Steaming around Puget Sound for 100 years
About the Ship: An Icon of Maritime History
West Pass Transportation Company
Around the turn of the 20th century outlying communities all over Puget Sound, particularly those on the many islands, were dependent on small boats and ships for delivering goods and to provide basic transportation. The primary shipping lane from Seattle to Tacoma was along the east side of Vashon Island, where it remains to this day.
Farmers and business people on the west side of Vashon were very dissatisfied with the unreliable boat service they received. In 1910 Captain Nels G. Christensen and John Holm formed the “West Pass Transportation Company” and purchased their own boat to serve this part of the island.
The boat they bought was the Virginia Merrill, a 54-foot (16 m) long gasoline-powered tug. She was renamed simply the “Virginia” and converted for use as a small ferry.
The “Virginia” Boats
The Virginia was replaced in 1912 with the Virginia II, a 77-foot (23 m) long ship propelled by a 110 hp (82 kW) Corliss gasoline engine. In 1914 the West Pass Transportation Company purchased the 92-foot (28 m) steam ship Typhoon and renamed her Virginia III. In 1918 they purchased the 98-foot (30 m) steam ship Tyrus, and in 1920 they renamed her Virginia IV and put her on the West Pass route.
Construction of the Virginia V
In 1921 Anderson & Company of Maplewood, Washington, began construction on the Virginia V. The ship was built of local old-growth fir. She was launched March 9, 1922, and towed to downtown Seattle for the installation of her engine and steam plant. In Seattle the engine was removed from the Virginia IV and installed in the Virginia V. On June 11, 1922, the Virginia V made her maiden voyage from Elliott Bay in Seattle to Tacoma down the West Pass. She continued to make this voyage nearly every day until 1938.
Camp Sealth and the Camp Fire Girls
Each summer from 1922 to 1970 (with a few interruptions around World War II) the Virginia V carried girls to and from Seattle to Camp Sealth on Vashon Island for the Camp Fire Girls. Thousands of women in the Northwest recall a ride on the “Virginia Vee” (as she was affectionately called) as the beginning of a camping adventure.
Storm of 1934
A fall storm in 1934 caused heavy damage to the Virginia V. On October 21, 1934, a severe Pacific storm swept through the Puget Sound. The Virginia V was attempting to dock at Ollala, Washington, when the brunt of the storm hit. The powerful winds pushed the ship against the dock as the waves pounded the ship into the pilings. The result was the near destruction of the upper decks. The ship was re-built at the Lake Washington Shipyard at Houghton, near modern day Kirkland, Washington. She was returned to service on December 5, 1934, less than 3 months after the storm and just in time to celebrate West Pass Transportation Company’s 25th Anniversary. There were no other passenger and freight vessels available on the West Pass route at that time. If the Virginia V had not been rebuilt, the West Pass Transportation Company would have had to close permanently.
Columbia River Service and Bankruptcy
The West Pass Transportation Company went out of business in 1942. Virginia V, which had been operating for a while on the Seattle-Fort Worden run, was transferred to the Columbia River, where for a brief time she was placed on the Portland-Astoria run, thus becoming the last scheduled passenger steamer running on both Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Her Columbia River career was unsuccessful. Her owners were unable to pay her crew and she was libelled (legally seized for debts owed) and sold at Vancouver by the U.S. Marshalls to pay her owner’s debts. The Virginia V was purchased by O.H. “Doc” Freeman and Joe Boles of Seattle. They resold the vessel to Jack Katz and Capt. Howell Parker less than a year later.
Captain Howell Parker and The Great Steamboat Race
Capt. Parker operated the Virginia V carrying war workers between Poulsbo, Washington, and the Keyport Naval Torpedo Station with his wife Mary as steward and purser. After the end of World War II, the Parkers continued to operate the vessel as an excursion vessel all around Puget Sound. In 1948 the Puget Sound Maritime Historic Society (PSMHS) was formed to preserve the Northwest’s marine history. As a publicity event, the PSMHS sponsored a race between the Virginia V and a similar ship, the Grayline Sightseer (formerly the Vashona) to be held on National Maritime Day. The Great Steamboat Race began on May 22 at 2:00 pm. At the end of a 5-mile (8.0 km) course that ran across the Seattle waterfront, the Virginia V won the race by a small margin.
Puget Sound Excursion Lines
In 1954 the Virginia V was sold to Captain Phillip Luther of Puget Sound Excursion Lines. Capt. Luther sold the vessel to Charles McMahon in 1956. McMahon extensively refurbished the vessel, and then continued to operate her as a commercial excursion vessel around Puget Sound. In 1958 James F. “Cy” Devenny purchased controlling interest in Puget Sound Excursion Company and took over operation of the Virginia V along with several other small vessels. Among these was the McNeil Island federal prison tender J.E. Overlade (ex Arcadia), built in 1928, herself one of the last survivors of the Mosquito Fleet. Devenny renamed her Virginia VI to match her more famous running mate.
Northwest Steamship Company
In 1968 a group of steamboat enthusiasts formed the Northwest Steamship Company, and raised the funds to buy the Virginia V from Puget Sound Excursion Company. The ship was placed on the National Registry of Historic Sites in 1973. But despite her recognition as historically significant, it was increasingly difficult for her owners to maintain the ship as a commercial venture.
Steamer Virginia V Foundation
In 1976 the Steamer Virginia V Foundation was formed as a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Virginia V. The Foundation acquired the vessel on September 30, 1980, for $127,000. Learn more about the Foundation and how you can help.
Beginning in 1995, the Foundation undertook a six-year, $6.5 million stem-to-stern restoration of the aging steamer. The scope of work included rebuilding the original steam engine, building a new boiler, and reconstruction of the ship’s superstructure using traditional tongue and groove fir planking. The scale of the project and its significance to Puget Sound’s maritime history was recognized by the Washington State Historical Society with the 2001 “David Douglas Award.” The Foundation completed work and put the Virginia V back in service as of 2002.
2002 to Today
The Legacy of the Mosquito Fleet Continues
The Virginia V has remained in service on local waters almost nonstop since 2002. As the last vessel of her kind and a National Historic Landmark, the ship does require regular maintenance. The Foundation must raise $250,000 every two years for maintenance, periodic upgrades, and a fresh coat of gleaming white and black paint.
Keeping her in great condition allows us to maintain a busy calendar of public excursions, schedule private charters for weddings and other celebrations, and visit maritime festivals around Puget Sound as a living, working piece of local history.
Celebrating 100 Years!
We are just a few years away from reaching a major milestone. There will be celebrations and lots of planning to ensure the Virginia V keeps steaming for another 100 years.