On a quiet early winter afternoon, photographer Terry Donnelly and I spent time with the bridge crew of the Washington State Ferry Kitsap, consisting of island residents Captain Marsha Morse and Quartermaster Charlie Leahey, and Snohomish resident Chief Mate Eric Conklin.
After 9/11 and all the security requirements, very few islanders ever get to experience what it is like to be in the wheelhouse of a 328-foot, 124-car Super Class ferry perched nearly 50 feet above the water with a 360-degree view of Puget Sound. On this day, the sea was flat; the weak winter light was diffuse, and the low-hanging clouds gave an occasional glimpse of the snow-covered Olympic Mountains. As dusk fell and lights started to appear on the shores of the sound, a pod of harbor porpoise rolled by, headed south across the ferry lanes and creating a truly magical time in the wheelhouse of the Elwha.
Over 100 years ago, in the wheelhouse of the Mosquito Fleet steamer Verona, another island resident, Captain Gertrude Wiman — who was known for always dressing in black when she skippered a boat — captained the Verona on the Quartermaster-Tacoma run.
Wiman was the first woman licensed as a steamship pilot on Puget Sound. She was the wife of Captain Chance Wiman, who purchased the steamer Sophia in 1894, forming the Vashon Navigation Company with John Manson in 1904. Chance Wiman captained the automobile ferries Vashon Island on the Portage-Des Moines route and Washington and Kitsap on the Seattle-Vashon Heights-Harper route until he retired in 1928.
The couple was married in 1889, moved to Vashon in 1894, and had a son Frederick, who was born in 1897. Gertrude Wiman worked with Chance as a purser and accompanied him on many of his runs, learning the art of running a steamer to the point that in 1907 she passed the exam and was awarded her second-class pilots license for Puget Sound from Olympia to Port Townsend.
When Chance died in 1928, Gertrude stopped working steamers and concentrated on her social life on Vashon. She and Chance had built a magnificent home on the north shore of Quartermaster Harbor that was one of the “show places of the entire island.” Gertrude was a charter member of the Vashon Island Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic organization primarily for women with a relationship to a Master Mason, and served as Worthy Matron in 1923. She was persuaded to come out of retirement in 1938 to pilot the Puget Sound Freight Lines’ diesel steamer Indian in a Fourth of July race on Elliot Bay against the Skagit River Navigation Company sternwheeler Skagit Chief.
Captain E.F. Lovejoy, the owner of the Indian, said, “With women entering all lines of business and making it plenty tough for the men, I feel that Mrs. Wiman may be the deciding factor.”
And he was right. The Indian did win the race with Wiman as co-pilot, with the ships regular skipper Bart Lovejoy.
Captain Marsha Morse, of the ferry Kitsap, grew up in Eastern Washington and worked her way up through the ranks of the ferry system, beginning as an Ordinary Seaman (OS) in 1975 and an Abled Bodied Seaman (ABS) in 1977. She received her Chief Mate and Washington State Ferries Pilot of Puget Sound License in 1979, was put on the Mates list in 2001, and the Masters list in 2002. In 2007 she became a captain of the state-run Vashon Island passenger-only ferry until the state turned the service over to King County in 2009. She then returned to the regular ferries and has worked primarily on the Vashon route since then. During her ferry system career, she has worked every route in the ferry system in some capacity.
Morse’s career with the ferry system began as a fluke. After graduating high school she entered Washington State University on a path to become a veterinarian, but an opportunity to attend the newly opened Evergreen State College lured her west of the mountains, where she stayed. She completed her degree in environmental studies with a concentration in marine biology. A summer job at a horse camp in Renton led her to board her horse on Vashon, and with jobs working in her field scarce, she worked for islander Doc Eastly at his veterinary clinic in West Seattle.
One day on the ferry, she was talking with one of the deckhands, “Nick The Greek,” who told her the ferry system was hiring women and that she should apply. He got her in contact with Dave Black, who hired her, and her Washington State Ferry System career began.
Morse often says, “My horse got me my job on the ferries.” At the time, the ferry system was in effect a closed system. You needed proper documents to be hired, but you could not get documents unless you had a job — a classic catch-22. Dave Black provided Morse with a letter of intent to hire so she could get her documents, and then he offered her a ferry system job.
Morse’s life on Vashon has not been defined by her work with the ferry system. In fact, many who know her on the island have no idea she is one of the few women ferry captains. Morse’s obsession with horses (she now owns three) began in Moses Lake; when she was 12-years old, she got her first horse and learned to ride. She has worked with horses all her life and is dedicated to doing horse therapy by working with a wide range of individuals and families. She is also an accomplished musician, beginning under her mother’s tutelage, by learning piano and cello; Morse became a skilled keyboardist and cellist and has performed in a number of orchestras for many years, in addition to leading the jazz workshop on the island. She has been the organist at the island Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and substituted at many other island churches.
Morse continued her education while working on the ferries and earned a master’s degree in Whole System Design from Antioch University in Seattle in 1995. She also took care of her father after her mother died when he moved to the island to live at Vashon Community Care in the mid-1990s.
Being among the first women hired by the ferry system was not easy. It was a male-dominated, quasi-military organized system, with little room for women. But, like Wiman, Morse learned on the job, honed her skills and knowledge, and has become a highly respected captain.
Wiman and Morse have many other similarities: They both married ferry captains. They both raised children. They both were very active in the community life of Vashon and volunteered for a number of organizations. And, they both fought against the sexism of their times that limited the opportunities for women to have careers on the water.
— Bruce Haulman is an island historian, and Terry Donnelly is a photographer.