Steel Electric-class ferry

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MV Illahee sailing in the San Juan Islands
Class overview
Succeeded by: Super class ferry; Kwa-di Tabil class ferry
  • 1927
  • Refit: 1981-1987
In service: 1927-2007
Completed: 6
Retired: 6
Preserved: 1
General characteristics
Type: auto/passenger ferry
  • gross-tonnage: 1,368
  • net-tonnage: 930
Length: 256 ft (78.0 m)
Beam: 73 ft 10 in (22.5 m)
Draft: 12 ft 9 in (3.9 m)
Deck clearance: 13 ft 9 in (4.2 m)
Installed power: Total 2,896 hp (2,160 kW) from 2 x Diesel-Electric engines
Speed: 12 kn (22 km/h)
  • 616 passengers
  • 59-64 vehicles (max 24 commercial)

The Steel Electric Class ferries became part of the Washington State Ferry System when Puget Sound Navigation Company was acquired in 1951. They were built on San Francisco Bay for service on Southern Pacific and Northwestern Pacific Railroad routes across that bay.


The Steel Electric class ferries were built in 1927 for Southern Pacific Transportation Company service on San Francisco Bay. After a decade of service on San Francisco Bay, they were idled by completion of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937.

They were sold in 1940 to Puget Sound Navigation Company, also known as the "Black Ball Line". Two of the ferries, the Santa Rosa and Fresno, renamed Enetai and Willapa respectively, were extensively rebuilt and had their engines replaced. They were converted into single-ended boats, which made them faster and more suitable for use on the Seattle–Bremerton ferry route. These modifications meant that they were no longer technically part of the "Steel Electric" class.[1] In 1951, the Steel Electrics and almost all of Black Ball's fleet was purchased by Washington State Ferries. In 1953, WSF replaced the car deck windows with portholes on all the Steel Electrics. In 1967 the Enetai and Willapa were sold, having been replaced on the Bremerton route by two of the Super class ferries, the MV Hyak and MV Yakima. In the 1980s the four remaining boats were given an overhaul and continued to serve until November 2007.

The six boats are now fairly different. The Enetai and Willapa were both converted into single-ended boats and had their engines replaced. The Klickitat was rebuilt before the other ferries and has a shorter cabin and lacks an elevator. The remaining three all have elevators.


Number Builder SP name Washington name
226344 Bethlehem Steel, San Francisco Fresno MV Willapa
226567 Bethlehem Steel, San Francisco Stockton MV Klickitat
226588 Moore Dry Dock, Oakland Lake Tahoe MV Illahee
226599 General Engineering & Dry Dock, Alameda Santa Rosa MV Enetai
226712 Bethlehem Steel, San Francisco Mendocino MV Nisqually
226738 Moore Dry Dock, Oakland Redwood Empire MV Quinault


Keel was laid on 8 November 1926, and launching was 16 January 1927. The ferry was christened Fresno by Miss Shirley Harding, daughter of Southern Pacific's engineer of standards. The $525,000 ferry went into service between San Francisco and Oakland, California in April with an all-electric galley for the dining room and capacity for 100 automobiles. Fresno was disabled when heavy seas shorted the electrical power plant during a stormy January 1932 evening bay crossing from San Francisco to Oakland. The ferry drifted nearly to Alcatraz Island before tugs were able to rig a tow to Oakland. After 28 years in Puget Sound, Washington State declared Willapa surplus in 1968.[2] After years of languishing, she was to be turned into a storage warehouse under her old name, Fresno. However the owners, Parker Oceanic, never really did much work on her; she was sold to NYMET Holdings, a salvage firm, and scrapped in Stockton, CA in 2009.


Keel was laid on 15 November 1926, launching was 5 March 1927, and service between San Francisco and Oakland began in May. The ferry was christened Stockton by Miss Louise Shoup, daughter of Southern Pacific's president, Paul Shoup.[3]


Launching was 23 March 1927, and service between San Francisco and Oakland began in June. The ferry was christened Lake Tahoe by Miss Helen Dyer, daughter of Southern Pacific's general manager. Lake Tahoe was involved in a minor collision with the Southern Pacific ferry Oakland in fog on 14 August 1943. This ferry made the last Southern Pacific San Francisco Bay auto ferry run on 16 May 1940. The tug Commissioner towed this ferry out of San Francisco Bay on 10 August 1940 bound for Puget Sound. The tow line broke off Trinidad, California and the ferry drifted for 36 hours until it could be towed to Humboldt Bay for emergency repairs before continuing northward.[4]


This ferry was built as Santa Rosa to inaugurate Northwestern Pacific auto ferry service on 1 July 1927 across the mouth of San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and a new terminal at the foot of Mission Street in Sausalito. After 28 years in Puget Sound, Washington State declared Enetai surplus in 1968.[5] She was purchased for restoration and is now the headquarters of Hornblower Yachts in San Francisco, California under her old name, Santa Rosa.


