Ferry Martha S. of Keller makes her maiden voyage across Lake Roosevelt on September 9, 1948.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/26/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7225

On September 9, 1948, the ferry Martha S of Keller makes her maiden voyage across Lake Roosevelt. The vessel is named in honor of Martha Shain, the wife of Washington Director of Highways Clarence Shain. The Keller Ferry crossing is located at the confluence of the Columbia and Sanpoil rivers in eastern Washington, and carries traffic on State Road Number 4 (later designated State Route 21) across Lake Roosevelt (the holding reservoir on the Columbia River behind Grand Coulee Dam) between Ferry County and the Colville Indian Reservation on the north bank and Lincoln County on the south. The Columbia is 1.25 miles wide at the ferry crossing, with basalt cliffs and scablands forming both shores.

There had been ferry service across the Columbia at its junction with the Sanpoil since at least 1890. J. C. Keller took over the ferry run soon after a small town bearing his name was established in 1898 on the Sanpoil a dozen miles above the confluence, and the crossing became known as the Keller Ferry. The state Department of Highways began operating the Keller Ferry on September 1, 1930. Between 1939 and 1942 the water level of the Columbia gradually increased due to construction of the Grand Coulee Dam a short distance downstream. The original ferry landing was flooded in by 1939.

The Martha S was built at the nearby town of Coulee Dam, and traveled from the shipyard to the launch point on her own power. Diesel-driven propellers on both ends meant that she never had to be backed into a landing. The vessel had a 12-car capacity and was 80 feet long with a 30-foot beam. Powered by two Detroit Diesel 6-71 engines, she made the crossing in about 12 minutes. The Martha S was owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT; previously the Department of Highways) and operated by WSDOT's Eastern Division based in Spokane. The vessel operated seven days a week, 18 hours a day. The crew could observe both landings from one of them, and waited at a landing until a vehicle arrived, thus avoiding empty crossings.

After more than 60 years of service, and despite ongoing maintenance and upgrades, the Martha S was showing its age, and in 2012 WSDOT determined that further maintenance would no longer suffice and the ferry should be replaced. The department contracted to have a modern new ferry built, and in 2013 that vessel, the MV Sanpoil, went into service and the Martha S was retired just short of 65 years after its maiden voyage.


"Ferries in Eastern Washington," (Washington State Department of Transportation website accessed October 26, 2004 (http://www.wsdot.wa/gov/regions/Eastern/ StateFerriesEasternregion.cfm); "New State Ferry at Keller Crossing Now in Operation," The Wilbur Register, September 16, 1948; Mark Bozanich, "The Keller Ferry," Highways of Washington website accessed December 28, 2006 (http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/hwysofwastate/ColRivBr57.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ferry Martha S of Keller" (by Alan J. Stein), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 26, 2015).
Note: This essay was corrected on December 28, 2006, and revised and updated on May 26, 2015.

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