Larry LaRue: Memories of ferry Skansonia accident don’t fade

As fish stories go, Lloyd Livernash has a great one, lacking only a fish.

“My dad and uncle worked the sawmill in Buckley, and once or twice a year we’d drive down to Point Defiance, rent a rowboat and go fishing,” Livernash said. “The year I turned 11, we all went fishing around Washington’s birthday.”

This was in 1939 — 75 years ago.

Life in the Northwest was different then. Livernash’s father, Joe, and his uncle, Gunnar Gustafson, worked what was known as the Swedish gang sawmill.

“My dad had a 1936 Chevrolet, a darn good car,” said Livernash, now 86 and still living in Buckley.

They drove that car to Tacoma on that February day in 1939, and the three of them took the rowboat out on the Sound. On the water, they saw the ferry that in those days ran between Point Defiance and Gig Harbor.

“It was the Skansonia,” Livernash said. “We watched it pass us going across.”

At some point, the 11-year-old asked if he could row. The grown men let him, and they continued fishing.

And then the Skansonia made its return run.

“The tide had changed, and their route was on a completely different sweep than the first one,” Livernash said. “We were right in front of it.”

Livernash’s dad and uncle grabbed the oars, and everyone tried rowing at once.

“The ferry cut its engines so if we went under we wouldn’t get chopped up,” Livernash said. “My uncle used his oar to try and push off the ferry. The ferry captain threw open a window in the pilot’s cabin.

“I remember this like it was yesterday — he yelled ‘Get the hell out of the way!’”

They couldn’t.

“The rowboat capsized, and in we went,” Livernash said. “They threw us life jackets, and my father and uncle climbed up this rope ladder they dropped for them.”

The young Livernash couldn’t climb it.

“I had knee boots on, and they were filled with water,” he said. “They threw me a rope and tried pulling me up, but I had trouble kicking out from the ferry’s bumper.”

Finally, he crawled aboard, soaked to the skin and stunned.

Think the world has changed since ’39? Back then, the ferry crew had the two adults sign papers saying they hadn’t been injured, and that was that. No Coast Guard report, no lawsuit concerns, no big deal.

“They put us in the boiler room and gave my dad and uncle workmen’s clothes while their clothes dried. They didn’t have any my size,” Livernash said. “We probably made two or three ferry runs before our clothes dried.”

And the swamped rowboat?

“The crew grabbed it and returned it to the rental yard.”

A newspaper article that week reported the Skansonia was “said to have been caught in a huge swirl of water” when it drifted into the rowboat. Livernash was not identified by name, but as “a boy of about 14.”

“Since I was only 11, I was pretty proud of being mistaken for 14,” Livernash said.

In the decades that followed, the Buckley mill closed, then reopened in Aberdeen. Livernash worked in a lumber yard, then became a stonecutter.

“I loved that work, but then concrete took over, and everyone was laid off,” Livernash said. “I went to night school, got a degree and became a fourth-grade teacher.”

Still, half his life later, he can remember stone carvings of his that dot the Tacoma landscape.

“I carved the seal of Tacoma on the downtown library and helped carve the fountain at the University of Puget Sound,” he said. “Above the entrance to South Hall at UPS there are two horned owls that I carved.”

He retired from teaching in 1987, and the next day began playing 55-and-older softball. Since then, he’s had both knees replaced.

“I could still play softball,” he said, “but I needed a pinch runner.”

In 2002, while staying with his daughter in Kennewick, Livernash decided he’d take batting practice in a nearby cage. He didn’t feel right and wound up with a quadruple bypass. Once he was cleared to move, he went back to softball.

“I’ve had a great life,” Livernash said last week, fresh from working in his garden. “I never forgot the Skansonia.”

The old boat has had a full life, too. Its keel was laid at the Skansie brothers’ shipyard in Gig Harbor in 1929, and it was retired from the state ferry fleet in 1967. The Skansonia is now docked in Seattle on the north shore of Lake Union, where it’s used for weddings and other special events.