This Week Then: Why Vashon Islanders Created Their Own Ferry System

Plus: the deadliest avalanche disaster in U.S. history.
| Updated: February 28, 2020
Ferries tied up at Colman Dock

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Ferry Tales

On February 29, 1948, Captain Alexander Peabody, president of the Puget Sound Navigation Company (Black Ball Line), shut down his ferry system after talks broke down with the state government over his request for a fare increase. Peabody—who had kept his rates unchanged during World War II—wanted to raise the fares by 30 percent after the war, but commuters balked at the idea and were concerned about Peabody's near-monopolistic control of this vital Puget Sound transportation link.

The day after the shutdown, residents of Vashon Island responded by starting their own ferry service. Islanders were very dependent on ferry travel, and had to scramble a year earlier when a maritime strike shut down Black Ball operations for six days. At that time, people on Vashon gathered up whatever boats they could, from pleasure craft to military LSTs.

This time they used a passenger boat to take people to and from the south end of the island and borrowed an old Lake Washington ferry from King County, which they patched up to make operational on Puget Sound. Peabody's shutdown ended after nine days, but the islanders—who had an effigy of the captain hanging from the ferry landing—refused to make a new agreement with the Black Ball Line and continued operating their own ragtag fleet.

On May 15 Captain Peabody made an attempt to regain his service to the island when he scheduled the ferry Illahee to land at the Vashon dock. Defenders of the upstart ferry system wielded ax handles and pool cues to prevent the boat from mooring. The vigilantes won their battle, and Vashoners continued to operate their own ferries until June 1, 1951.

Off the Rails

One hundred and ten years ago this week, incessant snowfall prevented two trains bound from Spokane to Seattle from proceeding past the town of Wellington, close to Stevens Pass. On February 28 the snow turned to rain, and at 1:42 a.m. on March 1, 1910, thunderstorms dislodged a half-mile-wide snow shelf high above. Wet snow and ice roared down the hillside, gathering boulders, trees, and stumps, along its deadly path. The avalanche barely missed the town of Wellington but slammed into the two trains. Locomotives, carriages, and 125 passengers and crew members were swept away down the mountain in what became the deadliest avalanche disaster in U.S. history.

The gruesome task of retrieving the mangled bodies—96 in all—from the wreckage was directed by Great Northern Railroad Superintendent James H. O'Neill, who had led an unsuccessful effort to clear the tracks days earlier and free the trains from their alpine prison. Meanwhile, Great Northern boss and "Empire Builder" James J. Hill monitored events from his offices in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Wellington was renamed Tye later that year, to disassociate it from the horrific disaster. The depot closed after a new tunnel was built in the Cascades in 1929, and the town eventually faded away into memory. The disaster site and old railroad grade were reclaimed by the forest, but thanks to the herculean efforts of Ruth Ittner and her hardy band of volunteers, you can explore the area by hiking the Iron Goat Trail, which opened in 1993.

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