Hickory Dickory Dock

Lummi Island ferry dock circa 1980 (left) and present day (right)

Originally published in The Tome, September 2016, written by editor Paul Davis.

If you are new to the Island—say in the past 35 years, you will find this story fascinating. It is a fairly long story covering the years 1974 through 1981, but I will attempt to reduce it to the essential elements.

It is about our new ferry dock which you think is just an ordinary ferry dock. But it has an incredible history. The first mention of the new dock was this paragraph in the Lummi Island Newsletter by our first editor Lehr Miller (September 1974):

New Ferry Dock
Apparently the new proposed dock facilities have hit quite a few ridiculous snags what with the cost estimate overruns, environmental requirement bickerings, Indian cantankerousness, etc. So many unnecessary agencies are jealously involved in this proposal that any sensible solution seems to be a long way off.

Finally late in 1977 a decision had been made, a location was finalized, and construction began. This was the beginning of an almost endless series of fiascoes inspiring a whole monthly series in the Tome by me entitled "Hickory Dickory Dock."

It was beautiful

The new dock was to be a radical, but very elegant, beautiful new concept by the contractor C.M. Hill Corp. It was beautiful! 

It did not use the standard overhead structure with huge counterweights to balance the ramp weight. Instead there were two skinny 30 foot tall columns—one on each side with big screws inside the columns to raise and lower the 130 ton ramp—with no counterweights. The screws were a very fancy new concept—not your standard sliding friction screw, these screws had ball bearings rolling between the screw and the big nut to reduce friction. 

During the next several years, various problems with the new dock erupted requiring ferry service to transfer back and forth between the new dock and the old dock in front of the Beach Store. 

To shorten the story I will just list several of the major problems. 

Screwed nuts

There is of course a large hinge where the ramp attaches to the permanent stanchion. When they set the big bolts for the hinge in the concrete stanchion, they forgot to allow for the thickness of the flanges. So the nuts screwed on only one turn. There are two solutions to this problem:

(1) Demolish and rebuild the concrete stanchion at great cost and the loss of time using longer bolts, or

(2) Fill the nuts with weld metal which would be easily done in a day. 

Guess which solution they used—yes those welded-on nuts are still there.

Twist and jam

The giant screws which raised and lowered the ramp were operated by electric motors, but these motors proved to be inadequate. So the design was changed to use hydraulic motors—one on each screw. The motors were, of course identical and operated at very nearly the same speed—but not exactly the same speed.

So, of course, as you and I would have predicted, the motors turned at slightly different speeds, causing the ramp to twist and jam. The solution was to run an oil line between the two sides of the ramp. As the ramp twisted, the oil would run to the lower side and operate switches to cause the hydraulic motors to run or stop in a way to untwist the ramp.

Here's a solution destined to cause endless future problems. 

Cartoon in the Sunday Herald July 11, 1976

Circular logic

When the ramp is adjusted to the proper level, there are large three-inch diameter pins which insert into slots on big hangers to hold the ramp at that level. The hangers were straight heavy-duty bars hanging down. But of course as the ramp goes up and down the outer end travels on a circular arc. The circular arc of course did not match the straight hangers, so the pins did not match the slots they were supposed to go into. So send the hangers back to the shop to be rebuilt in a circular arc.

Which dock when?

The big screws were subject to greatly excessive corrosion or abrasion, causing them to wear out at a rapid pace. To reduce wear on the screws, the new dock was temporarily used for only two mornings per week for heavy loads and the old dock was used for lighter loads the rest of the week.

A very safe failure

Here's the big one: the whole system was designed to be FAIL SAFE. The big pins that were to hold the ramp securely in position required hydraulic pressure to withdraw the pins. Therefore if hydraulic pressure is lost the pins will be secured into the slots preventing the ramp to move—FAIL SAFE!

At the bottom of each of the big screws is a hydraulically operated brake. If hydraulic pressure is lost, the brakes clamp tight preventing the hydraulic motor and screw from turning—FAIL SAFE! You are way ahead of me here—you know something bad is going to happen to this double FAIL SAFE system.

When the crew shut the dock down for the night, they set the pins into the slots; the hydraulic motors were turned off; the brakes were set, clamping the screws tight; and the hydraulic pump operating the whole system was turned off. FAIL SAFE—nothing can possibly can go wrong!

"That shouldn't happen very often"

The next morning the C.M. Hill engineers were there looking at the ramp wondering how in the @*%# could it possibly be down in the water. I was there listening to the conversation and the head engineer said—quote, "That shouldn't happen very often."

Here's what happened: when the pins were set into the slots of the hangers, they were not dropped down to the bottom of the slots, but rather left in the center of the slots. So, in effect, the ramp was being held up by oil pressure in the oil line—the weight of the ramp acting like a hydraulic pump to maintain pressure in the oil line.

When the real hydraulic pump was turned off, pressure was left in the line by the weight of the ramp. As oil leaked through the closed valves, the oil pressure withdrew the pins so slowly you couldn't have seen them move. Simultaneously, that same oil pressure slowly released the hydraulic brakes on the screws. Also simultaneously, leaking oil allowed the hydraulic motors to turn, and the ramp continued to drop until the big nuts on the screws were at the bottom of the screws and the ramp was in the water.

Paul Davis' dock update in the TOME, May 1981 .

There's the "new new dock" that we have to this day, the screwed up "old new dock", and the just "old dock" which remained until 1985.

The old dock at Beach Store Cafe is finally demolished in 1985. —Bellingham Herald

Sued and unscrewed

Finally, in October 1981, after three years of construction, reconstruction, hair pulling, cussing, and problem solving, a decision was made to sue the construction company, abandon the new dock fancy design, tear it out and replace it with a standard, counterweight dock ramp system that you see today. 

We didn't have these problems in the 1930s. Back then, the end of the dock ramp rested on sections of huge cedar logs floating in the water. As the tide went up and down the floating ramp automatically adjusted to the ferry dock level. No pulleys, no cables, no counterweights, no motors. It worked fine for the passenger vehicles of the day. Not so good for heavy trucks, which the Chief Kwina couldn't take anyway.

Getting the Tome

Subscription fee is $6 for Lummi Island addresses, $15 for off-Island, and $6 for email delivery. Canadian addresses are $21 USD.


P.O. Box 163, Lummi Island, WA 98262

Or contact Paul Davis
for information about subscriptions or advertising:
(360) 758-2414