West By Water: Maritime History of West Seattle

Water Highways:
Two Tales of early West Seattle

Given Seattle’s heavy reliance on cars and buses today, it is almost impossible to imagine that transportation for over 75 years to and from Seattle was once done exclusively by water. A vast fleet of small steamships, known collectively as the Mosquito Fleet, took passengers and freight to hundreds of docks in Puget Sound from the late 1800’s to the 1930’s. In 1888, the first ferry service transported passengers between West Seattle and downtown Seattle.

This is the tale of two ships. The first is the tragic story of the Dix, the greatest maritime disaster on Puget Sound waters. The second is the tale of the City of Seattle West Seattle’s first ferry, and now the centerpiece of a historic wooden boat district near San Francisco.

The Steamer Dix Tragedy off of Alki

November 18, 1906

The inland steamship Dix was built in 1904, during the height of popularity for steamship travel. Long and narrow, these small steamers quickly sliced through the waters of Puget Sound. The Dix had been loaded with 30 tons of ballast – extra weight in her hull – for stability when she was first put in service.

Normally operating on the summer “tourist” run from Seattle to popular Alki Point bathing beach, this November evening the Dix was doing a relief run to Port Blakely as a replacement for the mill town’s steamer, the S.S. Monticello.

On Their Way Home

About 77 boarded the Dix on its last run that Sunday evening from Seattle. Near the same time, the schooner Jeanie steamed away from Smith Cove at the base of Magnolia Bluff with 400 tons of iron ore for delivery to Tacoma.

With the Dix on course toward Duwamish Head, Captain Percy Lermond left the helm to First Mate Charles Dennison while he descended to the lower decks to collect passenger fares. Although not an approved practice for the Captain to leave the helm, most steamship lines expected the captain to also become purser and collect the passenger fares on the decks below, leaving the piloting to the first mate.

It was a clear and calm night and the Jeanie saw the little steamer Dix speeding west, into the path of the Jeanie. The Jeanie had the right-of-way so needed to maintain course, all the while noticing the Dix was neither altering speed nor direction, placing them on a collision course. Jeanie’s Captain Mason finally blew three whistle blasts, and rang to reverse the engine, almost stopping the Jeanie in the water, but to no avail… the ships collided.

It is believed the Dix’ First Mate Dennison did not see the Jeanie until he heard the whistle. Only at the last moment before impact did Dennison send down the message to the engine room to reverse the engine. He also made a fatal error, steering the Dix to starboard, or right, into the path of the Jeanie instead of port, or left, and away from the Jeanie. On contact, the 1,071-ton Jeanie leaned the 130-ton Dix over, and seawater poured into her open hold and cabins.

The Dix sank in less than five minutes and only 38 were able to reach the open upper deck and survive. First Officer Dennison went down with the ship in 100 fathoms (600 feet) of water. Neither the ship nor any of the passengers who perished with the Dix were ever recovered. In 2005, an unsuccessful attempt was made to secure funding for underwater exploration of the site of the wreck. Located at the Log House Museum today is a map of Puget Sound with the estimated site of the Dix wreck identified, along with photographs, a model and oil of the Dix and Jeanie.

The City of Seattle
Puget Sound’s First Ferry

The green and white vessels of the Washington State Ferry System are a familiar sight to every Seattle resident and visitor, but did you know the very first ferry with a consistent schedule on Puget Sound traveled between downtown and West Seattle?

The ferry City of Seattle was built in Portland, Oregon in 1888. The West Seattle Land and Improvement Company used it to help promote the sale of real estate in West Seattle since the area was considered so isolated and difficult to access. Christmas Eve of 1888 saw the first ferry trip across Elliott Bay, which took eight minutes and cost fifteen cents. The Ferry ran between downtown Seattle and the West Seattle Ferry Landing.

Later, the fee was lowered to five cents, to encourage visitors and sightseers. And visit they did as thousands enjoyed the ferry across the bay to experience the beach, or to purchase properties in newly platted West Seattle.

A Quick Commute

Riding the ferry was much more popular than traveling the ten mile overland trip around the bay. Beginning in 1907, the City of Seattle took passengers to Luna Park, the large amusement center and natatorium on Duwamish Head.

With competition from streetcars, riding the ferry grew less popular and the old ferry was sold to interests in San Francisco, California. The City of Seattle became another pioneer in ferry history – the first steamer for the Martinez/Benecia line in 1913, the same year Luna Park closed. The sidewheeler ferry’s last run before retiring was transporting shipyard workers to Mare Island from Vallejo during World War II. The City of Seattle was purchased by a preservation-minded family and moved to a marina in Sausalito, California in 1959. She never again sailed Puget Sound.

There are two stories to tell here. One ended tragically off the shores of Alki, and the other still exists to experience, create and carry new tales. Both are threads that tie the community history of West Seattle together, supporting us with stories and a reminder of continued change on our shores. Visit the Log House Museum for more fascinating tales and visions of West Seattle.

*The list of those who perished aboard the Dix varies between 39-45.