The Chippewa: The Steamer that Became a Flagship
Few vessels on Puget Sound led as interesting a life as the well-loved
Built in 1900 in Toledo, Ohio, she was used as a passenger vessel of the
Arnold Transportation System on the Great Lakes. She was powered with
twin triple expansion steam engines fed by four oil-fired water tube boilers.
The steamer was purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company
(Black Ball Line) in 1907. Having made her way to the east coast, she left
New Jersey on 18 February 1907. Sailing around the Strait of Magellan
(there was no Panama Canal at that time) she arrived 80 days later on 8
May 1907, on what had not been exactly a pleasant trip. Problems had
included loss of power, fire, and a disgruntled crew. After clean-up and
repainting, the steamer started service on the Seattle-Victoria, British
Columbia run, which she held onto until 1911 when she was replaced by the
Indianapolis, another former Great Lakes steamer. The Chippewa then took
over the Seattle-Tacoma route until the outbreak of World War I. During the
war years, she was used as a school ship for the merchant marines. After
the war, the Chippewa sat unused on Lake Union. Steamers were becoming
extinct on Puget Sound. Many of the old wooden "Mosquito Fleet"
passenger steamers were being scrapped or converted to carry automobiles.
In 1926 Black Ball invested heavily in the Chippewa. The steamer underwent
major refurbishment at the Lake Washington Shipyard at Houghton. Her
bow and stern cut off and her interior was extensively modified.
The lower deck was cleared out and could now accommodate 90 cars. Her
passenger capacity was rated at 2,000. Relisted as the flag ship of the line,
the then largest ferry on the West Coast went into service mainly between
Seattle and Bremerton on the "Navy Yard Route."
For a number of years the Chippewa was used successfully in this
configuration. However, her triple expansion steam engines, which had
been left in place in the 1926 rebuild, were starting to become troublesome.
In 1932 PSN decided to pull the ailing steam engine out and repower the
vessel with a direct drive Busch-Sulzer diesel. The rebuilding caused a loss
of carrying capacity, down to 75 cars, but a gain of speed to a respectable
The Chippewa would emerge from the yard this time with over $200,000.00
(1932 dollars. Translates to roughly, $3,441,547.00 in 2019.) in alterations
in addition to her new engine.
Changes to the passenger cabin, which was completely rebuilt included a
glassed-in main observation deck on the forward part of the vessel. The
cabin was paneled in Philippine mahogany, with long padded bench seats
padded in red leather. Her galley, located amidships, was redesigned and
included a gift shop. The long square counter was ringed by padded stools,
where passengers could expect to get a full service meal.
Both a men's smoking room and a ladies lounge were included, adding a
touch of North Atlantic elegance to the Puget Sound ferry.
The final rebuilding gave her a more modern look, a completely new
wheelhouse. The line of square windows along her car deck were replaced
with portholes. One stack was removed, replaced with a shorter, more
The Chippewa continued as the flag ship of the fleet. She remained mainly
on the Seattle-Bremerton run throughout the 1920's and into the 30's,
preceding the Kalakala in moonlight cruises and live music being broadcast
from her forward observation room. She was, however, deposed in 1935
from flagship status after the Kalakala arrived.
While the Kalakala would later gain a reputation for disliking ferry slips and
barges, the Chippewa actually logged more accidents as a ferry than the
Kalakala ever did. It is important to remember, though, that radar wasn't
available until after World War II. Navigation through fog was done by
reducing speed, keeping a sharp look out, and sounding the ferry's whistle.
This usually proved to work well so as not to collide with another vessel; it
did not, however, prevent the vessel from going aground more than once.
After WWII, the Chippewa moved from her usual Bremerton-Seattle route to
the San Juan Islands in the summer. In 1950, after a summer spent in the
San Juans, the ferry was assigned to the Winslow-Seattle route. Traffic on
the run had picked up significantly since the opening of the new Agate Pass
Bridge, which connected Bainbridge Island with the mainland. She stayed
on the run, now under Washington State Ferry management, until 1953.
She then went to work back up in the San Juans until 1956, at which time
she was assigned back to the Bremerton route.
Her days working for WSF were coming to an end. The Chippewa spent the
summers from 1960-63 in the San Juans, often doing the Anacortes-Sidney
B.C. route, then back on the Bremerton route for the fall season. She was
placed on "reserve" for 1964, and made her last run on 19 September,
1964. Subsequent drydocking and inspection revealed 28 unacceptable
faults in her hull and superstructure, to the tune of some $400,000.00
($3,252,207.00 in 2019 dollars) to repair. Given her limited clearance, and
car capacity (down to 52 of the 1950's sized cars) WSF decided against
retaining the ferry. She was sold in 1965 to Foss Launch and Tug. After
spending three years on Lake Union unused, she was sold to Donald Clair
of Oakland, to be used as a museum and shopping mall in the Bay area.
Unfortunately the new life for the Chippewa was not to be. While undergoing
conversion, the ferry was set on fire on the night of 28 June 1968 while tied
to the Oakland pier. She was completely gutted. She was moved to
Stockton, moored at Paradise Point fishing resort. She was stripped down
to the hull in 1970 to be rebuilt as a replica of the luxury ferryboat
Chrysopolis. The plans never came through, and the hull was last reported
as half-sunk at Collinsville, California, in the 1970's; another report has her
listed as a stationary sewage treatment plant on the Sacramento River.
The Collinsville Fishing Resort was bought out in the 1980's, and the entire
site cleared out. It seems that the hull of the Chippewa met her demise at
Official Number: 127440 Radio Call Number: WA 3651 Built: Toledo, OH, 1900. Rebuilt: 1928, 1932 Length: 212' 3" Beam: 52' 7" Draft: 15' 5"
Auto Deck Clearance: 9' 6" Speed: 15 knots Horsepower: 2,130 Propulsion: twin triple expansion steam; Busch-Sulzer diesel, direct drive
Autos: 52 Passengers: 950 Gross Tonnage: 887
Name Translation: Great Lakes Native American tribe
FINAL DISPOSITION: Gutted by arson fire, 28 June, 1968. ~ The Chippewa, working her final years in the San Juan Islands. Author's collection.
|The third photo clearly shows the Chippewa's main flaw--her 9 1/2 foot auto deck clearance.
From the look of this photo, it seems that the truck was about three or four inches too tall.
Author's collection. Mousing over you'll see the car deck. Courtesy of MOHAI. Williamson
photo. Above, the Chippewa working for WSF. Below, the mahogany woodwork in the
passenger cabin. Courtesy of MOHAI/WIlliamson, color by the author.
|At top, the Chippewa as she looked when arriving on Puget Sound. She would keep this
look until her first major reconstruction in 1926. Author's collection. Above, looking
somewhat half-done, the Chippewa emerged from the Lake Washington Shipyard in 1926
still powered with her original steam engines, which is very evident in this photo. Bayless
|Sad Last Days
The burned out hulk of the Chippewa remained afloat for many years after
the destructive fire, in various stages of decay. Like so many other old
ferries, with the glory days long behind them, the memories she inspired in
her final days were not of elegant travel on Puget Sound, with well-dressed
passengers walking her mahogany-lined cabin, but of a burned out eyesore
wedged on the banks of the Sacramento River.