100 years of Edmonds-Kingston ferry service: Part 1 — the Mosquito Fleet

Early photo of the existing wharf at the bottom of Main Street. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

When the last auto ferry completes its round trip run from Edmonds to Kingston on May 19, 2023, it will conclude the first 100 years of the ferry run between the two cities. This three-part series provides a glimpse into the ferry run’s first two-and-a-half years of operation. plus a brief look back at Puget Sound water travel prior to the establishment of the Washington State ferry system. 

Part I: The Edmonds-Kingston Ferry’s beginning and the Mosquito Fleet   

On Oct.17, 1922, the Edmonds City Council granted a lease to the Joyce Brothers on the north 30 feet of the Main Street wharf for construction of a slip for their planned operation of a ferry boat between Edmonds and Kingston. The ferry would for the first time provide transport of passengers, freight, mail and automobiles across Puget Sound.

The approval stated that work on the dock was to begin immediately, and the goal was to have the first ferry run established in early spring 1923.

The Joyce Brothers also announced that it was going to operate a short ferry run across Hood Canal from Port Gamble to the small community of Shine, by early summer 1923. With both ferries in operation, it would provide convenient connections for the first time from the Olympic Peninsula to the metropolis (i.e. Seattle).

A month later, it was also announced that Captain Howard Paine and his company Sound Freight Lines, Inc. planned to establish a ferry run between Edmonds and Port Ludlow, and he expected to have the ferry in operation by May 1923. This announcement specified that Sound Freight would lease docking privileges from the Joyce Brothers in Edmonds and would build a dock at Port Ludlow.

These announcements were met with wild enthusiasm and excitement throughout the Puget Sound region. The existence of a reliable means of transportation across Puget Sound held the promise of dramatically improving the lives of the citizens in a number of communities.

But before we review what transpired over the next year, let’s first look back at the transportation as it existed on Puget Sound prior to 1923.

The Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet – the early days

During the first 50 years that pioneers settled on or near Puget Sound, there were very few roads and those were largely unusable during the rainy season. Rather than try to walk through the thick forests, the settlers largely did what the Native Americans had done for centuries — travel by water.

The earliest settlers (pre-1850) used well-constructed cedar canoes to traverse Puget Sound and its tributaries. The initial steamboat to operate on Puget Sound was a London-made sidewheeler named The Beaver, which arrived in 1852.

The Beaver at dock. (Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society)

A year later, the first American steamboat The Fairy arrived on Puget Sound. It also was the first one to supposedly run on a fixed schedule. The Fairy was to make two round trips a week from Olympia to Steilacoom, and one trip a week from Olympia to Seattle. But The Fairy proved to be unseaworthy in the rough waters of Puget Sound during the winter months. As a result, mail, freight and passenger canoes were once again heavily used.

As time went by and settlements appeared on both sides of Puget Sound, the number and variety of boats on the Sound were numerous. With the advancement of steam-powered propulsion, steamboats of all sizes and shapes arrived or were built. These vessels — along with smaller privately owned boats and canoes — were described as a “swarm of boats,” which led to the term Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet. By 1900, historical documents state that there were nearly 500 boats working in Puget Sound in some capacity.

Many of the smaller boats weren’t passenger vessels; they only transported freight, provisions and commercial items to isolated  ports or towns.

Friends and neighbors in a wooden canoe on Puget Sound. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Society)

Other small boats were used to transport the owner and neighbors to various destinations, while the larger steamboats could carry more than 100 passengers, freight, mail and livestock to their destinations.

Despite the number of boats, the public was largely dissatisfied with the reliability and lack of service provided by the operators .as shown by newspaper editorials of the day:

“The arrivals and departures of steamers at both ends of the route, as well as way ports, seem especially arranged to discomfort, rather than accommodate the public. Steamers come and go like a thief in the night, and no man knows the day or the hour. After spending a whole week of sleepless nights, waiting and watching for boats, passengers frequently have to make two-forty time, in their stockings and nightcaps, to reach the landings before the steamer shoves out. Though they may take a whole week to make a twenty-four-hour voyage, they hurry in and out of a way port as if the devil or the sheriff was after them, and the people generally are beginning to indulge the hope that one or the other of those persons may speedily catch and keep them.  

— The Seattle Gazette, Aug. 20, 1864

But keeping a schedule was difficult at best. The weather and the rough waters of Puget Sound made it extremely difficult to move and navigate. Additionally, many of the early steamers regularly stopped at unscheduled destinations. The captains would steer into the shoreline to pick up passengers and other items when hearing a whistle or signal from shore. In many cases, they had to drop down ramps so that the passengers, freight and even livestock could come on board.

In other cases, people on shore would signal the steamer and then row out in small canoes and then board. This process wasn’t without peril, and passengers would often fall in the water while attempting to climb aboard. All of this took time away from the planned schedule.

Boarding a steamer from a floating platform with a canoe alongside. (Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society)

Disembarking was equally challenging dependent upon tides, currents and weather.  It was complicated by heavy freight, and if livestock was on board. If the tides were out, the steamers couldn’t get close enough to shore to offload. They either had to wait for the tides to rise or forego offloading the passengers, freight and mail. In some cases, people jumped off and waded ashore while livestock were pushed off, and they had to swim to shore.

Steering was another challenge on the small wooden-hull steamers. A slight turn of the wheel would send you in a direction that was unintended. A number of newspapers echoed comments from passengers that indicated it would have been a pleasant trip from Olympia to Seattle if they hadn’t had to see the entire Puget Sound.

