Ferry Whistles on Puget Sound: A Slideshow

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 2/14/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7191

The Kalakala

165' x 53' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Louis Van Bogaert

Built in 1927 as the Peralta, which burned in 1933. Converted to use as the Kalakala in 1935 at Lake Washington Shipyard in Houghton (Kirkland). Left service in 1967 for use in Alaska as a seafood cannery. The vessel returned to Seattle on November 6, 1998. After failed attempts to raise sufficient funds to restore her, she was auctioned off, moved to Neah Bay, removed from Neah Bay, and in September 2004 moved to Tacoma.

The Quinault

243' x 46' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Norman Nelson

Built in 1927 as the Redwood Empire for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1940 and after reconditioning was renamed the Quinault. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Retired in 2007.

The Klahowya

310‘ x 73’ – Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Gunnar Joslyn

Built in 1954, the second ferry commissioned and built for Washington State Ferries. Slightly different from her sister ship, the Evergreen State, in that the Klahowya's car deck is taller to allow for larger vehicles. Still in service.

The Kehloken

227' x 44' - Wooden, Diesel-Electric
Captain Glen Willers

Built in 1926 as the Golden State for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1937 and converted into the Kehloken. Used in 1942 to transport Japanese residents of Bainbridge Island to Seattle for placement into California relocation camps. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Later destroyed by fire, and then sunk off Whidbey Island for use as an artificial reef.

The Chetzemoka

227' x 44' - Wooden, Diesel-Electric
Captain Fred Mattson

Built in 1927 as the Golden Poppy for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1937 and converted into the Chetzemoka. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Sold in 1975 to California interests, but sunk off the Washington coast in 1977 during transport.

The Crosline
144' x 48' - Wooden, Diesel
Captain George Kemp

Built in 1925 for Crosby Direct Line Ferries. Used on the Alki-Bremerton run, first under Crosby then under the Puget Sound Navigation Company, which then sold the boat to the Canadian Government in 1942. Purchased by the Washington State Highway Department in 1948, which required an Act of Congress to place the vessel back under American registry. Sold by Washington State Ferries in 1975 and towed to Coos Bay for use as a floating gift shop. Scrapped in 1977.

The Nisqually

243' X 46' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain William Hubley

Built in 1927 as the Mendocino for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1940 and renamed the Nisqually. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951, and widened and re-engined in 1957. Retired in 2007.

The Klahanie

227' x 44' - Wooden, Diesel-Electric
Captain Robert Vose

Built in 1926 as the Golden Age for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1937 and converted into the Klahanie. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Retired in 1973 and later burned along the Duwamish river.

The San Mateo

217' x 42' - Wooden, Steam
Captain Asmund O. Rindal

Built in 1922 for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1943. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951, and in service until Labor Day, 1969. Restoration efforts were underway to make the boat a National Historic Site, but in 1976, money fell short and the boat was transferred to Lake Union. Floating derelict for years, the ferry was later towed north to Canada.

The Willapa

243' x 46' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Tex Moore

Built in 1927 as the Fresno for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1937 and converted into the single-ended Willapa. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Sold in 1968 to California interests.

The Olympic

207' x 62' - Steel, Diesel
Captain Eugene Christopher

Built in 1938 as the Governor Harry W. Nice for use in Baltimore. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951 and renamed the Olympic. Sold in 1997.

The Leschi

169' x 50' - Wooden, Diesel
Captain Robert Beaudry

Built in 1913 and operated by King County for use on Lake Washington between Kirkland and Madison Park. Following completion of the floating bridge, it was taken off the run in 1950, after briefly being operated by the City of Kirkland. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Sold to a fish cannery in Alaska and towed north in 1969.

The Rhododendron

226' x 63' - Steel, Diesel
Captain Elwood Melling

Built in 1947 as the Governor Herbert R. O'Conor for use in Baltimore. Purchased by Washington State Ferries and renamed the Rhododendron, the Washington State flower. Still in service.

