Will Anacortes-Sidney ferry return with belated centennial celebration?

May 4, 2022, 10:20 AM | Updated: 12:21 pm

The route from Anacortes to Sidney goes through the San Juan Islands, where docks were also ultimately built to allow easy access to the islands for passenger vehicles. (NOAA Archives) The other vessel on the Anacortes-Sidney route was The Gleaner, also a steamship converted to carry automobiles. (Anacortes Museum) The Harvester King was one of two vessels converted into car ferries for the initial phase of service between Anacortes and Sidney; it had been built a few years earlier to harvest kelp. (Anacortes Museum) Car ferry service between Anacortes, WA and Sidney, BC was inaugurated with great fanfare in both the US and Canada on April 26, 1922; regular service began on April 30, 1922. (Anacortes Museum)

The Anacortes to Sidney ferry – which connects Washington and Vancouver Island – has been shut down for more than two years because of the pandemic. And that’s a shame, because the iconic route from Skagit County through the San Juan Islands to the Saanich Peninsula just quietly – or maybe that should be “silently” – marked its 100th anniversary.

The last run of the Anacortes to Sidney ferry was way back on January 4, 2020, at the end of the fall sailing season. It was supposed to return for the spring on March 29, 2020, but you can guess what happened instead when the border was closed due to COVID-19. Anacortes-Sidney has not resumed since, and there’s currently no date set for it to return.

“Sidney is likely months away, unfortunately,” wrote Washington State Ferries (WSF) spokesperson Ian Sterling in an email earlier this week.

In the last “normal” year of 2019, WSF says they carried more than 45,000 cars and more than 135,000 people on the Anacortes-Sidney route.

With the continuing suspension of service, it didn’t make much sense to do anything last Tuesday, April 26, or last Saturday, April 30. Tuesday was the centennial of the inaugural run, and Saturday was the centennial of the first day of regular car ferry service on the iconic international route.

Will McCracken works for the Anacortes Museum. He’s been researching the origins of the ferry and the early years of its operation, and wrote what’s likely to be the first of several history pieces for the museum’s website.

McCracken told KIRO Newsradio that prior to April 1922, there were passenger and freight vessels connecting mainland Washington to Vancouver Island (and to the San Juans) from places like Bellingham and Port Angeles, but those boats were more along the lines of the old Mosquito Fleet. That is, they weren’t the kinds of car ferries which most people are familiar with nowadays.

Those earlier boats? Well, Will McCracken says, they left a bit to be desired.

“They were really sort of like earlier prototypes of a proper automobile ferry,” McCracken said. “They were small and cost a lot of money, and you even had to take apart your car, essentially, to ride. You would have to take the wheels off, or you would have to deflate [the tires] or take the car apart piece by piece, which of course, is a huge hassle.”

But the world was changing a century ago, and by 1922, the private automobile was becoming more affordable, and was catching on for work and recreation for more and more middle-class people. This fueled a rise in auto-based tourism, which meant people wanted an easy way to get their cars across bodies of water – so ferries made sense.

The new service from Anacortes was different because it featured vessels which had been converted into actual car ferries – including a fairly new flat-bottomed boat called “The Harvester King” which had been built to harvest kelp and an older boat called “The Gleaner.” Open decks and ramps meant easy on and off for car and driver.

Best of all? No disassembly required.

With support from chambers of commerce in both cities – where civic leaders recognized the opportunity in serving as the main connection between the mainland United States and Vancouver Island – a couple of maritime entrepreneurs provided the boats, and each community contributed respective ferry docks. The original dock in Anacortes was right downtown on “Q” Street. McCracken says that when the inaugural run left on April 26, 1922, with both boats, they carried a total of 23 cars and 175 passengers through the San Juan Islands and over to Sidney, BC.

That first sailing included a sizable civic celebration, with a big sendoff in Anacortes and a big welcome in Sidney, and then a party at the Empire Hotel in Victoria. McCracken wrote in his piece that Canadians sang “America The Beautiful” and Americans sang “God Save The King.”

