Washington State Ferries bought the Rhododendron, named the Governor Herbert R. O'Conor when built in 1947, from the Maryland State Road Commission in 1953. This was the first ferry that WSF bought after taking over the ferry system from the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1951.
By the 1990s, the vessel was showing its age and needed an upgrade. Although Todd Shipyards came in with the low bid of $8.5 million to refurbish the ferry, it eventually cost more than $15 million to complete the job. This was due to the discovery that more steel had to be replaced than was expected, as well as other unanticipated repairs.
Out With the Old, In With the New
The entire superstructure and almost 40 percent of the hull was replaced. The ferry's old engines, which tended to stall when in full reverse, were replaced with lighter, high-speed Finnish engines. Because of the change in weight, the vessel now sat higher in the water. On board, vending machines replaced the galley, and the entire boat got a new paint job.
Under Coast Guard regulations, cross-sound ferries must have two or more watertight compartments, so if one is ruptured the vessel can still remain afloat. Because of this, the Rhododendron, with only one compartment, was not allowed to cross shipping lanes. Instead, it was placed on the Tahlequah/Point Defiance run between Vashon Island and Tacoma.
The refurbished Rhododendron plied the Tahlequah/Point Defiance route for nearly two decades. In January 2012, the newly built 64-car Chetzemoka replaced the 48-car Rhododendron, by then the oldest ferry in the WSF fleet, on that route and WSF retired the old ferry. In 2013, WSF sold the Rhododendron for $275,000 to a shellfish-farm company, which planned to remove the vessel's engines and use it as a floating platform for handling scallops at several Vancouver Island scallop farms.