The Enetai

243' x 46' - Steel, Diesel
Captain Ted Bishop

Built in 1927 as the Santa Rosa for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1940 and renamed the Enetai. Placed on the Seattle-Bremerton route during World War II. Purchased by the Washington State Highway Department in 1951, and is now under her old name, the Santa Rosa, in San Francisco.

The Illahee

243' x 46' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Ed Johnson

Built in 1927 as the Lake Tahoe for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1937 and converted into the Illahee with rebuilt engines. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Retired in 2007.

The Chippewa

200' x 50' - Wooden, Steam-Diesel
Captain Jerry Mangan

Built in 1900 for use on the Great Lakes, but purchased in 1906 and traveled around the Horn for use on Puget Sound. Rebuilt in the 1920s by the Puget Sound Navigation Company for auto use. Purchased in Washington State Ferries in 1951, and sold in 1965. Intended to be used as a maritime museum in San Francisco, the Chippewa burned in 1968, and was later stripped to the hull.

The Tillikum

310' x 73' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Jack Hurley

Built in 1954, the third ferry commissioned and built for Washington State Ferries. Built using the car deck design of the Klahowya and a Navy war surplus engine, along with a rebuilt engine from a stationary power plant. Still in service.

The Vashon

191' x 57' - Steel, Diesel
Captain Frank Fowler

Built in 1930 for service to and from Vashon Island. Later moved to the Bainbridge Island run. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Sold and towed to Alaska, but later fell into ruin after running aground.

The Klickitat

243' x 46' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Larry Crawford

Built in 1927 as the Stockton for use in San Francisco. Purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company in 1937 and converted into the Klickitat. Purchased by Washington State Ferries in 1951. Remodeled and overhauled in 1982. Retired in 2007.

The Evergreen State

310' x 73' - Steel, Diesel-Electric
Captain Earl Fowler

Built in 1954, the first ferry commissioned and built for Washington State Ferries. While under construction, Washington State raised the height limit for trucks, making the vessel unable to accommodate taller vehicles. Still in service.

The Skansonia

165' x 50' - Wooden, Diesel
Captain Ray Hughes

Built in 1925 for use crossing the Tacoma Narrows. Purchased by Washington State in 1941, and operated by the Puget Sound Navigation Company. Retired in 1969 and sold. Now privately-owned, and used as an event facility on Lake Union.

For more than a century, ferryboat captains on Puget Sound have used a distinctive docking signal made up of a long blast on the boat’s whistle followed by two short ones. In maritime terms, this is called a warp and two woofs. Still in use today, this method of sounding the vessel’s arrival to land is not only unique to each boat’s whistle, but also to each individual ferryboat captain and the techniques they use to sound the call.

This file links to sound recordings of some of the more distinctive boat whistles of the Washington State Ferry fleet. Retired Black Ball Line publicist William O. Thorniley made the recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the vessels presented here are still with us, while others have sailed off into the annals of history. Thanks to Bill Thorniley, their echoes remain.

A Warp and Two Woofs

During the first part of the twentieth century, the Puget Sound Navigation Company’s Black Ball Line was the largest operator of private ferries on Puget Sound. Black Ball captains began the tradition of sounding the warp and two woofs on their boat whistle as the vessel approached the dock. This was an alert to passengers that their transport was arriving, and it also acted as a warning to nearby craft. In deep fog, the distinctive signal let listeners know which ship was coming in to dock.

In the early days, sounding the whistle was accomplished by pulling a cord, which released steam, generated below, into pipes which fed into the brass whistle. The resulting sound could be heard for miles. Over time, individual captains began accenting the blasts with their own “signatures.” Some fluttered the last woof, some inserted long pauses between blasts, some played with tempo, all the while making sure that each signal was, at heart, one long and two shorts.

