The unsinkable Silver Slug

Some want to sink the Kalakala, the historic streamlined Seattle ferry that was once a local icon. But its owner has other ideas and hopes to discuss them with Obama.
Crosscut archive image.

The mighty Kalakala, icon of the Sound, in better days.

Some want to sink the Kalakala, the historic streamlined Seattle ferry that was once a local icon. But its owner has other ideas and hopes to discuss them with Obama.

It's never a good sign when someone suggests that a ship on the National Historic register would be better off as a sunken wreck, but that proposal was, uh, floated last month in Port Angeles. The vessel, it was suggested, would make a great man-made reef to entertain divers off Ediz Hook. The ship under discussion: the historic ferry Kalakala.

The bad news is that the idea was broached in a town that was touted as a Kalakala safe haven. The good news for preservationists is that the Department of Natural Resources quickly scuttled the proposal, at least for now, saying that sinking the Kalakala would not be good for the environment.

But according to the Peninsula Daily News, the concept was broached out of frustration by the folks who were being cultivated to support a scheme to save the ship. Late last month, the Kalakala's owner, Steve Rodrigues, met with Port Angeles leaders in what has been described as a "contentious" and "chaotic" meeting. Rodrigues has been trying to relocate the Kalakala from its current berth in Tacoma with the idea of mooring it on PA's waterfront and renovating it as a multi-purpose entertainment center.

The owner has not been able to put forward a plan for financing to get full community backing. Project estimates have been in the $15 million range, according to media accounts. Rodrigues says the Port Angeles meeting that went haywire was a "stunt" by opponents of the project who turned a private meeting into a public embarrassment. He says his plan, a private development project, is laid out on the Web for everyone to see.

Rodrigues, who bought the Kalakala in bankruptcy in 2003 for $136,560, came along as a kind of savior for the vessel when no one else wanted it or could come up with the cash to rescue it. It has been a maritime white elephant, bouncing from place to place, from Seattle to Neah Bay to Tacoma. The Kalakala, saved from an afterlife beached in Kodiak, Alaska, as a fish processor, has been back in Washington waiting for salvation for more than a decade now, and various owners and advocates have hoped to dock and restore it somewhere where it can be used, enjoyed, and preserved as the unique vessel it is, whether as a tourist attraction, conference center, restaurant, museum, or all of the above.

For his part, Rodrigues has hatched a plan for a "walk of hope" to Washington, D.C., to raise funds and awareness to save the vessel. He is also making a documentary about the boat, the walk, and maritime heritage here in the Northwest. He says the documentary will be titled Kalakala: Silence from the Shadows of Glory. The walk will be done in short segments in cities across the country. Rodrigues has already covered the Seattle downtown waterfront and plans to visit historic seaports and Art deco sites en route to the other Washington.

A key element of his "walk" is trying to enhance the Kalakala's federal recognition and protection. Already on the National Register, he applied in early February to have the boat declared a National Historic Site. He has asked for a meeting with President Obama to ask him to declare the Washington Street Public Boat Landing on the Seattle waterfront a National Monument. It rates, he says, because it is one of the few surviving places that embody much of the city's maritime, and ferry-related, history. It would also make a perfect place to moor the Kalakala, he believes. The Kalakala herself, he argues, has broad significance, not only as a unique ferry boat, but also for her role ferrying workers to and from the Bremerton shipyards during World War II. Even its years as a fish processor in Alaska link it with the region's fishing industry.

Rodrigues says the next 18 months will be a key fundraising period too, between a raffle and major auction (slated for 2011). Plus, he's planning a major bash for the Kalakala's 75th birthday in July. He hopes the "walk" and related activities will help his non-profit group raise significant funds to keep the Kalakala going. Rodrigues is anything but ready to commit the Kalakala to the deep by sinking it off Port Angeles or anywhere else. If the Port Angeles project works, fine, but down deep, most Kalakala fans would love to see it settled in Seattle where it was a fixture for many decades.

That said, there are preservationists worry about the fate of the vessel, and Rodrigues' handling of it. Rodrigues has proposed various schemes, including one a couple of years ago that involved saving the state's retired old steel-electric ferries (which divers, by the way, also wanted to sink). The idea involved his idea of re-launching them as a wind- and solar-driven fleet. Or turning them into ferry dock museums. The state wasn't interested and sold them for scrap.

The Kalakala feels similarly unmoored. Is it going to be a Seattle waterfront fixture, or a dining spot in Port Angeles? He once planned to turn it into a floating dinner theater that would sail between Seattle, Bremerton, Anacortes, the San Juans and Victoria, B.C. He told Tacoma that the the City of Destiny would be its permanent home, but later insisted it should be placed at Seattle Colman dock. According to the Seattle Times, Rodrigues has a history of proposing big ideas that never quite come off.

Joe Follansbee, who runs the maritime heritage website Fyddeye (and who has written for Crosscut), worries about his leadership: "Steve has trouble making long-term allies among folks he has to court, particularly elected and appointed officials and other influencers who can help him access money and punch through the spaghetti of laws, rules and regs he has to navigate...." Historic preservationist Art Skolnik, who also once worked to save the vessel, has the same concern. "He chases away more supporters than he attracts," Skolnik says. Follansbee adds that "[U]nless there'ꀙs a significant, even radical change in tone and approach, I'm not optimistic that Kalakalawill ultimately survive." He summarizes: "Right boat, but wrong leader."

The problem Rodrigues faces, or anyone who would replace him, is that saving the Kalakala and putting it to good use is an expensive, complicated proposition, and these challenges can prove fatal even with the best of intentions (see the Wawona). One of the intriguing things about the Kalakala is that as a Seattle icon, it ranks high. During the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, it was voted second-favorite attraction after the new Space Needle. Countless postcards and brochures have featured images of her. In the days before jetliners, the shiny Kalakala, really a re-fitted old San Francisco ferry, signaled that Seattle was forward-thinking about transportation, or at least design: who else had a ferry like a rocket ship?

But the future the Kalakala promised was quickly overtaken. Art Deco was never big in Seattle, a new modern sensibility took over after WWII, and she became anachronistic. While some saw her as a sleek beauty, others called her the "Silver Slug," laughed at her outdated profile, and failed to be charmed be her rattling ride. While pre-War Seattle might have been dazzled by the boat, afterwards the Kalakala was as relevant as a blimp, quirky but obsolete.

The real surprise in the saga is that despite the best and well-intentioned efforts of a series of characters determined to save the boat by dint of will (and bless them for their efforts), Seattle has never truly re-embraced the Kalakala. The boat would seem to be a slam dunk historically, but she still seems like a bit of a joke that can't possibly be important or worth the effort, the maritime equivalent of a Googie diner perhaps. That's unfortunate, because she is not only distinctly of an era, but she embodies Northwest heritage in a unique, fun and stunning way.

But if she was left behind by '60s city, it's becoming even harder to see her fitting in with the new Seattle that has emerged since she came home from Alaska in the late '90s. As urban planners and landscape architects imagine a newer, gentrified, more European waterfront, does the Kalakala really fit in with the a town that's determinedly less funky than the Seattle of yore? Sure, we have Frank Gehry's EMP, but that leapt from the deep pockets of a local millionaire. The Kalakala might need a patron like that with political clout to survive and find a place in her hometown.

Where's Ivar when we need him?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.