Look closely for the ferries’ floating billboards for Century 21
By Clay Eals
Countless times have we seen this placid, pleasing “Then” scene — two Washington State Ferries passing each other while criss-crossing Puget Sound.
But look more closely.
It’s 1962, and each ferry bears a 40-foot-long banner advertising the Seattle World’s Fair. Three-foot-tall letters proclaim the exposition’s futuristic moniker, Century 21. After “21” is the fair’s official logo, an arrowed circle resembling the biological male symbol and the astrological symbol for Mars. Its arrow points upper right, to space-age progress. Inside the orb is a skeletal cartoon globe. Throughout our region that year, the logo was seemingly everywhere.
But look even more closely.
Before “Century” is the same logo, only in reverse. The arrow points upper left. To the “Northwest,” perhaps? Or representing the double-ended, ambidextrous ferries themselves?
The speculation comes from Paula Becker and Alan Stein, who wrote the definitive 2011 coffee-table book “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy.” The two otherwise puzzle about the inverted logo, which in their research they never saw reversed in any other context.
The banners, which transformed all 21 state ferries into floating billboards starting in June 1961, were prepared by the state and authorized by Gov. Albert Rosellini. The ads not only bolstered fair attendance but also helped boost 1962 ferry traffic to record levels: 3.2 million vehicles and 9.8 million people.
Our main “Then” photo itself is also distinctive. Most extant photos of the bannered ferries are in black-and-white, and they usually show only one such vessel, not two.
The photographer was then-25-year-old William “Bill” Benshoof, who captured a south-facing view of the Kehloken (foreground) and Rhododendron ferries on the Mukilteo-Clinton run while courting 21-year-old Wylene “Willie” Feske, the woman he would marry Nov. 30 that year.
Fresh from a Navy stint, he was working on the Minuteman missile project for Boeing, while she was beginning a phone-company career. Each living with family near White Center in 1962, the two visited Bill’s aunt on Whidbey Island, hence the ferry trip, and took in the big-city fair.
“It put Seattle on the map,” Bill says. “It was our Disneyland.” Willie recalls “how excited people were. They all had to come to Seattle to see the Space Needle and the center.” Bill liked “the funny-looking elevator” called the Bubbleator inside the Coliseum (today’s Climate Pledge Arena). Willie delighted in a Pacific Northwest Bell exhibit “where you could talk on the phone and see each other.” With a laugh, she recalls telling a friend at the time, “That’s never gonna happen.”
Could bannered ferries happen again? Perhaps (wink!) with our next world’s fair?
Thanks to Dina Skeels, Jade D’Addario of the Seattle Public Library Seattle Room, Ian Sterling and Christy Grnaquist of Washington State Ferries, Emily & Bruce Howard, Paula Becker, Alan Stein and especially Bill & Willie Benshoof for their invaluable help with this installment!