Whistle Stops

In 1951, Washington state purchased most of the Puget Sound Navigation Company’s fleet and began the operation of Washington State Ferries. On the first day of operation, a memo was circulated stating that the docking signal would change immediately from the Black Ball "long and two shorts" to a simple "long and short."

The fleet’s captains, most of whom were old Black Ball men, went along with the changes, but disliked the alteration in tradition. Many of them referred to the new signal as “the groan and the grunt.” When veteran captain Louis Van Bogaert (once Commodore of the Black Ball Line) retired in 1957, other ferrymen dared him to end his last run with the traditional blast. That he did, on September 13, 1957, aboard the ferry Chippewa, ending his illustrious career with his last warp and two woofs.

Such Sweet Music

By this time the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, and especially society member William O. Thorniley was calling for a return to tradition. A colorful, tousle-haired character, Thorniley was the former advertising manager of the Black Ball Line. It was Thorniley who began the tradition of naming Black Ball ferries (and later Washington State Ferries) in honor of the region’s Native American culture. Thorniley also helped the Kalakala achieve worldwide fame in the 1930s.

Using his expert marketing skills, Thorniley went on a publicity blitz urging the ferry system to return to the days of the warp and two woofs. In an interview with The Seattle Times on March 9, 1958, he waxed nostalgic over the unique signals performed by many of Puget Sound’s noteworthy captains:

“One of the specialists on the whistle was Captain Harry Anderson, now operating manager of Washington State Ferries. Anderson skippered the famous stern-wheeler Bailey Gatzert between Seattle and Bremerton in the 1920s. The Gatzert had a particularly melodious “five-chime” whistle that sounded five notes at once, and Anderson used to get as much music out of his whistle as did anyone on the Sound.

“Anderson blew a normal length long, but the second short blast had a flutter to it. This was accomplished by skillfully manipulating the whistle cord up and down on the last short. That was sweet music.

"Captain Howard Penfield was master of the Indianapolis, on the Seattle-Tacoma run. He had an opposite system of whistling. Penfield would wait until he got right up close to the dock and then blew a very short long, followed in quick succession by two very short shorts. The whistle on the Indianapolis was a deep bass that hit you in the pit of your stomach and rattled waiting room windows.

"Captain Wallace Mangan was the first master of the ferry Kalakala. He blew a normal long and then after a decided pause, he’d follow it with two shorts in sharp staccato.

“Another artist on the landing whistle in the days of the steamers was Captain T. E. Sumner, known as ‘Big Ed.’ Sumner would start in with just a little steam, let the whistle build up to full blast, then fade down again and follow it with two snappy blasts.”

Tooting Their Own Horn

After listening to the appeals of Bill Thorniley and other maritime historians, the seven-year-old Washington State Ferry system agreed that their own history and traditions went back much further than they first had realized. On May 24, 1958, in celebration of Maritime Day, WSF manager I. D. "Bud" Birse happily announced that the traditional warp and two woofs would be reinstated as the official landing signal for Washington State ferries.

Bill Thorniley continued on in his research into maritime history, writing numerous articles for maritime journals and giving lectures throughout the region. One of his most popular talks involved a sound recording of ferry whistles that he had put together over the years. Thorniley would play the tape for his audience, pausing before every blast to mention the name of the boat and the captain pulling the whistle.

Blasts From the Past

Below are links to digitized recordings taken from Thorniley’s tape. Twenty-one ferry whistles are presented, with the name of each boat and captain, along with information about the vessel.

There are two versions of the recordings available:

The sounds are embedded in the web pages, and many browsers require no special software to play them. If the whistles "stutter," click your browser's "Refresh" or "Reload" button to clear up the sound.

Shockwave Enhanced version. Requires the free Shockwave plugin, available here.


Sources:

The Seattle Times, March 9, 1958, p. 1; M. S. Cline, and G. A. Bayless, Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1983); The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: The Superior Publishing Company, 1977). Thanks to Steven J. Pickens for providing some of the photos.


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