Old workhouse Rhododendron retired

Washington State Ferries’ Rhododendron, one of the original two ferries purchased by the State of Washington to modernize the fleet after acquiring it from Puget Sound Navigation Company (Black Ball Line), was retired January 23, 2012.

The Rhody’s story starts in Baltimore where she was built for $750,000 by the Maryland State Roads Commission to run from Sandy Point to Matapeake. She ran from 1947 until 1952 when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened. Washington State Ferries bought her for a bargain $301,000 and Puget Sound Tug & Barge Company’s Wando did the honors of bringing her through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast. Her original name was Governor Herbert R. O’Conor and with her frequent running mate Olympic, also purchased from Maryland, they were the first vessels without Indian names in a new, but short-lived plan by the State of Washington to select touristy names. After the Evergreen State came out in 1954, the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society put its foot down and gathered enough public support to return to the old Black Ball style of Native American names.

The Rhododendron found a home on Hood Canal, serving the Lofall-South Point run until the bridge opened in 1961. She was often assisted by the Crosline, originally built by Bing Crosby’s uncle, and the Kitsap.

The Rhododendron next tried her luck on the Edmonds-Kingston run as an extra boat on Sunday afternoons in the spring of 1962. She ran opposite the much speedier Klickitat and was hopelessly inadequate, being lapped frequently and suffering the indignity of having to pull out at Edmonds and let the Klickitat get ahead of her. Also, her rounded east-coast style bow and stern did not fit very well at Edmonds and Kingston. So, she was sent north to the Mukilteo-Clinton run where she soon took over as the #1 boat, serving with her old Chesapeake Bay running mate Olympic.

When Washington State Ferries took over the Port Townsend-Coupeville run, the Olympic was the main boat at first, but since the Rhododendron carried 10 more cars and her name fit with Port Townsend’s signature civic event, the Rhododendron Festival, she wound up running there often. Eventually both Maryland boats were assigned to the run. In 1984, her bow and stern were made pointier and she took over the San Juan Islands inter-island service for the summer. After more duty at Port Townsend as #2 with her old friend Klickitat from the Edmonds-Kingston debacle, she wound up in 1986 tied up at Eagle Harbor. Lorne Campbell, a Northwest ferry expert, wrote, “I don’t think Rhody will see service again.” The Washington State Ferries position reports said, “Out of service: Due to return, unknown.” Some days she disappeared from the position report entirely. And the date on “Due to return” was left blank. By January 1989 she was shown as “Out of commission.”

In 1990 things started looking up for the Rhody again. She went into Todd Shipyard in Seattle for a thorough refurbishment which was then continued at Eagle Harbor shipyard. On February 7, 1994, she took over the Point Defiance-Tahlequah run where she stayed until this year. Her only other assignment was as a temporary Southworth-Vashon Island extra vessel when her own regular route was closed for dock repairs.

The Rhododendron was replaced by the new ferry Chetzemoka at a cost of more than $70 million.

The Rhododendron has no watertight compartments and so is not certified to cross shipping lanes since modern requirements took effect and she lost her grandfather rights at the time of her refurbishment. This limited her use and made her much less safe than modern vessels. While her upperworks are in great shape because of the refurbishment, her hull is depreciated and it is not feasible to bring her up to modern standards. She will likely be offered for sale soon and may wind up in a recycling plant such as the one in Mexico where the steel electrics were towed recently.

The Rhododendron also did relief work on the Steilacoom-Ketron Island-Anderson Island run for Pierce County from 2008 to 2010. My nephew, Andy Kaiyala, loved her on that run because she was so slow that it gave him more time for reading! I rode her on that triangle route and was amazed at how ponderous she was getting turned around at Ketron Island to keep the cars for Anderson Island facing the right direction. I remember as a kid asking Captain Robert Vose about her speed. It was listed as 13 knots, but it certainly did not seem to measure up to expectations. Captain Vose said, “Maybe if she had just come out of the yard with her bottom scraped, had no cars aboard, add a good tide and a fair wind behind her, and the engine was tuned up and run at full speed, she might get close to 13 knots, but I doubt it.”

Many Vashon Islanders came down to ride her on her last day and Steve Parrick from Jefferson Beach and I were the last passengers to board her as she sailed from Tahlequah and to disembark at Point Defiance. She sailed away to Eagle Harbor and a final reception was held by the State on February 11, 2011. It is not expected that she will see any further service although she did pass her Coast Guard inspection and could be used in an emergency during the next year.

My cousin, Allen Carlaw, was the ace welder on the Todd swing shift and did the vessel’s beautiful brass work when she was refurbished, so I had a family pride in the old girl. Due to vehicles getting larger over the years her capacity was only 48 cars by the end versus 70 originally, so the new 64-car Chetzemoka is quite an improvement for the run.

Farewell and fond adieu to the venerable Rhododendron.


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