Mrs. Piggle Wiggle gets a ferry

Washington is looking for names for two new ferries. Why not take the chance to honor a writer and a ferry rider who brought the Northwest fantasy and foibles to millions: Betty MacDonald.
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Ferry leaves Seattle

Washington is looking for names for two new ferries. Why not take the chance to honor a writer and a ferry rider who brought the Northwest fantasy and foibles to millions: Betty MacDonald.

The Washington State Transportation Commission has announced that it wants the public's input in naming two new 144-car ferries in its fleet. The vessels are currently under construction and the commission wants to name them by November. The deadline for submitting names is Sept. 26.

As Crosscut readers know, I am interested in naming and heritage issues. A while back, I suggested that Seattle consider naming its miles and miles of nameless alleys as part of a program to reclaim alleys as vital urban spaces, but also as a chance to recognize nearly a century of people and activities that are literally left off the grid. For the most part, our streets were named and numbered a century or more ago. With rare exceptions, like "Edgar Martinez Way," our vital 20th century local heritage is almost completely absent from the map.

The ferry naming offers a smaller but similar opportunity. Survey the list of current ferry fleet names and you'll see they are primarily Native American or Chinook jargon words, like Hyak or Tillikum, or named after tribes that also happen to have major cities or counties named after them, such as Spokane, Yakima, Walla Walla, and Kittitas. Some think this is a form of political gratitude for votes in Olympia: You vote to fund our ferries; we'll name them for your part of the state.

I am generally supportive of the recognition of Native American heritage. Yet Indian names have become a default tradition to the exclusion of other aspects of our heritage. One aging ferry is named "Evergreen State," and there is the old "Rhododendron" named for the state flower. The commission has said that it will consider other "state adopted symbol" names. We could have boats named the Goldfinch, Marmot, Steelhead or Apple, I suppose. (You can see a list of possibilities here.) Don't get too excited: the song "Louie Louie" never was officially adopted as a state symbol.

The commission lists the name criteria as follows:

1) "Names should carry statewide significance and represent our state’s image and culture." The "statewide" word suggests keeping everyone happy. For example, when the state chose the profile of Mt. Rainier for the new car license plates in 1989, it was selected because it is the only landmark visible on both sides of the mountains.

2) "Specifically, names should represent such things as state-adopted symbols, tribal names, names of bodies of water, geographic locations, cities, counties, or relate to nautical heritage." Interestingly, some of the current vessel names like Chelan (a lake, also means "deep water) and Walla Walla (means "place of many waters") relate to water, but obvious "nautical heritage" seems to be missing from most boat names.

3) "Consideration will be given to the consistency with existing WSF fleet names." This suggests the commission will lean heavily toward Native American-connected names. The most recent ferries (2010-11) were named Chetzemoka, Salish and Kennewick. Even their "class" of ferry is in Quileute — Kwa-di Tabil, which means "little boat."

4) "Names should have broad familiarity, are non'ꀐoffensive, and meet ethical standards." Translation: suggestions will be vetted by the PC police.

5) "Names with commercial overtones or names honoring or commemorating individuals should be avoided, but will be considered upon careful review." The state is not yet so broke that it is selling naming rights for its boats, so you won't be riding the Verizon or Amazon into the San Juans anytime soon.

Still, the disfavor for boats recognizing individuals is puzzling. This would be an excellent way of recognizing the ferry system's own contributions to history and our broader culture. So I submit one idea for consideration "upon careful review." 

Betty MacDonald (1908-1958) was a writer with a profound influence on the perceptions of the Pacific Northwest, particularly Washington. Her memoir The Egg and I was on bestseller lists for years and even spawned a film series (Ma and Pa Kettle). She was also the author of the still-popular Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children's book series. She wrote a series of memoirs that were deeply funny and insightful about life in our region in the mid-1900s.

She was a modern woman wrestling with life on the Northwest frontier during the Depression years. Many people think she is long overdue for a revival. She embodies the fantasy life of the region: come to the Northwest, live on an island, become a writer. MacDonald lived in a number of places, including Seattle and near Chimacum, where The Egg and I was set. But most of her literary output was generated during the years she lived on Vashon Island.

Betty MacDonald meets at least four of the five criteria listed above for a ferry name (1, 2, 4, 5). She helps to expand the notion of "heritage" to perhaps the biggest (and most unrecognized) segment of the ferry system: the passenger. Yes, the boats and crews make the vessels run, the landscape the boats cruise through was once the Salish liquid highway Native Americans relied on. But by the millions, ferry users are what the system is about: the commuters who head to-and-fro to work each day, the tourists who jam the rails for scenic photographs that define the Northwest experience, the traffic that makes the ferry system the most important "highway" system of its kind in the country.

Betty MacDonald was one of those commuters — a divorced mom writing and commuting to a job in Seattle. The Historylink biography of her includes a short excerpt from her 1955 Vashon Island memoir Onions in the Stew:

"It was always seven o'clock and my ferry left at seven-twenty and I should have left at six-fifty and now I would have to run the last quarter of a mile. I wore loafers and woolen socks over my silk stockings, carried my office shoes along with my lunch, purse, current book and grocery list in a large green felt bag.

The county trail connecting our beach with the rest of the world begins at a cluster of mailboxes down by the dock, meanders along the steep southwest face of the island about fifty feet above the shore, and ends at our house ... if it was dark when I left the house (and it usually was) I ... ran the rest of the way to the ferry ... This boisterous early morning activity also started my blood circulating, churning, really, and by the time I got to the office I was not only bileless, I was boiling hot."

Anyone who has been a ferry commuter can relate; anyone who has lived here and tried to balance life, career, family, city and country can relate. The connective tissue of the ferry system is what makes our attempts to "have it all" possible on Puget Sound. Betty MacDonald embodies a Northwest ideal and reality — she was quick to find the absurd, the foibles, as well as capture the dream so many have sought. 

Let's name a new ferry after a deserving individual who captured the dream in literature, who spread it to the world, and who was what a ferry regular represents so many of us.



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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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