Time & Again: Understanding the History of Tramp Harbor Dock

Vashon Park District is now discussing various plans regarding what to do with the closed Tramp Harbor dock.

This iconic piece of the island should be preserved and continue to be the island fixture it has been for over 100 years.

Tramp Harbor Dock is the second dock constructed in this area of the island, and understanding its history helps us understand why preserving a structure such as this is important to who we are as islanders.

The first automobile ferry dock to Vashon was constructed in Tramp Harbor. There were five Mosquito Fleet docks in Tramp Harbor, but none were equipped to load cars. All that remains of this ferry dock today are the cutoff pilings just south of the current Tramp Harbor Dock.

In 1916, King County completed the new brick Seattle-Des Moines Highway, and to take advantage of the new highway the county opened an automobile ferry service to Vashon from Des Moines. The Vashon ferry dock was built between Portage and Ellisport, each of which already had Mosquito Fleet steamer docks.

To access the new ferry dock, what is now Dockton Road S.W. was built along the waterfront from Portage to Ellisport. Before this road was built, the road ran up over the hill following the route of what is now Tramp Harbor Road.

To carry automobiles from Des Moines to Vashon, King County built a new ferry and christened it “Vashon Island.” This was the first diesel automobile ferry on Puget Sound. This ferry landing location in the middle of the Island proved to be short-lived.

By making the ferry part of the King County Road System, the county established an early precedent of considering ferries as marine highways. This is a concept that still works today with the Washington State Ferry System, although increases in fares and decreases in service make many ferry-dependent communities feel as if the state is not fully meeting its marine highway responsibility.

In 1922 a new Vashon Highway was built by the Henry J. Kaiser Company and named the Leif Hamilton Scenic Highway after a King County councilman, linking Vashon town to the Heights Ferry Dock.

The Portage-Des Moines ferry was abandoned in favor of the more convenient triangle route — connecting Vashon Heights, Harper (just north of Southworth) and the Marion Street Dock. The new Tahlequah-Point Defiance Ferry also drew ferry traffic away from Portage.

Standard Oil built a supply station and dock just north of the ferry dock in 1921, and delivered bulk gasoline, kerosene, lube oil, motor oil and diesel to service stations, gasoline pumps, and farmers on the island.

When the Portage-Des Moines ferry closed, King County leased the former ferry dock in Tramp Harbor to the Standard Oil Company in 1923.

When the original ferry dock began to deteriorate, the dock was removed, and the piling cut off just above the level of the beach. These pilings are still visible at very low tides.

The Standard Oil Dock, now the current Tramp Harbor Dock, was reconstructed in 1939. The new dock was 340 feet long and had a broad platform at the deep-water end. A landing platform just to the north of the dock was constructed at the shore end of the dock to accommodate an oil tank storage area with six large bulk storage tanks, a fuel and oil dispensing station, and a storage building.

During the 1960s and early1970s, the U.S Navy and the Boeing Company used the Standard Oil bulk fuel facility to refuel the test runs of their new hydrofoils. The Navy had Boeing build the USS Tucumcari and six Pegasus-class fast attack patrol boats that were hydrofoils.

Boeing used the technology to build over 20 of what they named JETFOILs — for passenger service in Hong Kong, Japan, the English Channel, the Canary Islands, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia. Although the Washington State Ferry System considered purchasing them, none were ever used in Puget Sound.

In the early 1980s Standard Oil stopped using the pier and the fuel storage site was demolished.

King County, which still owned the dock, converted it into a public fishing pier, which was opened in 1982 by Barbara Douglas, Community Council Tramp Harbor Dock Committee Chair, Honorary Mayor Joe Green, Sr, and King County Councilman Paul Barden.

In 1995, King County deeded the pier to The Vashon Park District, which renamed it the Tramp Harbor Dock. The dock was closed to the public on December 2, 2019, following a 2015 Engineering Assessment Report that found many of the pilings “compromised” and six “approaching failure.”

With an abundance of caution, the Vashon Park District decided to close the Tramp Harbor Dock and is now considering whether to remove it, replace it, or rebuild it.

Terry Donnelly is an island photographer. Bruce Haulman is an island historian. Mike Sudduth and Jim Sherman helped research and verify this narrative.