The summer of 2023 has been a particularly difficult time for islanders using ferries.
Cancellations, disrupted schedules, and unreliable information about both have driven islanders to become highly critical of the Washington State Ferries (WSF).
As frustrating as the ferries have been since we began to emerge from the COVID pandemic, most islanders still seem to oppose the construction of a bridge that would alleviate most of the ferry issues.
This dilemma of weighing the advantages of solving all the ferry problems with a bridge, against the changes a bridge would bring, has shifted dramatically over the past 70 years since a Vashon bridge was first a real possibility.
When the Washington State Ferries (WSF) was created in 1951, it was originally intended as a temporary system to run until a series of proposed cross-sound bridges were constructed.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which opened in July 1940, was the first of the proposed bridges. Unfortunately, “Galloping Gertie,” as it was known because of its wild twisting movements in high winds, collapsed four months later, on Nov. 7, 1940.
It was rebuilt and opened following World War II, on Oct. 14, 1950. The plan was to construct additional cross-sound bridges at Brace Point (Fauntleroy) to Vashon Island, Alki Point to Restoration Point on south Bainbridge Island, West Point to Skiff Point on north Bainbridge Island, Edmonds to Kingston, and Whidbey Island to Port Townsend.
Of course, the bridges were never built.
The “temporary” Washington State Ferries created a publicly owned system of ferries that are, at least in theory, essentially a continuation of the Washington State highway system over the Puget Sound, in much the way a bridge across the Columbia River is a part of the State highway system.
What led to the development of the WSF began during the ferry strikes of the 1930s, but the ferry strike and 10 percent fare increase in March 1947, fanned the public’s desire for a state takeover. A bill had passed in the 1947 legislative session that allowed counties to organize special ferry districts.
The shutdown and fare increase proposed in March 1947 led islanders to set up a special election for that September, and King County Ferry District No. 1 (Vashon Ferry District) was approved 316 to 38.
Up to the creation of the Vashon Ferry District, the ferries serving Vashon, except for the short-lived King County Portage-Des Moines ferry from 1916 to 1921, were all privately owned and operated. The Vashon Ferry District (King County Ferry District No.1) was established from 1947 to 1951. And from 1951 to the present, WSF continued to serve Vashon as a publicly owned ferry service.
But, the Vashon Bridge was nearly built.
Lieutenant Governor John Cherberg is the unrecognized hero of Vashon Island.
In 1959, Cherberg decided to adhere to the rules of the Washington State Senate, where, as Lieutenant Governor, he served as President of the Senate. He ruled to send a bill funding the construction of the Vashon Bridge back to committee and effectively ended the attempts to build the Vashon Bridge.
March 12, 1959, when Lt. Governor Cherberg made his decision, was a typically cool gray Pacific Northwest spring day in Olympia. The temperature only reached 52 degrees and there was light rain, but within the Capitol Building, as the day progressed, tempers got hotter.
The State Legislature had struggled for nearly three months to put together a funding bill to build the Vashon Bridge. Now in its second special session, the House had passed the appropriations bill and sent it to the Senate, where final passage and a signature by the governor would make the long-awaited Vashon Bridge a reality.
Homer Hadley, who designed the Mercer Island floating bridge that opened in 1940, had proposed a cross-sound bridge in the 1930s. The success of the Mercer Island Bridge led to the easy passage of the Cross Sound Bridge Bill in 1953, which approved the construction of the Vashon Bridge.
A 1952 King County Planning Commission study, “Vashon Island Story”, projected a population of 50,000 for Vashon (we had a population of just over 11,000 in 2020), numerous schools and parks, an industrial area on North Maury Island, and a four-lane limited access “Vashon Parkway” running down the middle of the island.
But as costs soared and as the state encountered financial difficulties, the funding to complete the Vashon Bridge faltered.
Proponents of the bridge, including most Vashon islanders, thought the bridge would bring new and welcomed prosperity and growth to the island and to the connecting Kitsap Peninsula.
The bridge would complete the long-awaited cross-sound highway system and finally do away with Vashon’s dependence on unreliable and trouble-plagued ferries.
This largely untrammeled support for the bridge was opposed by a few lonely voices on the island who thought the bridge would change the quality of life of Vashon.
Others who opposed the Vashon Bridge included the Pilots Association, who would have to guide large ships through the bridge; the Port of Tacoma, who saw a bridge as an impediment to its continued growth as a major shipping port; legislators from Eastern Washington who saw spending for Western Washington ferries and bridges as a waste of limited state dollars; and, perhaps most importantly, Seattle, Kitsap, and Bainbridge Island leaders and legislators who wanted the “Purvis Plan,” which proposed a bridge between Bainbridge Island and Bremerton to link to the existing Bainbridge-Seattle Ferry.
On this gray and rainy day in March 1959, the State Senate debated long and hard over the bridge appropriation.
The House had twice approved the bridge bill by large majorities and sent a revised version to the Senate. Proponents of the bridge wanted a quick vote to secure passage of the bill and construction of the bridge. Opponents sought to have the bill sent to the Senate Highways Committee where it would be bottled up and die.
Anxious to prevent the bill from dying in committee, supporters demanded the full Senate vote on the bill. Lt. Governor Cherberg, who was a proponent of the bridge, determined that the new House bill had significant changes from the original bill, and ruled that the House changes had broadened the scope of the bill and thus must be sent to the Highways Committee in adherence with Senate rules.
Standing at the very brink of success in building the bridge, supporters attempted to override Cherberg’s decision by asking the bill be heard by the Senate as a Committee of the Whole, but a vote on this proposal failed 21 to 28.
Thus, John Cherberg’s decision to adhere to the rules, rather than his own personal opinion, and send the bill to committee effectively killed the bridge bill. The bill died in committee, was never returned to the Senate for consideration, and the Vashon Bridge was never built.
In 1992, the Washington State Department of Transportation, pressured by interests in the rapidly developing Kitsap Peninsula, hired an engineering consulting firm, Booze Allen & Hamilton, to hold public meetings to consider building the Vashon Bridge.
The original plans for the bridge were revised and the March 9, 1992, a “Bridge Meeting” on Vashon Island, brought out over 2,000 islanders — nearly one-fifth of Vashon’s residents. They carried signs reading “If You Build It, They Will Come,” “Bridges Bring Death”, and “Don’t Mercerize Vashon Island.”
Opposition to the bridge was nearly unanimous, although problems with ferry service to the island had remained an issue ever since ferries first began serving the island.
Unreliable ferry service during the Mosquito Fleet days from the 1890s to the 1930s, the ferry strikes of the 1930s and 1940s that led to the creation of the Washington State Ferries, and the ferry strikes in the 1960 and 1970s led to continuing dissatisfaction with ferry service by islanders. But despite these problems and issues, when confronted with the possibility of a bridge, in the 1990s, islanders clearly said “No.”
In 2023, as Islanders confront the many issues with ferry delays — cancellations, crew shortages, and generally unreliable service — we need to ask ourselves: Do we want a bridge, or do we want the State of Washington to “fix” the ferry problems? We could move off the island, where we would confront a different, but equally vexing, set of transportation issues.
But then we would not live on Vashon.
Bruce Haulman is an Island historian, and Terry Donnelly is an island photographer. This article is the 112th installment of their long-running series detailing the history of Vashon-Maury in The Beachcomber.