Ferry and Lincoln counties buy out W. H. Latta's concession to operate the Keller Ferry in September 1930

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/26/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7226
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In September 1930, Ferry and Lincoln counties buy from W. H. Latta the remaining term of Latta's lease and concession to operate and charge tolls on the historic Keller Ferry (also called the Clark Ferry). The counties then turn the ferry operation over to the highway department to be operated toll-free, thus qualifying the state to receive federal highway funds for improving State Road No. 4 (now State Route 21). A special "relief" provision tucked into the following year's Highway Appropriations bill reimburses the counties for the money paid to Latta, and the state-run Keller Ferry remains toll free to this day (2010).

Crossing the River

Sometime prior to 1890, Native Americans from the Colville reservation established an oar-propelled ferry service across the Columbia near what would later become the town of Keller. The Columbia’s confluence with the Sanpoil River lay on the north bank in the Colville reservation in the future (1899) Ferry County. The land on the south bank of the Columbia became part of Lincoln County in 1883.

In the early 1890s, Todd Clark and William Robertson operated a cable ferry in the same location. Their ferry, according to an account in The Wilbur Register, "was a flat-bottomed skow (sic) with both ends raked, controlled by two hand-operated spoked wheels with built-in drums to wind the control cables leading to each end of the boat. These in turn were attached to the trolley traveling on the river current side on the overhead cable supported by a fifty foot tower on one side of the river and the hillside on the other” (August 17, 1961).

The town of Keller was established in 1898 just north of the ferry landing. J. C. Keller bought Clark and Robertson’s operation in 1899, and in 1925 Ferry County purchased it from Keller. On January 1, 1927, the county leased the ferry concession to W. H. Latta for a term of eight years, and Latta charged a toll for carrying cars and people across the river. 
Some Fancy Financial Footwork

In 1930, federal funds became available for improvements on Washington's State Road No. 4, which led to the Keller Ferry and of which the ferry was considered a part. However, the federal Bureau of Public Roads prohibited the expenditure of public funds on roads that charged tolls, and since the ferry was considered part of State Road No. 4, the state was seemingly disqualified. This led to some rather creative maneuvering between Ferry and Lincoln counties, the state of  Washington, and Latta.

The state did not have any money available to purchase the remaining years of  Latta's ferry concession and lease, but learned through an opinion by Washington's attorney-general that it would permissible for the state to operate the ferry toll-free, if it could just get its hands on it. If it did so, it would then qualify for $140,000 in federal funds, a considerable sum in those days.

Fortunately, Latta was willing to sell, and a convoluted three-way deal was struck. Ferry and Lincoln counties agreed to pay Latta $10,000, plus an older ferry at another location, in return for the surrender of the concession and lease. Each county would contribute $5,000, and they would then give the ferry, along with all its equipment and associated real estate, to the state highway department. The department could then remove the tolls from the ferry, and the federal largesse would be forthcoming.

But the counties understandably weren't overly eager to spend $10,000 of their money just to help the state get $140,000 from the federal purse, and they insisted that there be some mechanism for possible reimbursement. Since the state didn't have the $10,000 to buy out the concession, it clearly couldn’t promise to pay that amount to the counties for doing the same thing. On the other hand, the state stood to gain a windfall of $140,000 once it was operating the ferry and removed the tolls. So to round out the deal and make everyone happy, the director of the state Highway Department signed a formal resolution pledging to prepare and submit a "relief bill" to the next session of the Legislature calling for reimbursement to the two counties for what they spent buying out the Latta lease. There was of course no advance guarantee that the Legislature would entertain such a measure, but it seemed the only way to go.

The Legislature did not disappoint. Tucked in at the end of Chapter 143 of the Session Laws for 1931, entitled  "Highway Appropriations," was an expenditure of $10,000 designated simply "For the Relief of Lincoln and Ferry Counties." Through this wholly legal legerdemain, Mr. Latta got his $10,000, Washington state got its $140,000 and a ferry, and the two counties broke even. Eighty years later (2010) the ferry is still operated by the the Eastern Division of the Washington State Department of Highways, and it is still the only state-owned ferry on which the public gets a free ride.


“ ‘Martha S’ Has Ancestors Dating Back to Late 1800’s,” The Wilbur Register, August 17, 1962; State of Washington Highway Department News, March 1953, Vol. 2, No. 9, pp. 17-18; 1931 Wash. Laws, Ch. 143.
Note: This essay was revised on September 27, 2010, to incorporate new information.

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