Time&Again: Vashon ferries have followed a circuitous path

This photo of the approach to Vashon’s north-end ferry was taken in the 1930s, when there was a simple Shell station and grocery store in the building next to the ferry terminal. - Courtesy photo
This photo of the approach to Vashon’s north-end ferry was taken in the 1930s, when there was a simple Shell station and grocery store in the building next to the ferry terminal.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Vashon Heights was platted in 1909 as a development, and that’s when the Island’s first dock was built, constructed to service the famous mosquito fleet that crisscrossed Puget Sound.

The introduction of the automobile led to the construction of the ferry Vashon at Dockton.

The Vashon was the first diesel-powered ferry built specifically to carry automobiles on Puget Sound, and it began serving Vashon on the Des Moines-Portage route in 1916. The long drive from Des Moines to Seattle led some Islanders to request service to Seattle using the downtown ferry dock next to Colman Dock, which was called the Marion Street Dock.

In 1919 the first runs were instituted from Vashon Heights, Harper (the small town just north of Southworth) and Seattle in a three-point operation that would ultimately set the pattern for the service we have today. In 1920 and 1921 the concrete road from Center to Vashon Heights dock was completed, built by the Henry J. Kaiser Company and named the Leif Hamilton Scenic Highway after a King County councilmember.

The construction of the Island highway set the stage for the Vashon Heights dock to become the premier dock on Vashon.

In 1922 the Des Moines-Portage service to Vashon was suspended by King County, and in 1925 the Fauntleroy dock became a fourth point on the Heights-Harper-Seattle-Fauntleroy route. The debate between using the Marion Street Dock in Seattle and the Fauntleroy dock continued into the 1930s. A poll of Islanders in 1939 showed they favored the Fauntleroy dock because it meant more frequent service.

That same year a 22-day ferry strike by workers against Captain Peabody’s Black Ball Line — then the only ferry service provider — led to Vashon vigilantes seizing the ferry Elwha to prevent it from leaving the Island. Islanders feared that once the Elwha departed it would not return during the strike.

When ferry service resumed, Fauntleroy became the favored destination of ferries from the north end of Vashon, ultimately sealing the doom of the Heights-Marion Street service to downtown Seattle.

This decision had significant implications for the future development of Vashon. Without ferry service directly to downtown Seattle, Vashon avoided becoming another Bainbridge Island and retained a much more rural and isolated lifestyle than its northern neighbor.

Following another extended ferry strike in 1947, Vashon formed its own ferry district — Ferry District # 1. Vashon vigilantes reappeared in 1948 to protect the newly formed Ferry District from unfair competition from Capt. Peabody’s Black Ball Line by preventing Peabody’s ferry, the Illahee, from docking at Vashon Heights — using “ax handles, billiard cues, hoes and other blunt instruments. … Unable to tie up, the vessel returned to Seattle, and the Islanders cried out in victory,” according to

The Vashon Ferry District operated for four years until the State of Washington formed its ferry system, buying out Capt. Peabody and incorporating the Vashon Ferry District into the new state system.

A member of the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association rescued an original photograph from the dump (see above). It is a hand-tinted photograph probably from the early 1930s, looking north at the dock with the point of Blake Island to the left and the southern point of Bainbridge Island in the center.

Two ferries are in the ferry slips, and located to the right side of the north end of the dock is a waiting room and a small lunch counter.

The Heights Grocery Store and Shell Service Station with a single hand-pumped gasoline pump are located at the eastern shore end of the dock. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the first bar on Vashon opened here. The dock had two lanes of traffic with the walkway located on the east side of the dock leading from the grocery store to the ferry slips.

The modern photograph was taken from about the same location and shows the changes that have taken place over the past 60-plus years. The biggest change is the clutter that distinguishes the present dock. Direction signage, lane strips, crosswalks and no parking stripes are all modern conveniences.

The dock has also changed significantly. It is five lanes wide, with three ferry slips, a passenger-only ferry dock to the left and a waiting room on the left-hand side replacing the waiting room and lunch counter on the right-hand side, as seen in the original photograph. The walkway has been moved from the right to the left-hand side of the dock.

The Heights Grocery Co. is now the La Playa Family Mexican Restaurant, and the closest gas pump is at Vashon Town, six miles away. The south end of Bainbridge Island is still visible just under the Southworth sign.

— Bruce Haulman is an Island historian who teaches history at Green River Community College. Terry Donnelly is a nationally recognized landscape photographer who’s lived on Vashon for many years.

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