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Scrapping the Kalakala: Tacoma lays to rest what Seattle chose not to save

Adios, Kalakala.

Once the streamlined centerpiece of Washington’s ferry fleet, later abandoned to the icy waters of Alaska, later still the victim of failed rescue efforts, the Kalakala later this month will be cut apart for scrap in a Tacoma graving yard.

End of story.

She sits today as she has for 10 years on the western shore of the Hylebos Waterway, hosted by benefactor and Tacoma industralist Karl Anderson.

Rust weeps all along the once-shining superstructure and rust carpets every deck in thick layers on rotted steel. Paint peels from every wall as cold rain and wind blow in where windows once stood.

It wasn’t always so.

Art Skolnik, the one-time executive director of the Kalakala foundation, explained the vessel’s romantic allure.

“The story of the Kalakala is a very special story in the Pacific Northwest, not just Seattle, because it plied many waters,” he said. “It’s one of a kind. It took on this Art Deco architecture in the ’30s. It’s Buck Rogers. It’s Flash Gordon. If this were in South Beach, Florida, it would fit right in.”

Plus the ferry was more than just a ferry, Skolnik said, citing, among other features, its two restaurants, midnight dances and radio station.

“It was a swinging thing on Puget Sound; it was the spirit of the time,” he said. “It replaced Mount Rainier as the symbol of Seattle. It wasn’t until the Space Needle was built that it moved out of first position.”

EARLY SHADOWS

Launched in Oakland, California, as the Peralta in 1927, the Bay Area ferry became stuck on the ways, reluctant to descend from its construction dock into the water. Contemporary reports state other equipment was required to coax the boat into the stream.

Such was the omen of things to come.

Within a month of her christening, the Peralta hit a dock in San Francisco, causing more than $35,000 in damage.

A 1928 miscalculation caused her bow to dip as the ferry was landing in Oakland, which led to the drowning of five passengers.

The Peralta burned to the waterline in 1933 and the hull was bought from insurance underwriters and towed north by Capt. Alexander Peabody, founder of Puget Sound Navigation Co.

At the Lake Washington Shipyards in Kirkland, the Kalakala earned her iconic Art Deco design.

Inside the boat, fashionable bench seats and upholstered chairs could accommodate 2,000 passengers. An open-air Palm Room opened onto a promenade deck, and there was a horseshoe-shaped lunch counter and separate lounges for women and men.

She made upwards of eight trips daily between Seattle and Bremerton, serving wartime shipyard workers, and spent her evenings as a party boat with the nautically clad Flying Bird Orchestra playing from 8:30 p.m. to half past midnight.

“Flying bird” is the English translation of the Chinook jargon “Kalakala.”

Yes, she wobbled. The newly installed 3,000-horsepower engine might not have been properly aligned, and the turbulent vibrations were such that coffee cups at the snack bar were served half-full so as not to spill.

The Kalakala thus earned few new nicknames, including “Kelunkala” and “Klanks-a-lot.”

There also was a problem with the placement of the wheelhouse, set so far back on the uppermost deck as to eliminate a view of the lower decks. A ferry whose captain cannot see the bow is likely to suffer collisions with docks or other vessels, which the Kalakala did several times in her career.

After a dispute with the state, Peabody in 1950 sold most of his fleet, including the Kalakala, to the people of Washington.

FROM FERRY TO EMPTY SHELL

She sailed Puget Sound for 32 years and welcomed an estimated 30 million passengers.

But even as she entertained visitors to the 1962 Century 21 World’s Fair, proudly sailing Seattle’s Elliott Bay, the industry she once led was changing. By 1967 she could accommodate only 60 automobiles. Larger vessels had entered service.

And the Kalakala suffered her own first death.

In 1967, the state sold the decommissioned ferry to American Freezerships and it was towed to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to house a crab-processing operation. Two years later she was sold again, and in 1971 was towed to a site near Kodiak and run aground, thus to serve as a fish cannery.

The Kalakala died again when she was abandoned after the cannery operation failed.

So there she sat, locked in dirt, not quite a boat and not quite a building, exposed to Alaska storms until the first attempt to rescue and restore her.

Spurred by the efforts of a Seattle artist, in 1998 the Kalakala was towed home to Seattle where she was met by wellwishers afloat and onshore.

The enthusiasms soon waned, however, and the boat was towed four months later from a prestigious slot at Pier 66 to a berth on the northern edge of Lake Union. There she stayed until, as one historical website explains, people complained she was both an eyesore and a hazard.

She was so much of a hazard that the City of Seattle and the U.S. Coast Guard prohibited on-board fund raisers for safety reasons. But fans continued their attempt to raise funds, although no deep pockets were found.

In 2003, the Kalakala Foundation filed for bankruptcy.

Another savior, Steve Rodrigues of Auburn, did appear, and he arranged for a temporary moorage in Clallam County. Towed north, the boat soon was headed back to Puget Sound after plans collapsed.

And so, in 2004, she came to Tacoma to die a final death.

