Kalakala - Her Last Voyage
I’ve lived most of my life in the Pacific Northwest so I was quite surprised when I recently became aware of this streamlined art deco ferry christened the Kalakala. The story of her life was even more surprising.
She was initially constructed in 1926 and christened as the Peralta to function as a ferry in San Francisco Bay. In 1933 a fire broke out on the docks and spread to consume the vessel’s superstructure. Seeing an opportunity Captain Peabody of the Black Ball Line purchased the burnt out vessel and towed it to Lake Washington Shipyards for a major refit.
Captain Peabody was apparently influenced by Norman Bel Geddes' streamlined designs and built the superstructure to reflect his vision of the future. Technology dictated that the new bridge and wheelhouse were to be built entirely of copper to prevent interference on compass readings.
In 1934 the silver streamliner was launched. Her shape was aesthetically pleasing but created a couple of problems. The voluptuous shapes below the wheelhouse prevented the helmsman from seeing the bow and the round wheelhouse portholes further restricted visibility making the vessel quite the brute to dock.
But the interior was designed to please. Moldings and trim around the wide, round windows, and the railings of her cast iron art deco staircases were finished in gleaming brass. Eggshell, tan and brown hues were selected for interior paints and upholstery. In addition to the spacious main passenger cabin, there was also a ladies lounge, finished with full-length mirrors and plush seats. The galley, with its double horseshoe counter, functioned as a restaurant, with a full menu of made-to-order meals. To the aft of the galley, there was an open-air "Palm Room," which opened on to the promenade deck, outfitted with wicker furniture. (kalakala.org)
The first shakedown cruise was just that, very, very shaky probably caused by improper engine bedding during her initial build. It wasn’t until 1956 that a 5 bladed propeller was installed to reduce vibration by 40%.
The Kalakala plied the waters between Seattle and Bremerton until 1955 when she was dispatched to the Port Angeles Victoria route. In 1960 the MV Coho replaced her and is operating the run to this day. Kalakala’s last grand appearance was during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair where she became the second most recognized icon after the Space Needle.
She continued on the Seattle Bremerton route until 1967 when faster, larger ferries pushed Kalakala into retirement. She was sold to a seafood processing company in Alaska where she was stripped and converted to a factory ship. After a succession of owners in the fishing industry she ended up on a Kodiak beach operating as a shrimp processor.
When the company filed for bankruptcy the Kalakala was abandoned. It wasn’t until 1998 that new owners refloated her and towed her south to Seattle.
Sadly the owners were unable to raise the funds to refurbish her or pay for her moorage. She was then towed into Tacoma and left as an abandoned and neglected vessel.
At the time of this writing the magnificent Kalakala is a rusting hulk in such a fragile condition that it is in danger of sinking. A sad ending to a vessel that was the first streamliner on the coast, the first to be constructed using the brand new electrical welding technology and the first commercial vessel to install a radar system.
It’s a sad comment on our society when an icon like the Kalakala can be left to decay but it appears the cost of reclamation is so huge that it doesn’t make economic sense. Where’sthe profit?
Perhaps the only good use for derelict vessels is to become another wreck on the ocean’s bottom for the sole enjoyment of reef dwellers and scuba divers. The tourist dollars it creates throughout the community are welcome.
Travel to Powell River and you'll find a breakwater protecting the pulp mill booming grounds that was constructed from retired liberty ships. Among them is the Malaspina, a proud patrol boat in her youthful days. South of Courtenay you will find The Ghost Ships of Royston breakwater which was built from 15 derelict vessels, some of which are visble today.
Only time will tell what the future holds for the Kalakala but it doesn't look bright.