On March 12, 1903, the people of Winslow (later Bainbridge Island) watch their first community-built steamship, Eagle, burn to the water’s surface while tied at dock. A year before, the Hall Brothers Shipbuilding firm moved from Port Blakely to Eagle Harbor and helped promote Winslow’s need for a ferry to shuttle residents around Puget Sound. Commissions to build the steamer poured in from residents themselves, thus creating a community-owned ferry. The Eagle will operate nearly flawlessly for the next three years until it burns down, bad luck, the superstitious believe, brought on by improper launching.
Miss Billings's Flowers
In 1900, Winslow residents needed transportation to and from Seattle. There had not been a regular means of transportation to the mainland from the Bainbridge Island area. In order to raise money to build a ship, residents sold shares in it, and one of these, a Miss Jessie Billing, sold the most shares and thus was given the honor of christening the Eagle on its first trip across the sound. Jessie Billings took a unique approach to the christening and chose to scatter a bouquet of flowers rather than break a bottle of champagne over the bow of the ship. Residents felt wary and some thought this would bring bad luck to the new ship.
Being a community-established ferry, the Eagle’s maiden voyage was a trip to Port Madison free of charge to all residents. Everything ran smoothly while crossing the sound, but when the boat arrived, the engine started to act up, which produced a four-hour delay while the boiler was repaired. The residents were not worried and the Eagle made it back to Winslow, successfully completing her first run.
A Healthy Eagle
The steamer ran beautifully for the next three years, and was the pride and joy of the Winslow community. The Eagle made trips around the sound and between Port Blakely and Port Madison. She ran on a wood-burning steam engine. Captain B. F. Klunker commanded her. (He went on to start the first newspaper plant near the docks, publishing a paper called The Beacon.)
The revenue and trade that came along with the Eagle was fundamental to Winslow’s growth. During this time, a second schoolhouse and a post office were constructed and a volunteer fire department organized. Strawberry production and canning skyrocketed and helped bring funds to the island. Population increased with the convenience of transportation and things were looking up for the little community.
However on March 12, 1903, the superstitious residents may have thought they were right about Jessie Billings's christening by bouquet. In the wee hours of the night, The Eagle suspiciously burned completely into the water while tied at dock. More practical speculations circled around the fact that the steamer ran on wood and not coal, and therefore had constant flammable stacks of wood on deck. Because no source or cause was ever found in the burning of the Eagle, Jessie Billings’s strange act of christening lingered over the vessel as an ominous bad-luck charm.
The people of Winslow knew they had to act fast despite their grief and shock over the loss of the Eagle. To restore transportation and commerce, the steamer Florence K was built shortly after the fire. The ship proved to be as effective as the Eagle, but the significance of their first steamer was forever imbedded in the hearts of residents of Winslow.