Published in The Seattle Times online on Aug. 25, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Aug. 28, 2022
The magical Virginia V: a century of weaving maritime memories
By Clay Eals
We all seek to create indelible memories. One of mine came in 1988 when I helped lead a Southwest Seattle Historical Society cruise to celebrate the first voyage of the City of Seattle, the first ferryboat on Puget Sound. Sadly, the original craft had ventured south to become a houseboat in Sausalito. So, standing — or, shall I say, floating — in was another vintage vessel, Seattle’s legendary passenger carrier, the Virginia V.
What a glorious two-hour trip we had. Though 200 were aboard, the steamer felt like a comfy cottage, a buoyant sanctuary. Our vice-president, Neal Lockett, joked that everyone must have had a good time because no one left early. But the sentiment transcended jest. We’d been soothed equally by tradition and tranquility.
For 100 years, the Virginia V has woven such maritime magic. It is the last of five “Virginia” ships, the first incarnation named for Virginia Merrill, whose later marriage resulted in a vast Bainbridge Island garden known today as Bloedel Reserve.
The 120-foot-long Virginia V originally was operated by West Pass Transportation Company, an indication of its headquarters and midway stop in regular runs between Tacoma and Seattle along the west side of rural Vashon Island. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, the Virginia V remains the sole surviving Mosquito Fleet steamship among hundreds of private craft that once plied Puget Sound like a swarm of busy bugs.
Before transporting farmers, freight, excursionists and even World War II soldiers, the Virginia V forged its earliest identity as the summertime vehicle for hundreds of Seattle Camp Fire Girls to reach the recently purchased Camp Sealth on Vashon’s southwest shore. Before being towed to Seattle for installation of its boilers and engines, the Virginia V was christened March 2, 1922, by Camp Fire secretary Ellen Bringloe.
“If sea traditions are to be trusted,” the Seattle Times reported, “Dame Fortune smiled favorably upon the Virginia V, for with one blow Miss Bringloe shattered the bottle of grape juice over the keel, and as if cheered by this good luck, the boat glided smoothly down the ways, splashed gently into the Sound and floated proudly off.”
After a century of service — including a 1934 wreck during a storm near the Kitsap County hamlet of Olalla and a brief 1942 Portland-Astoria run on the Columbia River, along with expensive latter-day restorations mounted by a dedicated foundation — the Virginia V still invites passengers to tour Puget Sound.
Seemingly unscathed by modern modes of transit, it continues to make memories for us all. Did I mention its exhilarating steam whistle?
Thanks to Debra Alderman, Alicia Barnes, Wendy Malloy and the crew of the Virginia V for their help with this installment!
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.