On January 16, 1927, the Skansie Shipbuilding Company launches the Defiance, a new ferry to run on the Washington Navigation Company's route between Point Defiance in Tacoma and Gig Harbor across the Tacoma Narrows in western Pierce County. Members of the Skansie and Rowland families, owners and managers of the Washington Navigation Company, are on hand to christen the vessel. The company also launches another smaller ferry, the Narrows, the same afternoon. Much fanfare accompanies the launch of the two vessels from the Skansie Shipbuilding Company's boat shop on the shore of Gig Harbor, with a former governor and other dignitaries in attendance and flags and banners decorating the new ferries.
The Skansies and Ferries
Like most of the Puget Sound region, Gig Harbor and its peninsula, along with the Key Peninsula located farther west across Carr Inlet and Henderson Bay, had long relied on boats as the principal form of transportation. The first steamboat operating in the area was the Baby Mine, built by Emmett Hunt (ca. 1859-1933) in 1882. Hunt and his family had settled on Wollochet Bay, an indentation in the southern Gig Harbor peninsula, to farm, but with the construction of their steamer the six Hunt brothers went into business. The Hunt steamboats provided passenger, freight, and mail service between the western peninsulas and Tacoma on the east side of the Narrows. These steamers were part of a larger network of steamboat services operating on the Puget Sound, popularly referred to as the Mosquito Fleet.
In 1926, as a cost-saving measure, Pierce County wanted to get out of the ferry business. Mitchell Skansie (1879-1939), co-owner of the Gig Harbor-based Skansie Shipbuilding Company along with his brother Joseph Skansie (ca. 1888-1944), bid on the ferry operation and won the bid. Mitchell founded the Washington Navigation Company to handle the business, incorporating the company with a capitalization of $350,000. The Washington Navigation Company utilized automobile ferries, which passengers could drive their cars right onto, to enable self-reliant travel upon arrival at the ferry's destination.
Construction of the diesel-powered, 180-foot long Defiance, which had the capacity to hold 80 automobiles, began in 1926. The January 16, 1927, launch facilitated installation of the ferry's superstructure and machinery. Much fanfare accompanied the 2:45 p.m. launch. Flags and banners decorated the Defiance. Amanda Skansie (1886-1950), wife of Washington Navigation company president Mitchell Skansie, and Vernetta Jean Rowland (1920-1998), daughter of company vice president Irvin C. Rowland (ca. 1891-1963), helped christen the Defiance as co-sponsors of the vessel. Other prominent attendees of the launch party were former Washington Governor Louis F. Hart, Clifford L. Babcock, Judge Ernest M. Card, County Commissioner George Meath, Sheriff Tom Desmond, and Mr. and Mrs. Henry A. Rhodes.
After the Launch
Once the installation work that followed the launch was completed, the new ferry was capable of speeds up to 16 knots per hour and served the route between Point Defiance at the northern tip of Tacoma, Point Fosdick at the southern tip of the Gig Harbor peninsula, and the town of Gig Harbor. The Defiance featured the latest technology to ensure passenger comfort and rapid loading. A near twin to the Defiance, called the Skansonia after the Skansie family, was constructed in 1929. The Washington Navigation Company also operated the Vashonia, Narrows, and Fox Island.
The company continued to operate its routes around the peninsula and Tacoma until 1938, when the state of Washington purchased two of its ferries. At this time, construction was underway on a suspension bridge spanning the nearly mile-wide Tacoma Narrows, which separated Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula from the more heavily populated eastern shores of Puget Sound. The bridge opened on July 1, 1940, but collapsed during a dramatic windstorm just four months later on November 7, 1940. With the bridge gone, ferry service resumed to provide a critical transportation connection between the peninsula and Tacoma, with Skansie family again operating their ferry routes. However, in 1941 the Puget Sound Navigation Company (the Black Ball Line) purchased the Washington Navigation Company. The completion of the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1950 ended the ferry route between Gig Harbor and Point Defiance as well as the Skansies' use of the Defiance and their ferry service operation.
Olympic Ferries, Inc., which operated a ferry route between Port Townsend and Keystone, purchased the Defiance in the early 1950s. After Washington State Ferries took over that route, Olympic Ferries sold the Defiance, which was then converted for use as a dogfish processor by the C & H Seafood Co., with the car-loading decks closed off to create fish-processing space and the former passenger lounges transformed into bunkrooms and kitchen space. By 2016, the Coast Guard had the Defiance listed as out of service.