Due to these variables, steamboat arrivals and departures were far from predictable.

1900 to the early 1920s

East Puget Sound

By the late 1890s, the population in the Puget Sound region had exploded.  Steamboat technology had also greatly improved. A large number of new and faster vessels were launched, including sternwheelers and propeller steamers such as the Flyer. 

“Flyer” steamer circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

By 1910, there were multiple “fast” steamers competing for business from Seattle to Edmonds to Everett.  The docks in Seattle were crowded with passengers in the early morning and throughout the day as people, freight and mail traveled up and down the east side of Puget Sound.

Published schedules in east Puget Sound newspapers, regarding fast steamers traveling daily between Seattle, Edmonds and Everett.
City of Everett Steamer circa 1911. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

These larger, heavier, steel-hulled steamers were able to reduce the travel time between locations immensely, and they provided a level of reliability that had not been possible with the earlier small steamers.

But the larger steamers weren’t without challenges and risks. To maintain their speed, the faster steamers in bad weather burned up to four cords of wood an hour to keep the propulsion going. As a result, fires were a huge risk as the boats were made of resinous woods, which were dried out by the sun, and the heat generated by the large furnaces and smoke stacks was intense.

Sternwheeler Multnomah at dock circa 1909. (Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society)

Additionally, with the number of small steamers, canoes and privately owned boats in Puget Sound, the captains had to always be on the lookout for possible collisions and conflicts. Collisions were common. The worst incident occurred on the evening of Nov. 18, 1906. The lightly built wooden passenger steamer Dix, which had been built for the short run between Alki Point and Seattle, was struck by the steam schooner Jeanie. Although the speed was low, the Dix sank quickly, taking 45 people with her.

West Puget Sound

The communities on the west side of Puget Sound provided quick stopovers for a few members of the Mosquito Fleet. In numerous isolated communities, stops were not made every day, so “boat day” was an occasion to pick up provisions, mail and get news from the outside world.

One of the larger steamers servicing the west side of Puget Sound was a propeller steamer named Dode. It was named after Dora Wells Trautman, who captained her.  Once a week, on Tuesday morning, Dode left on an extensive overnight route traveling from what is now Pier 54 in Seattle to Union City on Hood Canal with stops along the way at Kingston, Port Gamble, Seabeck and Hoodsport as well as other ports of call. She returned on Wednesday by the same route. Interestingly, Dora Wells Trautman was not only the captain, she controlled the boilers, did repairs and offloaded freight.

Union City on Hood Canel circa 1910. (Photo by Asahel Curtis courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections)
Steamer Dode approaching Kingston Dock circa 1910. (Photo courtesy Kitsap Historical Museum)

In addition to Dode, the other primary passenger ship servicing the Kingston area was the May B., named after Captain William Barnes. It was believed to be approximately 35 feet long and was powered by a 50-hp standard gasoline engine.  She left Kingston every morning and docked at the 24th Street dock in Ballard. The trip took 45 minutes on average and the fare was 25 cents. But like most members of the Mosquito Fleet, Captain Barnes would change his route to pick up passengers who signaled from shore or were in anchored rowboats in mid-channel, so trip durations varied.

May B. carried primarily farmers who were taking their products to market in Ballard and Seattle, and would return late in the afternoon to pick up passengers and return them to the Kingston dock.

Despite the improvements that the faster steamers brought, the Mosquito Fleet was essentially on its way out by the early 1920s. Passenger travel was now available by train, and given the improvements in roads and the affordability of cars, people wanted to travel over the land and see the country. Citizens on the east side of Puget Sound wanted to travel westward to see the beauty of the west side and the Olympic Peninsula. But to drive all the way around the sound was a daunting task, and to get to the Olympic Peninsula seemed nearly impossible.

Conversely, citizens on the west side of Puget Sound wanted to have access to the cities and towns on the east side, and to eliminate a lot of the isolation they felt.  Ferries were needed that could safely travel across Puget Sound and accommodate automobiles as well as passengers.

The last fast steamboat to join the Mosquito Fleet was the Virginia V. in 1922, and it provided service in various capacities for several decades. You can learn more about the Virginia V. (a National Historic Landmark) at www.virginiav.org.

Through the 1920s and early 1930s, there were an estimated 40 “freight routes” that continued to function on smaller steamboats. These routes were to locations not easily served by the larger steamboats or the ferries of the future.

This article was researched and written by Byron Wilkes, with research assistance from the Kitsap County Historical Museum, the Kingston Historical Society and associated library, the Edmonds Historical Museum, the Port Gamble Historical Museum, Sno-Isle Genealogical Society, Washington State Historical Societ, and the Everett Library Northwest Room.


    1. This is Part I of a three part article on the beginnings of the Edmonds ferry system. Thanks for the comment,

      1. Family lore says that my grandfather worked as a mechanic on the mosquito fleet. I do not know which ship or route he was associated with. Is there some repository where a list of crew members could be found? I was told he was on a ship in 1910, but not sure of other years. Thank you.

        1. Sharon, I don’t know of any repository of crew members. There really wasn’t much organization in regards to the “fleet”. Many of the carriers were “mom and pop” type of operations with only one boat. Many of the smaller boats simply delivered freight between locations along each shore of Puget Sound and probably only had one or two crew members associated with their operations. At the peak of the Mosquito fleet’s operations there were an estimated 500 plus boats of various sizes working on Puget Sound.

  1. Well done. Byron, another great article. Thank you for sharing this piece of important and interesting History with us.

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