Looking back, that big celebration makes sense – this was more than just a new transportation option; it transformed old Anacortes. Will McCracken says you can even trace the Anacortes of today, with its robust tourism focus, all the way back to that pivotal moment a hundred years ago.

“This is kind of the birthplace of the Anacortes tourism industry as a whole,” McCracken said. “I mean, Anacortes today is so associated as a tourist area with those ferries [which ultimately led to] later gaining the title of the ‘Gateway to the San Juans.’”

“I really think that this event is so, so important in understanding that aspect of Anacortes,” McCracken said.

Over the decades, the original ferry dock in Anacortes was moved a few times – to “I” Street in 1946, and then to just east of Shannon Point on Ship Harbor – its current location, west of downtown – when a big new facility was built in 1960. The ferries were run by a succession of private operators until 1951, when the Washington State Ferry System was created, and the state purchased the vessels and other assets of the Black Ball Line. Black Ball still exists and operates the Coho, which runs between Port Angeles and Victoria, BC.

Over on the other end of the run, Al Smith of the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce – where Sidney is located – says you don’t have to drive the 17 miles to Victoria to begin enjoying the charm of Vancouver Island – the ferry from Anacortes still unloads right in the middle of town, as it has since 1922.

“The ferry is a block and a half from the main downtown street on the waterfront, which is some of the best spots in Sidney if you just want to come and stroll around and have lunch and see the water and get on a whale-watching ride or anything like that,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of activity right around where your ferry comes in.”

Those activities represent a significant industry on Vancouver Island – in downtown Sidney, and especially in Victoria. The provincial capital of British Columbia is a place with a long and fascinating history whose existence is directly tied to what’s now the Evergreen State.

Destination Greater Victoria is an organization which promotes hotels, restaurants, and attractions. Their 2019 visitor survey – from the most recent “normal” pre-pandemic year – estimates that roughly 4% of visitors to Greater Victoria arrive via Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. Other marine travelers arrive via Port Angeles and Seattle, and via BC Ferries at Swartz Bay, just north of Sidney.

Paul Nursey is the CEO of the group. As you might expect, Victoria was hit hard by the pandemic and the border closure, and the entire community welcomes the return of the ferry run. Nursey says that even in non-pandemic times, for an island with no bridge, any connection bringing any number of visitors from the mainland – even just 4% of the total – is vital for moving people and goods, and for generating tourism dollars.

However, Nursey says, the connection between Vancouver Island and the Evergreen State goes deeper than just a balance sheet.

“I would say in Greater Victoria, which is below the 49th parallel geographically, our cultural connection, from our perspective, to Washington State, runs very deep,” Nursey said. “Many of us watch Washington state news media, have affinities with Washington state sports teams [and] educational institutions. We care very deeply about the relationship, so it’s more than just economic, it’s cultural as well, too.”

Which is why Paul Nursey is interested in taking part in a belated centennial celebration once the Anacortes-Sidney run starts up again.

“We’d absolutely be interested,” Nursey said, and described how Destination Greater Victoria already did something like that when the Black Ball Ferry from Port Angeles and the Victoria Clipper from Seattle resumed operations in 2021.

“Last August and September when the Coho and the Clipper came back, we were sure to welcome them back into the Victoria Harbor with our fireboat and our little pickle boat ferries,” Nursey said. “We created a little friendly armada to guide them in just to demonstrate how important they are to us. We view our connections to everyone very importantly, very respectfully, and you know, we would be keen to celebrate the centennial and just the return of that Anacortes-Sidney ferry.”

Quick checks with the Washington State Ferry System and the Anacortes Museum by KIRO Newsradio late Tuesday confirmed that they, too, would be interested in some kind of centennial event when the Anacortes-Sidney run resumes.

We’ll keep you posted here regarding any belated centennial celebration and how those interested may be able to participate. Meanwhile, it might make sense to practice “God Save The Queen.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Will Anacortes-Sidney ferry return with belated centennial celebration?