The Ferries of Lummi Island

Wagon teams on the ferry

Automobile and passenger ferries have operated from Gooseberry Point for over 90 years. These ferries have been an integral part of the community of Whatcom County, serving multiple generations of families who have kept homes and businesses on Lummi and Orcas Islands. As the island's economy shifted from fishing and logging, the use of the ferry grew to accommodate islanders' jobs, schools, and extended families. 

Early Days

Although the starting date of the formal ferry service has been lost, unofficial sources quote 1916 and 1919 dates. Originally the Ferry was operated by Lummi Navigation Company and later by the Lummi Island Ferry Company (LIFC). Both were divisions of the local Carlisle Packing Company who owned the largest salmon cannery, and was the largest property owner and employer on the island.

At different times, ferries varied from barges towed and pushed by powered launches to steam powered ferry boats. Docks were minimal. Lummi Navigation Company also operated both steam and petroleum powered passenger and freight boats from the Island’s west side docks on seasonally dependant schedules. 

The Central

LIFC sold the Hale Passage route to Whatcom County in 1924, including both docking sites and the wooden hull, wood-fired steam powered, six-car ferry Central. In time, the County replaced the docks, moving the island dock to slightly to the north of where it is now and in 1928 relocating the mainland dock about 100 feet to the east to its current location.

Chief Kwina

Chief Kwina in dock with school bus on ramp, Acorn in reserve

In 1929, the U.S. Coast Guard condemned the steam boiler of the Central which caused the County to put forth an emergency appropriation for $13999.13 for a new ferry. The result was the Atlas diesel-powered, wooden six car ferry Chief Kwina. Early operations of the ferry service by the County were considered less than satisfactory by those who lived on Lummi Island. Until the later part of the 1930s, the system operated with a very sketchy schedule and sometimes without any at all. The operating crews were sometimes “contracted out.” These operators ran the ferry with their compensation being whatever they could charge those who used it, which of course brought accusations of gouging. 

The islanders successfully petitioned the County to take back control and pay the operators. Often these crews were hired through political patronage by the Third District County Commissioner. In 1931 the Island Grange brought forth a lengthy complaint about the service, partially dealing with the absence of a schedule. A further complaint, elaborated in the letter to the County Commissioners, was the fact that the County was allowing Puget Sound Freight Lines, a subsidiary of Puget Sound Navigation (who were the progenitors of the Washington State Ferries) to use the newly built Chief Kwina to go to Orcas from Gooseberry Point up to 4 times per day instead of servicing the island, and sometimes substituting their own dilapidated ferry Pioneer for the Kwina while it went to Orcas. 

The Acorn and Others

The last reference of the Chief Kwina going to Orcas was a two-trip daily schedule during the winter of 1934. Puget Sound Navigation operated the 20-car ferry Mt. Vernon from Gooseberry to Orcas in the summers. In 1941, Whatcom County Commissioners, in co-operation with San Juan County, leased the 20-car ferry Fox Island for the summer of 1941 to operate between Gooseberry and Orcas. The run was successful, however it was considered non-essential in World War II, and the Fox Island was assigned to service the Bremerton Navy Yard. In the 1950’s the Chief Kwina was joined by the used diesel powered wooden six-car ferry Acorn, leased from Bob Granger, as a backup and overload vessel. 

Whatcom Chief

By the early 1960s, it became apparent that the aging wooden ferries were no longer adequate. In 1962 the County built the current ferry, the steel, double-ended, dual-diesel powered Whatcom Chief, for $444,000. The Acorn was sold by its owner, and the Chief Kwina was retained as a spare boat until 1970 when it was sold to local resident Frank Granger and extensively rebuilt. It is still in service as a contract commercial fishing tender.

The Whatcom Chief crossing Hale Passage to the mainland

For islanders used to a six-car ferry, the Whatcom Chief was huge with a projected capacity of 16 cars. It had been sized by the County to provide a two-trip a day connection to Orcas. This inter-island connection was never realized as San Juan County never provided a landing site.

Over the years, the load has averaged about 20 cars which is very close to the Washington State Ferry System target load of one car per 18 feet of vessel length multiplied by the number of car lanes. The Whatcom Chief can make a maximum three trips per hour across Hales Pass, with up to 97 people on each trip, for a maximum of 60 cars and 291 people per hour traveling in one direction. 

In historical perspective, the Whatcom Chief has been one of the most reliable car and passenger ferries ever built. Since 1970 it has operated without backup almost flawlessly, with less then 20 complete breakdowns; almost all repaired within a few hours, at worst a few days. Its early career was marred by consistent engine problems due to the originally installed large Waukesha diesel engines not being able to handle the stop and go cycling required by this route. Even so, the ferry never missed a trip; it simply operated on one engine, a procedure no longer allowed by the Coast Guard on double ended passenger vessels.

When the early engines were in full tune the acceleration of the vessel was incredible, with emergency stops in less than its length. Installation of later engines remedied the engine problems almost completely, although the ferry never again had the performance it had with the original engines. The Whatcom Chief is now on its fifth set of engines.

The old wooden island dock (now a county park directly across from the Beach Store Cafe) was replaced with a present terminal in the 1970s. The originally installed rotary screw ramp lifting apparatus failed repeatedly over several years and was replaced by a conventional cable/counterbalance setup.

Sourced from the Whatcom County Citizens’ Task Force for the Lummi Island Ferry (August 1, 2011), with history written by Jim Dickinson, lifelong 60 year Lummi Island resident.