessels. The aerial image below left show three decommissioned aircraft carriers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.


Photo courtesy of Jelson25, Wikipedia
Whether you travel to the Seattle area for business or pleasure, the Washington State Ferry system offers a picturesque side trip on the Puget Sound.

A Washington vacation really isn't complete until you have a chance to ride the Puget Sound ferries. Here is the website for schedules, fares and additional information and Washington State ferry times. Make sure to bring a camera. Another fun option while in Washington State is to take the Black Black Ball Ferry Line's daily trip between port Angeles Washington and Victoria British Columbia.

(Article copyright Western trips. Photos and images in public domain)


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