Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 30, 2015

Farewell, Kalakala

Not all stories have happy endings.

This post tells the end of a story that began for me when Dad and I traveled to Washington state in 2011, although the full story began in the 1930s.

In Port Angeles, on the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula, we spotted this intriguing mural facing a city parking lot:

Kalakala Ferry Mural Panorama Brad Nixon (800x238)

Fanciful futuristic work of art? Some Buck Rogers-style reimagining of the Puget Sound from a long-ago comic book?

No, there was such a ship. As I related in a blog post, HERE, the visible portion of the ship’s name in the mural provided enough of a clue for me to determine that there actually was such a craft, the Kalakala (kah-LAH-kah-lah), a ferry that did service in Puget Sound from 1935 to 1967.

Kalakala in her heyday

276 feet long, with that arresting streamline moderne exterior and a stylish interior, Kalakala was — at least for a time — a star. It did suffer from poor navigability during docking due to limited visibility from the pilot deck, and it was noisy and prone to vibration, so it wasn’t perfect. But it looked wonderful.

Kalakala Ferry historical photo

Kalakala in its heyday

After its ferrying service ended, Kalakala had a patchwork career including time as a fish cannery in Alaska, followed by various temporary moorings in the Northwest. When I first learned of it in 2011, Kalakala was clinging to a precarious existence in Tacoma. The latest in a succession of ambitious would-be rescuers was trying to raise funds to keep her afloat and restore her. That effort failed, as I described HERE  in 2012. Kalakala changed hands again, and faced an increasingly slim chance of survival.

Her chances ran out. Kalakala is no more. Early in 2015 a salvage company cut up the decaying hulk and pieces of the ship were sold at auction.

Kalakala captured the imagination of many, including mine; it was unique, remarkable. The term “iconic” may be overused, but it describes Kalakala. We no longer ride in ornate Pullman cars drawn by streamlined locomotives or fly to Hawaii in Pan Am clipper ships or cruise shady streets in convertible Duesenberg motorcars. No, today we move faster, if less stylishly. We cross Puget Sound in serviceable, reliable ferries like this one I photographed in Port Townsend, Washington, the same day I first saw the Kalakala mural:

P Townsend ferry Brad Nixon 7952 (640x480)

The modern ferries provide a spacious, reasonably comfortable interior for thousands of commuters every day, so something is gained:

Washington Ferry interior Brad Nixon 8009 (640x480)

Something, though, is lost, as well.

It’s a mistake to romanticize a machine too much. Kalakala was a stunning design, but, in the end, simply an assembly of metal, however memorable. That discovery of Mr. Ench’s mural is probably more wonderful than any reality could be so late in the ship’s journey, and it provided me with a wonderful story.

Do I wish I could have seen her? Yes.

Do I wish I’d found time and means to get to Tacoma to see her rusting, leaking, lashed to some industrial dock? No.

I would never see her as one would have liked: cutting across the Sound, aluminum skin reflected in the dark water, under the western sky.

I’ll leave the final word to Shawn Liu, who participated in the volunteer effort to restore Kalakala, and posted a final farewell, and includes some comments and photos from the scene of the dismantling and auction: HERE. Give her a “like.”

Do you have a Kalakala story? Did you acquire a piece of the railing or some other memento? We’d love to hear from you.

There are numerous sources of additional information about Kalakala online, including:

This site from Evergreen Fleet has additional text and photos.

An article from The News Tribune (Tacoma) , 1/22/15, has some interesting color photos of the final day of Kalakala en route to and in the scrap works, including a look inside the gutted superstructure. accessed 11/29/15.

A story about scrapping Kalakala in the Seattle Times 1/5/15, accessed 11/29/15.

Video and text from KING-5 Seattle, 3/13/15, accessed 11/29/15, includes a few seconds of archival motion footage of Kalakala under way.

The Kalakala mural is the work of Cory Ench. No commercial use of any kind permitted without express permission of the artist.

To read more about Mr. Ench’s mural on his website, CLICK HERE.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017

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