The steam scow Squak begins ferrying passengers across Lake Washington in 1884.

  • By Alan Stein
  • Posted 12/19/2012
  • Essay 10179
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In 1884, the steam scow Squak begins ferrying passengers across Lake Washington. An ungainly looking vessel, the flat-bottom boat is able to traverse the shallow Squak slough into Lake Sammamish. The Squak operates for only a few years, and in 1890 sinks in Kirkland during a Christmas Day storm.

Before the Squak

Before the arrival of steamers, human powered vessels carried people and goods on the waterways in the Puget Sound lowlands. The Coast Salish who lived in the region had developed a number of different styles of canoes to meet their needs for traveling, hunting and fishing, and transporting resources for local use and for trade. They also adapted the designs to the varying conditions on lakes, rivers, and the sound.

When settlers began arriving in what would become King County the 1850s, difficult terrain limited the development of overland routes. The settlers often hired Indians to carry people and freight between towns and farms. They also used rowboats and scows that could be paddled or poled.

The first power vessel on Lake Washington was the James Mortie, which was purchased in 1870 from the Western Union Telegraph Company in San Francisco. The James Mortie hauled coal barges on Lake Washington for two years beginning in 1872, and most likely carried passengers wishing to cross the lake.

Other steamers used to haul coal on Lake Washington include the Minnie Mae, the Chehalis, and the Addie.  In 1878, when the Seattle & Walla Walla rail line reached Newcastle, this method of coal portage was discontinued on Lake Washington. Rail cars now brought Eastside coal to the docks of Seattle, and communities near the southeastern shore of the lake were now more accessible.

Other communities still found it hard to get to and from Seattle. Early farmers in Squak Valley (now Issaquah) found the soil to be excellent for growing crops. But getting their produce to market proved to be problematic. James Bush (1825-1894) and Lars Wold (1832-1924) each built bateaus (small flat-bottomed boats) to transport goods, but the round trip up Squak Lake (now Lake Sammamish), through the Squak Slough (now the Sammamish Slough), across Lake Washington to Leschi Landing, and into Seattle, and then back, often took more than a week.

The most difficult part of this journey was through the Squak Slough, a meandering 12-mile-long shallow and reedy waterway connecting Squak Lake and Lake Washington to the north. In 1876, the Mudhen -- a steam driven side-wheeler -- made one trip through the slough, but because its wheels ended up getting tangled in the reeds, the vessel remained on Squak Lake for a short period of time hauling passengers up and down that body of water, but never beyond.

The Squak

In order for a boat to easily travel between both lakes via the slough, it had to be flat-bottomed.  In 1884, Captain Jay C. O'Connor (1846-1910) commissioned Edward F. Lee (1840-1927) to build the Squak near O'Connor's residence in Houghton.  

The Squak was an 18.5-ton scow measuring 41 feet 4 inches long with a 14 feet 2 inches beam and a depth of 2 feet 6 inches. The vessel's 12-horsepower engine drove twin screws. Atop the craft was a small cabin consisting of an engine house with the pilot house connected up front. Passengers usually rode outside, on the deck, but in inclement weather they often jammed themselves into the cabin, which was only a few feet wide.

Since the Squak had a shallow draft, the vessel could edge right up to the shore line to pick up or drop off passengers.  A small ladder leaned up against the bow was used to get on or off the boat. Cargo was handed off the vessel in the same way.

The Squak made regular ferry service across Lake Washington and up the slough in to Squak Lake, but the schedule was very flexible. Oftentimes, anyone seeking a ride would simply stand on the shore waving a flag to capture the captain's attention. Sometimes a trip leaving Leschi Landing in the morning might not reach Bothell until the afternoon.

In the early evening, when the Squak reached Monohon on the southeastern shore of Squak Lake, the captain would blow the whistle the same number of times as there were passengers heading to the inn at Tibbett's Landing (now Issaquah). That way the inn owners knew how many hot meals to prepare for incoming guests.

Other Boats Arrive

In 1887, Captain O'Connor commissioned another boat from Edward Lee -- the Lura Maud, a more traditional passenger ferry. When O'Connor began piloting the Lura Maud, he handed the Squak's operation over to George Spaulding. Spaulding ran the vessel for a few years, after which it was skippered by Frank Curtis.

By 1890, other ferryboats were in operation on Lake Washington, and Curtis put the Squak to use by snagging sunken logs in the Squak slough to sell at local sawmills. On Christmas Day, 1890, the Squak was moored the Standard Mill in Kirkland, when a heavy windstorm hit, battering it against the dock. The vessel broke up and sank. Its boiler was salvaged and used to power mill machinery.

Other more eye-pleasing steamers operated on Lake Washington between the late 1880s and the 1900s, such as the Elfin, the Winnifred, the Quickstep, the Kirkland, the Xanthus, and the Cyrene. One notable vessel was the C. C. Calkins, built for Charles Calkins in 1890 and used to ferry passengers to Mercer Island, where he hoped to sell property to prospective homebuyers.  Aboard this vessel was a young deckhand named John Anderson (1868-1941).

Captain Anderson

Anderson soon rose in the ranks and after receiving his master's license, he put his entrepreneurial skills to use and began buying up the Lake Washington steamers. By 1908, the Anderson Steamboat Company had cornered the market on all independent boats on Lake Washington, putting him in direct competition with Lake Washington's public ferry system, which got its start in 1900.

The Lake Washington Ferry System battled Anderson in and out of the courts for years, until they acquiesced and hired him as superintendent of ferries in 1920. Anderson oversaw all of Lake Washington's ferries until his death in 1941, by which time the Lake Washington Floating Bridge had opened, marking the beginning of the end of ferries on Lake Washington.

Sources: Carl J. Nordstrom III, "The Squak on Squak Slough" The Sea Chest, Vol. 33, No 4 (June 2000), pp. 188-190; "Early Transportation Via Trail and Waters," Issaquah Press, December 4, 1954, p. 4; "Farmer's Scows Were First Craft of "Lake Fleet," The Seattle Times, February 12, 1956, p. 10; Harriet U. Fish, This Was Issaquah (Issaquah, H. U. Fish, 1987); Arline Ely, Our Foundering Fathers (Kirkland: The Kirkland Library, 1975); M. S. Kline and G. A. Bayless,  Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1903).

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