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Published in The Seattle Times online on Aug. 11, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Aug. 14, 2022
Century of Mukilteo ferrying leads to new Native-themed terminal
By Clay Eals
Sooner or later, for functionality or fun, most of us living in Puget Sound get out on the water. So let’s time-travel to the era when motor vehicles first came into vogue.
You’re a saltwater town at the foot of a hill, near the mushrooming metropolis of Seattle, and also just four miles across the brine from a beckoning island paradise. What do you do? Launch a ferry.
Mukilteo did so in 1916, connecting with equally tiny Clinton on the southern tip of Whidby (no “e” at the time) Island. The ferry ran two times daily, twice that on weekends. The fare was $1 for car and driver, a quarter per additional passenger.
The Mukilteo-Clinton ferry cinched a scenic loop that had been fostered three years earlier with establishment of a north-island ferry at Deception Pass, whose classic bridge wouldn’t be built until 1934.
The outcome: a trip of “much beauty,” wrote Douglas Shelor, automotive editor, in the Sept. 20, 1916, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “a diversion that every motorist looking for something a little different from the general run of two-day trips should not fail to take.”
Vessels were small, holding only a few vehicles at a time, but the P-I assured that “those who may feel timid in driving their machines on the ferry under [their] own power may roll the car on in perfect safety.”
Fast-forward through a century of growth: Puget Sound’s cluster of competitive ferry operations morphed into the Black Ball Line, which the state bought in 1951. Mukilteo’s dock was reconstructed in 1952 and modernized in 1980.
But usage also ballooned. During 2019, the most recent pre-COVID year, the 20-minute crossing carried 2,276,967 vehicles, the highest number of any route in the state system. To say Mukilteo suffered traffic tie-ups would be like saying Elvis sold a few records. Standstills became the norm.
In response, the state built a much larger, seismically safe terminal one-third mile east. Partly in recognition of Mukilteo as the site of the landmark 1855 Point Elliott Treaty signing, the state fashioned the $187 million terminal as a Native American art-filled longhouse summoning the rich heritage of the Coast Salish People, specifically the Tulalip tribes. Since the terminal opened in December 2020, it has netted more than 25 awards.
The terminal’s designer, Seattle-based LMN Architects, will be showcased Aug. 20-26 at the Seattle Design Festival, SeaDesignFest.org. Given the terminal’s ties to the past, improved transit links, sustainable elements and the potent symbolism of travel, the festival’s 2022 theme of “Connection” is apt.
Just like our relationship with the water itself.
Thanks to Peter Anderson, archivist for the Mukilteo Historical Society; Molly Michal of the Seattle Design Festival; Alicia Barnes of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society; Diane Rhodes, Suanne Pelly and Ian Sterling of Washington State Ferries; Priscilla Strettell of the Northwest History Room of Everett Public Library; Bob Carney, automotive expert extraordinaire; and especially photographer Colleen Chartier for their help with this installment!
A good backgrounder on the Mukilteo ferry terminal is an article from the Dec. 30, 2020, edition of the Lynnwood Times.
Below are two documents and 24 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
And in lieu of a 360 video, we top off this installment with a gallery of 43 additional present-day photos of the Mukilteo terminal by Colleen Chartier!