This ferry was built as Mendocino to inaugurate Northwestern Pacific service across the mouth of San Francisco Bay.[3]


This ferry was built as Redwood Empire to inaugurate Northwestern Pacific service across the mouth of San Francisco Bay. The tug Commissioner towed this ferry out of San Francisco Bay on 10 August 1940 bound for Puget Sound.[6]

Withdrawal from service[edit]

Corrosion on the Steel Electric hulls was discovered in 2007 inspections.[7] On November 20, 2007, the Washington State Secretary of Transportation, Paula Hammond, announced that Washington State Ferries (WSF) would pull all of the Steel Electric class vessels out of service on that day. The decision closed the Port Townsend-Keystone route until WSF began to operate the high-speed passenger-only ferry Snohomish on the run starting November 23.[8]

During Nov. and Dec. the Snohomish was pulled from this run and began a new interim service between Seattle and Port Townsend. This was done, in part, because there were many fewer visitors to Port Townsend during the holiday shopping season and it was hoped that a special run directly from Seattle would bring more visitors and shoppers to town. During this time, WSF got a third party to operate passenger only service on the PT-Keystone run, using a much smaller whale watch boat. The Snohomish was eventually put back on this run.

WSDOT spent $5 million on repairing the MV Quinault, and it passed Coast Guard inspection. However, Governor Christine Gregoire believed that the money would be better used building new ferries, than repairing existing ferries and Secretary Hammond announced they were to be scrapped instead[citation needed]. All four of the ferries are berthed at the system's main storage facility in Eagle Harbor, Bainbridge Island. Governor Gregoire announced plans for their replacement,[9] and the Washington State Legislature directed WSF to build new ferries to replace the Steel Electrics. On February 14, 2008, Governor Gregoire signed Senate Bill 6794[10] into law, which authorized construction of replacement ferries.[11] Despite several proposals to save the Steel Electrics, all four of the class were towed to Ensenada, Mexico in June 2009 for scrapping.

While new ferries were being built, the state leased the Steilacoom II, used by Pierce County's ferry system to cover the Port Townsend-Keystone run.[12] This ferry was being utilized in preference to other state-owned ferries due to the restrictions the Keystone harbor imposes on the size of vessels serving that route.

The state had hoped that the first ferry would enter service in April 2009, however in early April 2008 the state rejected a bid of $26 million to build a ferry based on the Steilacoom II design as being too high. Reasons cited for the bid being $9 million over the state's estimate include the requirement that the shipbuilder complete the ferry within one year (or face stiff daily fines), and changes to the specifications including improved safety, security and quality. Washington State Ferries decided not to re-bid the project at the time.[13]

Washington State Ferries commissioned Todd Pacific Shipyards to build the replacement ferries, which became known as the Kwa-di Tabil class ferry. The design of these ferries is based on the MV Island Home, a vessel which serves the Martha's Vineyard run. The new vessels hold 64 autos, 1,200 passengers and up to 200 bicycles. The first vessel, MV Chetzemoka, was launched in January 2010 delivered to Washington State Ferries in June 2010. Bids for an additional 1 to 2 hulls of this class were to be received by the state in October 2010. The other two ferries of the class, MV Salish and MV Kennewick, were delivered in 2011 and 2012 respectively.


  1. ^ "MV WILLAPA: Forgotten Ferry of the Bremerton Run". Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  2. ^ Ford, Robert S. Red Trains in the East Bay (1977) Interurbans Publications ISBN 0-916374-27-0 pp.173,198&348
  3. ^ a b Ford, Robert S. Red Trains in the East Bay (1977) Interurbans Publications ISBN 0-916374-27-0 p.173
  4. ^ Ford, Robert S. Red Trains in the East Bay (1977) Interurbans Publications ISBN 0-916374-27-0 pp.173,199,217&348
  5. ^ Ford, Robert S. Red Trains in the East Bay (1977) Interurbans Publications ISBN 0-916374-27-0 pp.173&348
  6. ^ Ford, Robert S. Red Trains in the East Bay (1977) Interurbans Publications ISBN 0-916374-27-0 pp.173&217
  7. ^ Scott North and Lucas Velush. "Cracks and other damage left out of report on aging ferries". Seattle PI. Retrieved 2007-11-21. [dead link]
  8. ^ "Steel Electric Ferries Pulled from Service For Port Townsend to Keystone". Washington State Ferries press release. 2007-11-20. Archived from the original on October 10, 2008. Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  9. ^ ASSOCIATED PRESS. "Gregoire announcing ferry plan Thursday". Seattle PI. Retrieved 2007-12-13. [dead link]
  10. ^ "Senate Bill 6794" (pdf). State of Washington. 2008-01-31. 
  11. ^ "Governor Gregoire signs legislation authorizing new ferry construction". State of Washington, Office of Governor Chris Gregoire. 2008-02-14. Archived from the original on 2008-03-12. 
  12. ^ John Gillie and Rob Tucker. "Here, try a loaner from us". Tacoma News Tribune. Archived from the original on 2012-09-13. Retrieved 2007-12-14. 
  13. ^ Susan Gilmore. "State rejects Todd shipyards' ferry bid". The Seattle Times Co. Archived from the original on 2008-04-08. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 

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