On December 6, 1913, the auto ferry Leschi is launched from Rainier Beach on Lake Washington. Originally designed as a side-wheeler, the Leschi is owned and authorized by the Seattle Port Commission, and is the first public, tax-supported water transportation in the Puget Sound region. The Leschi is built in response to requests from Bellevue farmers, who need a better way to transport their goods to market than by taking the passenger-only steamers then in service from Kirkland.
Crossing the Lake
When regular ferry service began on Lake Washington in the late 1800s, Kirkland was the primary stop for private ferries on Lake Washington. Early steamboats were less than 100 feet long, and by the end of the century, Kirkland residents needed larger vessels to meet their needs. In 1900, they requested King County Commissioners to build them a dock and set up a ferry run that could accommodate wagons and horses.
The county built the King County of Kent, and placed it into service between Madison Park and Kirkland. Seven years later, the county funded construction of the Washington of Kirkland, a slightly larger boat, for the same run. Meanwhile, private ferry boats continued to serve other docks on the lake, including those at Medina and Bellevue.
By 1910, farmers in Bellevue were tired of transporting their goods to the Kirkland ferry dock, and requested a public route to their own city's dock in Meydenbauer Bay. Bellevue residents also felt that the ferries operating to and from Kirkland were inadequate in size, and were not built to transport motor vehicles. If Bellevue got its own public route, they'd need a new ferryboat too -- one that could carry cars and trucks.
Support from the Port
The task of creating this new ferry service fell upon the newly created Seattle Port Commission. Whereas some people thought that a private ferry system would fill the need, the commission felt that public ownership was necessary because the new ferry route was "virtually a part of the public highway system" (The Seattle Times, January 21, 1912).
The Port put the creation of the new ferry service up for a public vote, proposing $150,000 in ferry bonds. On March 5, 1912, the proposal passed with strong support, 37,039 to 15,342, making it the first public, tax-supported water transportation in the Puget Sound region.
On January 10, 1913, the Port awarded an $85,000 contract to Fred Ballin of Portland and L. E. Geary (1885-1960) of Seattle to design a steel-hull vessel large enough to carry motor vehicles. Work began in May at the J. F. Duthie and Company shipyard, located on the East Waterway in Seattle. Designed as a side-wheeler, the vessel would be 169 feet long, 52.3 feet in beam, and 8.75 feet in depth. It would accommodate 50 automobiles and teams.
Launching the Leschi
After the hull was completed at the Duthie shipyard, it was taken apart and the pieces were then shipped by rail to Taylor's Mill, located along Rainier Beach on Lake Washington. By this time they decided to name the vessel Leschi, after the famed Nisqually chief. Eleanor Chittenden (1892-1970), daughter of port commissioner Hiram M. Chittenden (1858-1917) was chosen to christen the Leschi at its launch.
On December 6, 1913, the day of the launch, between four and five thousand people showed up for the event. So that eastside residents could attend, the privately owned Anderson Steamboat Company donated two of its own ferries to transport people across the lake to Rainier Beach. Music at the celebration was provided by Cavanaugh's Band.
After various speeches were given by port commissioners and other elected officials, the signal was given to launch the boat. Eleanor Chittenden broke a champagne bottle against its side, proclaiming, "I christen thee Leschi," and 13-year-old Wallace Duthie (1900-1922) -- son of the shipyard owner -- flicked a pneumatic switch, which sent the craft down the ways. It was a smooth launch.
Decades of Service
After a few finishing touches were made to the vessel, the Leschi was ready for its trial run on December 27. Because the ferry landings were not yet complete at Medina and Bellevue, the trial was performed between Madison Park and Kirkland. The Leschi, filled with invited guests, performed admirably and achieved a top speed of 15.5 miles per hour. Even though the weather was bleak, hundreds of people gathered along the shores of the lake to cheer the vessel on.
The Leschi entered service between Leschi Park and Medina and Bellevue on April 1, 1914. It carried 156 passengers its first day, 265 on the next day, and 283 the day after that. Many predicted that the new ferry would increase car sales on the eastside, now that there was an easy way for automobile owners in Bellevue and Kirkland to bring their vehicles into Seattle.
The Seattle Port Commission operated the ferry until 1918, after which the run was transferred to King County. In 1931, the side-wheeler was converted to a diesel driven ferry, and continued to operate on Lake Washington until 1950, 10 years after the first bridge crossed the lake. After that the boat was purchased by Washington State Ferries for use on Puget Sound. In 1968 it was sold for use as a salmon cannery in Alaska. Today (2013), the Leschi's wrecked hull lies abandoned in Shotgun Cove, near Whittier, Alaska.