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The Historic Yellowstone Trail
in Washington

Crossing Lake Washington

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Afloat on the Yellowstone Trail
November 2016

The Yellowstone Trail across Washington State offers the traveler a wonderful experience with it's unique geography. As you head west toward Seattle you are treated to the breadbasket of the state with it's wide open spaces of rich farmland. 

Next is the climb up and over the Cascade Range and down the steep western slope. After a day of driving the final hurdle was the 4 mile ferry trip across Lake Washington before you reach the City of Seattle.

Lake Washington is 33 square miles wide, 22 miles long and about 2 to 3 miles wide. The lake was formed thousands of years ago by the glaciers of the Ice Age. They carved out the valleys and hills.

This is why east west travel is so difficult in the Puget Sound area. The route of the YT across the lake was 4 miles and took about 45 minutes.

People began using boats to cross the lake as early as the 1870's. The lake steamers had been designed closely to their Puget Sound “Mosquito Fleet” counterparts and would carry a mix of passengers and freight, lashing a wagon and team to the deck if necessary.

By 1900 the lake was teeming with boats carrying passengers and freight across the lake. That same year, King County established a public ferry because the steamers were too small for wagons and horses and made too many stops along the shoreline.

The King County of Kent became the first double-ended side-wheeled ferry on the lake in 1901, and offered a direct route between Kirkland and Seattle. When the vessel was first launched it became stuck in the mud for hours with King County dignitaries aboard. 

She had chronic mechanical problems and was condemned in 1908. She was replaced with the Kirkland of Washington the first steel hulled double-ended ferry.

The little steamboats competed with the county, but one by one Captain John Anderson, an entrepreneur and an expert on operating a boat business, bought them up. 

By 1908 the Anderson Steamboat Company had cornered the market on all independent boats, and Anderson had opened the Anderson Shipyard south of Kirkland. His Urania and Fortuna were the speediest boats on the lake.

Since the county run ferry had a regular schedule, Capt. Anderson used this to his advantage. He'd simply show up at the public ferry dock a few minutes before the regular ferry and then scoop up the passengers and zip away. 

Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Port Commission. Kirkland businessmen were also upset, because of the reductions in the public ferry's receipts. The city was dependent upon their business. 

He was eventually banned from using the Kirkland Dock. By 1922 the county ferry system was in such financial difficulty that it appointed its largest competitor to run the system, Captain John Anderson.

In 1913, Capt. Anderson drastically modified the deck of his steamboat Urania to accommodate four horseless carriages, but this method was unwieldy and highly inefficient. 

As with the horse and wagon, it was clear that the old-style steamboat days on Lake Washington were fading and it was time for a new design. The era of the double-ended ferry had arrived.

In 1913 a reconfigured side-wheeler steamboat, the wooden Leschi, became the first Seattle built automobile ferry. This ferry first operated on the Kirkland-Leschi run.

On March 25,1915 the S.S. Lincoln of Kirkland began its Kirkland to Madison Park (Seattle) run. For 25 years the Lincoln plied the waters between Kirkland and Seattle and never had an accident nor a mechanical breakdown. The vessel was built in 1914 at the Anderson Shipyard. 

The Lincoln at the time was the largest ferry built for the lake crossing. She weighed in at 580 tons and was 150ft long and could carry about 40 autos. The fare was 25 cents for auto and driver and 6 cents for a walk on passenger.

On August 25, 1916 the Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed and subsequently the lake was lowered 9 feet. Now boats are able to travel from Lake Washington to Lake Union and then to Puget Sound. 

In 1919 there was a proposal to change the route of the ferry from Madison Park to South Lake Union through the Montlake cut. This was to shorten the time it took travelers to reach downtown Seattle. This proposal never went anywhere but if it did the Yellowstone trail most likely would have been rerouted to South Lake Union along with the ferry.

Those 25 years were not completely uneventful. If you were aboard on November 24, 1919 it was a different story. At 5:45am Monday morning as the Lincoln was leaving the Madison St. dock, two men named Letsley and Christianson in a rowboat came alongside the ferry and boarded it.

They quietly made their way to the engine room where they bound and gagged the engineer. The engineer was aware of the robbery beforehand and quietly submitted to being gagged. (More on that later.) After grabbing an ax they headed for the purser's office. They then smashed open the door with the ax, grabbed the safe and took it to the main deck.

They were unable to open the safe so one of the men went back to the engine room for a crowbar. During the rush to open the safe they were unaware that they were about to be caught in the act.

The previous night at a bar in Seattle the men had confided in two women about their plans to rob the ferry and then Kirkland bank. The women informed the Seattle Police Chief who then early Monday morning drove the detectives down to catch the ferry. 

They boarded the ferry at 3:00am Yoris and Cochran stationed themselves in the pilothouse and Frank stayed on deck to await their approach. The engineer was informed and told to submit to the crooks.

When the robbers began to open the safe with the crowbar the detectives closed in on them. "Throw up your hands!" shouted the detectives. Letsley and Christianson dropped the crowbar and fled. 

Yoris, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, fired at Letsley and he dropped with three buckshot in his left arm and two In his face. Christianson fled down the deck, pursued by Cochran and Frank. Two shots from the detectives' guns caused Christianson to drop to the deck, where he lay motionless.

With their guns trained on what they believed to be a wounded man. the detectives advanced, fearing Christianson might be playing possum. "I am thru!" Christianson yelled when the detectives turned him over to look for wounds. An hour later Christianson was In the city jail and Letsley was In the city hospital.

It must have been one exciting and scary ferry trip for the passengers.

Another incident that took place was in the 1930's, a driver from "Moffit's big hog farm out east of Kirkland had driven aboard, went for coffee, and neglected to set the truck brake. The crossing was in thick fog then something loomed up in the water, and the captain reversed engines.

The truck had been blocked, but it jumped the blocks. "It made no noise and nobody knew anything had happened until the driver returned and asked, "Where's my truck?". It took three weeks for a diver to find it, in the deepest part of the lake.

As cross lake travel increased, talk of bridging the lake began to be discussed. In 1921 the Bellevue District Club held a meeting under the leadership of M. Reese. 

The residents of Bellevue (Bellevue is just south of Kirkland.) are organizing to fight for a bridge that would link their town with the Yellowstone Trail and shorten the trip to Seattle over this new highway.

R.R. Montell and John H. Dirkes, engineers, explained how a bridge could be constructed at a cost of less than $250,000 by utilizing a dozen of the wooden hulls, which have been lying In Lake Union for the last two years. They would be linked together end to end over the lake and a platform for autos to drive over to be built on top.

The engineers explained that besides shortening the Yellowstone Trail, the proposed bridge would make the trip from Seattle to Issaquah five miles shorter than the present route to Renton.

By the early 20's drivers now had three routes to choose from to get to Seattle from the eastside of the lake. The Renton route around the south end, take the ferry across the lake or take the Bothell route around the north end of the lake.

With the opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940 motorists now had a direct route across the lake and so began the demise of the ferries. The bridge required a toll which still made the ferries a viable option. But when the tolls ended in 1950 so did the ferries.

The old ferry dock that was big enough to handle cars and trucks is long gone, and the ferry parking lot now is called Marina Park and forms the heart of Kirkland's waterfront. 

The clock that told commuters how long they had to catch a ferry still stands at the intersection of Kirkland Avenue and Lake Street.



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