ON THE HYLEBOS

“Here’s a poor guy trying to fix up this vessel,” Karl Anderson said recently, recalling his invitation to Rodrigues. “I said I can do this. I had the wherewithal to make this happen. It was the right thing to do.”

Anderson is a principal at the privately held Tacoma Industrial Properties, which owns a 16-acre waterfront parcel along the Hylebos.

With no interest other than sympathy for the underdog Rodrigues, Anderson offered moorage space at a nominal monthly rent. While continuing his attempt to raise funds, Rodrigues for several years made only minimal repairs to the Kalakala.

And then, on March 20, 2011, she nearly sank.

In a report later that year, Capt. S. J Ferguson of the Coast Guard wrote, “For seven years, Mr. Rodrigues has not been able to raise sufficient money or employ the resources necessary to even minimally maintain the vessel, and instead has allowed the M/V Kalakala to rapidly deteriorate.”

The moorage site, Ferguson wrote, “is regularly frequented by trespassers, metal thieves and homeless persons.” At low tide, the boat regularly went aground. The condition of the ship’s steel “is highly wasted, brittle and corroded.”

All of which led Ferguson to conclude “that a flooding and sinking incident is imminent.”

Rodrigues could not make immediate repairs.

But Anderson could.

“I couldn’t get Rodrigues’ cooperation after the Kalakala was called a hazard to navigation,” he said. “I ended up suing for unlawful detainer. I knew I had to do something. The only way was to get control.”

In November 2012, Anderson foreclosed more than $4,000 in unpaid rent and became the Kalakala’s latest, and likely last owner.

He since has invested an estimated $500,000 constructing mooring pylons, buying security cameras, installing electricity and pumps, removing hazardous material including asbestos, petroleum and PCBs.

He also hired two men to monitor the boat 24 hours a day.

Anderson estimates he will spend at least another $500,000 to prepare the ferry for demolition and to pay for that work after hiring tugs to tow it to the graving yard on the Blair Waterway, at Concrete Technology, where he is executive vice president.

Contacted Sunday, Rodrigues said others have conspired against him for their own benefit.

“It was a conspiracy by the responsible parties,” he said. “It should have been sat down at the table before we left Neah Bay.”

Among those conspiring, he contended, were Anderson, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and primarily the State of Washington. He also named the cities of Tacoma, Seattle and Kodiak.

“The Kalakala is the only victim,” he said.

Rodrigues said the money he raised on behalf of the restoration has been well spent, and he said people still are willing to assist in the effort.

“There are thousands of people who want to help,” he said.

But he does realize, “Everybody is not going to do anything about it.”

THE END OF THE END

“I have the utmost respect for Karl Anderson, the fact that he stepped up and took a very responsible position he didn’t have to take,” said Col. Bruce Estok, retired commander and district engineer for the Corps of Engineers’ Seattle district.

“He didn’t necessarily have to do that, but he did.”

“Karl’s generosity is the only thing that allowed the boat to come to Tacoma,” said Don Meyer, former director of the Foss Waterway Development Authority and a current Port of Tacoma commissioner.

“No one else wanted it,” he said. “They viewed it as a liability. I’m just happy it didn’t turn out to be a nightmare. Karl did Rodrigues a favor.

“I’m just happy that Karl has taken it to the last step, bless his heart. He has stepped up not just with talk but with real money.”

The Kalakala, Meyer said, “cannot be saved. Anybody who wants to stop this should have about $25 million in their pocket.”

No new saviors have lately appeared, and none likely will.

“I don’t see Tacoma’s passion for this vessel,” Meyer said. “I don’t think we relate to this vessel. This is a great day for us who make a living off Commencement Bay and those who want clean water.”

Seattle naval architect Paul Zankich of Columbia Sentinel Engineering is familiar with the Kalakala and with Anderson’s efforts.

“It’s dangerous even to walk on the main deck,” he said. “It shouldn’t be afloat. It’s a disaster looking for a place to happen.”

Anderson, Zankich said, “has spent a lot of money keeping that boat alive. We thought it would sink a long time ago. I suspect he’s already spent half a million, and I think he’s going to spend another million and a half.

“He says he’s going to be done in two weeks, and I think he’s dreaming. I think he believes in what he does and he takes care of the environment. I think he’s just a good steward.”

Neither the Coast Guard nor the Corps of Engineers would comment in detail concerning Anderson’s plan, which calls for the Kalakala to leave the Hylebos for the Blair at high tide Jan. 22.

“I felt that I was in large part responsible for this,” Anderson said during a recent tour of the boat. “I invited Mr. Rodrigues here. I thought I was doing a good deed.

“The money will be a hit on the business, but we’ll survive. Being able to do the right thing is more important. It’s only by God’s grace that the boat is still afloat.”

He said he sees no romance aboard, no siren call of nostalgia.

“I see a sad remnant of a lady way past her prime and ready to die,” he said.

Staff writer Sean Robinson contributed to this report.

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