Real Astorians Remember the Ferry Ride to Washington!
Update: Owner of the Tourist No. 2, based in Puget Sound for over 40 years, plans to return it to Astoria!
Walk to the foot of 12th Street and you will see a plaque and a few old pilings–all that is left of a great era in Astoria’s history—the ferryboat days. Astoria had been well-served by ferries since the mid-1800s, but until 1920 there had not been enough demand for a car ferry service to inspire anyone to try his hand.
After his first summer with a tug and barge, Captain Elfving had the Wilson Shipbuilding Company build him a 64-foot 15-car ferry called The Tourist. The first scheduled car-ferry service began operation between 14th Street in Astoria (today the location of the pilots’ dock) and a pier at the McGowan beach. Perhaps an earlier generation of Astorians thought it was “The Ferry to Nowhere,” but Elfving soon proved them wrong. He called his business the Astoria-North Beach Ferry.
The Astoria fire failed to dampen Elfving’s spirits, and motorists didn’t object to driving over the trestle roadway around Chinook Point. (The tunnel was for trains only.) In 1924 he added the Tourist No.2. This was a 98-foot long double ender that carried 22 cars and was powered by a 200 HP diesel engine turning a single propeller. With increasing revenue, he was able to secure some property at Point Ellice where he built a deepwater dock. The new structure was an improvement, but it was in a very exposed location out on the point. Elfving had a more immediate concern when the Union Pacific Railroad decided they had to move with the times and in 1927 launched their own car ferry with a turntable at one end, which they craftily named the “North Beach.”
They had the best dock at Megler, but it was served only by the rail line to Ilwaco. Next they began building a road beside the narrow-gauge tracks that would put the independent Elfving out of business. Once they reached Point Ellice, however, they found they had to cross land that belonged to J.W.McGowan–after whose family McGowan was named. He had stock in the Swede’s company, and succeeded in delaying the project across his property.
The public supported Elfving, so next the railroad tried a price war. When that failed they sold the North Beach to a group of investors who went to more physical tactics. Thus began Astoria’s “Ferry War.” The tale of this brief but glorious confrontation has been written about so many times in the past 70 years that I am tempted to wonder how much is fact and how much folklore! Astoria during the Great Depression certainly seems like an unlikely place for such antics.
Anyway, the story goes like this: the UP had been secretly purchasing the waterfront land around Elfving’s dock. One night in 1932 when the Tourist had completed its final run for the day, the captain was surprised to find that someone had driven pilings in front of his berth at the 14th Street dock. Fortunately, Elfving was now piloting the new Tourist No. 3, solidly built of Port Orford cedar by Astoria Marine Construction (AMCO). It was 110′ long, 36′ wide, with a capacity of 24 cars and 280 passengers. The pilings were no match for the Tourist’s legendary 320 HP Atlas-Imperial diesel engine, but that night the pile bucks returned and drove “two 12-pile dolphins right up against the boat.” Anyway, the story goes that Captain Elfving returned in the morning, warmed up the Atlas, and smashed his way out into the river.
You might well ask what were the forces of law and order doing while the piledriver pounded away all night within earshot of the whole town? One author says the culprits were hauled off in the morning by the sheriff for “pile-driving without a permit on a Sunday.” But happily, this was one occasion where the big corporation failed to drive the small owner-operator out of business. They were suspected of other dirty tricks to stop the Tourists from running, but seem rather incompetent villains.
Elfving was a popular figure on the waterfront and he always came out on top. After seven years, the Columbia River Transportation Company gave up the struggle and sold their assets to him. Since the Point Ellice dock had been badly damaged in a winter storm, the timing was right. After 13 years, he had finally won the use of Megler cove, which was well sheltered from westerly winds behind the point. A couple of historical points are worth mentioning here: in 1930, the automobile age had finally overwhelmed the Clamshell Railroad. That freed the Chinook Point tunnel for car use. Elfving’s business became the “Astoria-Megler ferry”–although by then Megler no longer existed as a community. Curiously, the name Megler would later be passed on to the bridge.
In 1941, right after Pearl Harbor, the Army commandeered the ferry for the war effort, giving Elfving $35,000 in compensation. The superstructure was shortened to suit it for laying mines in the lower river, and because “Tourist” sounded inappropriate for a military vessel it was given the more aggressive (?) name “Octopus.” As the threat from Japan eased, it was also used as a ferry between Fort Canby and Fort Stevens. At war’s end, Elfving was able to buy his old back. Since it had new engines by then, it cost him $36,000 !
Once he had his business up and running again, Elfving wanted to retire after 25 years on the river, but apparently he wanted more than the Oregon State Highway Department wanted to pay. In 1946 the state condemned the ferry service for $163,000. A new bigger steel ferry was immediately ordered from the Albina Engine and Machine Works. The M.R. Chessman, named for an Astoria newspaper publisher, was 180-feet long, could carry 44 cars, and was powered by an 800 HP Union engine. The Megler landing was improved to handle the new boat and the heavier trucks and loads of the post-war years. With regular maintenance from AMCO, the wooden ferries became reserve boats. The Tourist 2 continued to work in the summer until it was sold to Pierce County, Washington in 1962. It was replaced by the Kitsap, which came down from Puget Sound.
I have spoken with several longtime residents of Astoria about the ferries and they all seem to have fond childhood memories of riding across and back just for fun! One recalled that everyone could have a free drink when the boat ran aground, which it was likely to do on very low tides. So he used to check the tide tables to improve his odds of scoring a free sodai! They all agreed that in the 1950s and early 60s, Astorians didn’t have many reasons to visit the Washington shore, which led to the “Bridge to Nowhere” slogan in response to the bridge project.
After the bridge was built, the Kitsap was sold for conversion to a cannery in Alaska, but was lost while under tow up the coast. The Chessman followed a more surprising route. It was purchased by the Federal Agency for International Development to be sent to Vietnam under the name Lieu Lo III. It was overhauled and prepared for the voyage by Astoria Marine Construction. A tug to tow it, the 126-foot tug Captain, was also purchased and delivered to the military. The last report of the Chessman is that it was stationed at Cat Lai near Saigon as a South Vietnamese Navy repair ship. If it survived the subsequent years of fighting, it may still be plying the Mekong Delta!
Finally, boaters may well wonder how the ferry ever managed to cross the sandbars that are visible every day at low tide. Surprisingly, a chart from the early 60s shows very little drying sand east of the bridge. In fact, except for a short stretch north of the ship channel with only a fathom at low water that caused occasional ferry groundings, the rest of the route shows deeper water. The ferries would also have created a temporary shallow channel with their propeller wash. After 1966, the bridge piers began to trap sand, but it was the explosion of Mount St Helens that poured vast quantities of pumice into the river and formed the sandbars we see today. Even the resourceful Captain Elfving would have been unable to overcome that obstacle.