Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Ghost of the Kalakala

The ferry boat Kalakala sailed Puget Sound for 32 years. Perhaps 30 million passengers rode the ship during her lifetime in Seattle.

At its debut in 1935, the Kalakala was the largest and fastest ferry on Puget Sound, with a 3000-horsepower diesel engine, the largest ever installed in a boat of its kind. The ship demonstrated the latest aerodynamic principles. She was also outfitted with an interior that would do credit to any luxury ocean liner of its day, with five decks boasting ample room for 2,000 passengers.

Although still a popular attraction at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, by that time the ship had neared the end of its useful life. The Kalakala was auctioned off in 1967 to an Alaska fish packer, who converted the ship to a floating fish processor; then in 1972, grounded her as a cannery on Kodiak Island. By the mid-1980’s, the State of Alaska and subsequently the City of Kodiak had inherited the disused ship from its owners through bankruptcy proceedings.

In 1991, Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis founded the Kalakala Foundation to return the prodigal ship to Seattle, and restore her to new life. In the summer of 1998, the Foundation purchased the vessel from the City of Kodiak, the ship was floated free, and was towed home to Seattle’s waterfront, arriving to welcoming crowds.

This ends the happy part of the story.

The foundation’s efforts to restore the Kalakala did not meet with success. The ship was first moored at a pier on the Seattle waterfront for five months in an effort to attract financial support. The foundation needed $1 million to bring the vessel into dry dock and from $5 million to $12 million to fully restore it. In March 1999 it was moved to the north shore of Lake Union and moored within walking distance of my apartment in Seattle.

There the Kalakala received complaints as an eyesore and as a hazard. The foundation slipped further into debt and the property owner issued an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent. In March 2003, the foundation filed bankruptcy, its assets (the Kalakala) valued at less than its liabilities ($1.2 million). In September 2003, after a complicated and disputatious auction, Tumwater entrepreneur Steve Rodrigues purchased the ship for $135,560, planning to make it into a dinner theater.

Because the Kalakala had been evicted from Lake Union, he got the ferry moved to Neah Bay, which is owned by the Makah Indian tribe. That arrangement lasted until the Makah tribe sued to have the ferry removed. Rodrigues had obtained free docking for the ship by promising jobs repairing the vessel to the Makah Indians who owned the dock. The jobs never materialized, and the Makahs were left holding the bag for $20,000 in damages done to their docking facilities when the ship crashed into the dock during a storm.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the State Department of Natural Resources also ordered Kalakala out. In September 2004, Rodrigues had the forlorn vessel towed to a new berth on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma.

And that’s where I saw her in November of 2007.

Finding the Kalakala was not easy. Moored in the least industrious part of the Port of Tacoma and not visible from any nearby roads, she is tied to a rotted pier behind an abandoned building and a storage lot.

Kalakala is still in restorable condition. For nearly three decades, her various owners have dreamed of bringing her back to her former glory, but it looks like that might be a long time in coming.

Photographs courtesy of C. Tolzmann. All rights reserved.

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