(click and click again to enlarge photos)
(Published in the Seattle Times online on Nov. 14, 2019
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on Nov. 17, 2019)
A ferry tale with a happy ending for Alki
By Clay Eals
To the dogged and detailed volunteer researcher Phil Hoffman, the idyllic calm of our sunset scene, which looks west from Alki Beach, may be deceptive. Waves ready to roil in the foreground could be a more potent symbol. This, he says, is because while history usually records what happened, “Sometimes what didn’t happen is more important.”
Our “Then” depicts a ferry dock extending into Puget Sound from Alki Avenue north of 64th Avenue Southwest in West Seattle. From there, entrepreneur Harry Crosby’s Direct Line Ferries opened 65-car service to tiny Manchester, east of Port Orchard in south Kitsap County, on April 20, 1925. Thirteen months later, Crosby sold it to Puget Sound Navigation Company, parent of the famed Black Ball Line, whose network represented the last vestiges of the Sound’s fabled “Mosquito Fleet” before it gave way in 1951 to our state ferry system.
Alki to Manchester was the shortest distance between Seattle and the Kitsap mainland, so the new terminal in 1925 exploited the soaring popularity of automobiles by launching countless excursions (85 cents one way for cars) to the tantalizing Olympic Peninsula.
Ads featured exotic illustrations and cartoon maps that likened the waterborne route to a suspension bridge. One even invoked an irresistible pun. “There’s a fairy-land across the blue waters of Puget Sound,” it proclaimed in the May 23, 1930, Seattle Times. “A vacation land unrivaled anywhere in the world. Unspoiled – primitive yet livable and very accessible.”
It was no accident that the Alki-Manchester route, inaugurated in the Roaring Twenties, died amid the Great Depression, on Jan. 13, 1936. The cause was not just a national economic collapse. The line also fell victim to ongoing disputes with marine unions, as well as initiation by the consolidation-minded Black Ball of a new ferry between downtown Seattle and Manchester the previous July.
The West Seattle Commercial Club scurried to promulgate a scheme to convert to a state highway the arterial that circumnavigated Duwamish Head to the closed ferry dock, to no avail. The dock operated as a boathouse for several years and briefly hosted an eatery, Sea Foods First Mate Grill, in 1941. But by 1946, all that remained was its pilings.
Which is fine with Hoffman, who lives 500 feet from the dock site. Though flooded with partyers in the summer, present-day Alki is sleepy, even bucolic most of the year.
“It would be a very different place if that ferry had continued through today,” Hoffman says. “It would be a parking lot. The car would have consumed the land, the natural resources of the beach and the desirable residential aspects of the area.”
Today’s waves of Alki might be murmuring a sigh of relief.
To see Jean Sherrard’s (waterborne) 360-degree video of the NOW prospect and compare it with the THEN photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Below, in chronological order, are 56 photos and clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and West Seattle Herald that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column. Enjoy!