MV Sanpoil makes maiden voyage across Columbia River on August 14, 2013.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 6/24/2015
  • Essay 11078
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On August 14, 2013, the MV Sanpoil is christened on Lake Roosevelt and makes its inaugural voyage between Lincoln and Ferry counties on the Keller Ferry run across the Columbia River. The newer, larger, and more modern ferry replaces the 65-year-old Martha S, which was retired a month earlier. The MV Sanpoil is expected to carry 60,000 vehicles a year, with 30 river crossings daily, even during winter months.

Time for a Change

Since the 1890s, a variety of boats had been used to ferry passengers -- and later, vehicles -- across the Columbia River at its confluence with the Sanpoil River. The vessel with the most years of service on the run was the ferry Martha S, which launched in 1948 and made more than 1.5 million crossings before its retirement in 2013.

Over the years, the Martha S had its engines replaced and underwent a variety of modifications, but by the 2010s its hull had rusted and the boat was suffering frequent breakdowns. In 2010, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) -- which oversees the Keller Ferry run -- determined that the aged vessel needed to be replaced. Three Pacific Northwest boat builders submitted proposals for the new ferry, and the contract was won by Foss Maritime Company.

The project was funded in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which contributed $2 million toward the vessel's construction cost. The entire project totaled $12.5 million and included design improvements to the north and south shore terminals. Most of the funding came from the state, which also received a federal grant.

Foss built the hull at its shipyard in Rainier Oregon and trucked the pieces to Crescent Bay Park in Coulee Dam, a short distance down the Columbia from the Keller Ferry crossing. It was there, without a proper dry dock or construction facilities, that Foss workers assembled the vessel and slid it into Lake Roosevelt (the holding reservoir on the Columbia River behind Grand Coulee Dam).

Calm Winds and Fair Waters

The new ferry was given the name MV Sanpoil, in honor of one of the twelve tribes that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Jeanne Jerred, a community tribal elder of the Sanpoil people, was selected to sponsor the vessel, and christened the ferry during launch ceremonies on August 14, 2013. Jerred wished for "calm winds and fair waters" (Prager) before breaking a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne against the vessel's prow.

More than 300 people attended the christening, cheering as the champagne splashed across the deck. The crowd included elected officials, Colville tribal members, WSDOT workers, and Foss employees. One of the attendees was Ed Novotny, whose father Mel was the original pilot of the Martha S.

Music at the festivities was provided by the 560th United States Air Force Band brass quintet. The first passengers to board the Sanpoil for its inaugural trip were Lowell and Birdie Hensley, from Electric City. The vessel had already clocked 50 sailing hours during its test runs leading up to the official launch.

New and Improved

The new ferry was 116 feet long, 36 feet longer than the Martha S, which only had room for 12 passenger vehicles. The MV Sanpoil could carry 20. The hull was built of aluminum plate, and the wheelhouse was located overhead, whereas the Martha S had a smaller wheelhouse along the side.

Unlike the Martha S, the MV Sanpoil was loaded with all sorts of high-tech accoutrements, including a radar system that used GPS tracking for precise navigation. The boat had two 450-horsepower engines and two 50-inch propellers, allowing it to reach speeds of up to 14 knots. Sanpoil tribal elder Glen James, who blessed the craft before its launch, noted that the modern ferry looked like it was out of "Star Trek or something" (Harnack).

Sources: Roger S. Lucas, "Ferry to be Christened Next Week," The Star, August 7, 2013, p. 1; Mike Prager, "High-tech Ferry Christened on Shores of Columbia River," The Spokesman-Review, August 15, 2013, p. 1; Roger S. Lucas, "New Keller Ferry is Up and Running," The Star, August 21, 2013, p. 1; Roger Harnack, "Ferry's Maiden Voyage Draws Crowd," The Omak-Okanogan Chronicle, August 28, 2013, p. 1; "Keller Ferry," Washington State Department of Transportation website accessed June 18, 2015 (; "Martha S Replacement Project: Draft Section 4(f) Evaluation," September 20, 2012, copy in possession of Washington State Department of Transportation, Eastern Region, Spokane, Washington.

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