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Fire means end of historic ferry

“Everything below deck is toast,” remarked a firefighter.

And so is a piece of Northwest maritime history.

An Aug. 28 blaze gutted the engine room of the tour boat MV Kirkland at its Marina Park dock in Kirkland, Wash. In all likelihood the fire spelled an end to the vessel’s long career, which dates to 1924.

The wooden-hulled boat was regarded as a treasure by its owners, Argosy Cruises, as well as Kirkland residents. Used primarily on Lake Washington, it’s listed on the Washington Heritage Register and National Register of Historic Places.

“It kind of feels like we lost a part of our family,” said Sally Spohn, an Argosy spokeswoman. “It was with us for so long. And the fire was so unexpected.”

The Tourist 2, a wooden-hulled ferry built in 1924 for Capt. Fritz Simon Elfving, could carry 20 cars on the Astoria-Megler run across the Columbia River. Restored as the MV Kirkland, it most recently carried visitors on Lake Washington for Argosy Cruises.

Perhaps little known to the thousands who enjoyed its sightseeing cruises are the Kirkland’s ties to Oregon. It was one of the last ferries on the Astoria-Megler (Wash.) run when the bridge near the Columbia River’s mouth was completed in 1966, and is probably the last survivor of that fleet.

The Kirkland originally went by the workaday name of Tourist No. 2. In reality, it was the third vessel that pioneer ferryman Capt. Fritz Simon Elfving ran between Astoria and Washington state.

Elfving was born Oct. 23, 1883, in Lanna, Sweden, and immigrated to the United States in 1907, according to his 1971 obituary in the Chinook Observer on the Long Beach Peninsula. Trained by his father as a carpenter and shipbuilder, he worked in Alaska before moving to Astoria.

In 1912, he built a tow boat and barge to use as a ferry across the Columbia to Point Ellice. In 1921, he built the 15-car Tourist No. 1; in 1924 came the 110-foot, 20-car Tourist No. 2. The 108-foot, 28-car Tourist No. 3 was vintage 1931.

Friends dubbed Elfving the “crazy Swede” for gambling his life’s savings on sufficient automobile traffic across the river to keep him out of the poorhouse.

There were hardly any roads over there. But there was sand, 27 miles of it, smooth and solid along the Long Beach Peninsula — perfect for speed demons to push pedals to the metal.

In 1911, for instance, the Chinook Observer said Robert Austin of Portland reportedly sped his Pierce-Arrow “down the stretch of damp, firm sand from Long Beach to Seaview at a 60-mile clip, the seaward tires barely clearing the curling waves … ”

Those were happy days for ferry operators. So happy, not to mention lucrative, that the Union Pacific Railroad in 1927 launched its own ferry, the 120-foot, 25-car North Beach, from Astoria to Megler. Competition was fierce. The UP ferry languished, in part because Elfving’s route to Point Ellice was more direct.
In 1931 UP sold the North Beach to Capt. Cal Stewart’s Columbia Transportation Co. Stewart also bought land next to Elfving’s at Point Ellice. One night he “drove piles around it so that Elfving could not land his ferry,” says a 2005 archaeological study of the area.

“Popular stories of the incident report that Elfving rammed his ferry through the piles at full speed, scattering the pilings and alarming his passengers,” the study says. Another version says onlookers aboard the ferry and ashore cheered his bravado.

In 1933 Elfving ended the “ferry wars” by buying up the mortgage on the North Beach. After a fierce storm that winter, he moved his dock to Megler, which was more out of the weather.

At the outset of World War II, the U.S. Army bought Tourist No. 2, painted it gray and used it to plant mines in the lower Columbia and to run between Fort Canby and Fort Stevens. Elfving bought it back after the war.

In 1946, Elfving sold his business to Merle R. Chessman and retired. Chessman shortly resold it to the Oregon Highway Department, which leased it to a private operator. From then on it lost money, and the department had to subsidize it until the bridge opened.

In 1967, Tourist No. 2 moved to Pierce County, Wash. It was renamed the Islander and “worked on Puget Sound for many years,” according to the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

Argosy bought it in 1996 and completely refurbished it, enclosing the auto deck and installing large viewing windows.

Spohn said its future “is in Argosy’s hands, but at this point nothing has been decided for sure. We’re not going to repair it.”

Sentiment in and around Lake Washington is that some way will be found to keep it from the wrecking yard.

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