Last updated on: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:41 PM (Pacific)
Alaska News Nightly Radio November 10th 2009

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Historic Kalakala

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MV Kalakala

Steel Electric Class
Running locally under her own power in 1968, the Kalakala operated as a floating processing vessel. The company she worked for became financially unstable, and the vessel was put up for sale again. In 1969 she was purchased by the WR Grace Company. She worked in this capacity until 1971 when she was said to have "thrown" a piston.

A rare photo of the KALAKALA operating under her own power in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 1969

W.R. Grace, deciding not to repair the engine, towed the Kalakala to Gibson Cove outside of Kodiak. Using fill blasted from a nearby hill, the ferry was shoved upright onto the beach. The fill was poured in around her, and the ferry became planted, her status abruptly changed from "vessel" to "building."

No longer self-powered, the vessel had to be hooked in to the local power supply. Holes were cut into her superstructure to permit cannery equipment to be installed. Her forward art deco staircase was removed. Many brass fittings and trim were disposed of. The famed horseshoe counter was pulled out. While in use, the harsh Alaska elements had a harder time getting a foothold on the vessel. However, the company that owned the ferry went bankrupt.

The Kalakala was abandoned. Windows became broken, rust was able to take hold, and her overall condition began to rapidly decline. The once beautiful Kalakala lay abandoned and forgotten in Gibson Cove.

In 1984 Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis was working in Alaska. Arriving at Gibson Cove one day aboard a fishing boat, he saw a strangely out-of-place silvery shape on the beach, rising behind some rusty shacks. He had discovered the rusting, but still silvery Kalakala grounded on the beach. Wondering what it was, he asked the caretaker of the vessel, Gil Reel if he could have a tour. Bevis's artistic eye saw the echoes of her art deco past: the curve of the windows, the balustrades of the staircase, the rounded promenade deck, the elegant ladies lounge, and the flying bridge, where the faded, ghostly letters...
K A L A K A L A could still be read. By the time his tour was over, the Kalakala had cast her spell on Bevis; he was smitten.

Two things became crystal clear to him almost at once: it was very likely the Kalakala would be cut up for scrap if much more time elapsed, and the Art Deco treasure must be saved. Bevis went to work at once. He started efforts to prevent further deterioration of the vessel. Realizing that saving the Kalakala was going to be a monumental task; he formed the Kalakala Foundation in 1992.

Work to move the ferry out of the Cove began in earnest in 1995. In all, over seven hundred tons of cannery equipment was removed. The 1997 work plan included the final cleanup of the boat, including debris removal and electrical work. In late 1997, strategic excavating around the hull was undertaken to make as accurate an assessment of her condition as possible. Cleanup was an enormous job. Tons of concrete had to be removed from the car deck, and hundreds of gallons of oil, sludge, and seawater were pumped from the bilge.

As the excavation continued, tons of sand and boulders were moved away from her sides, the cove was dredged, and welding was done to secure the hull and its watertight bulkheads in preparation for the tow back to Puget Sound.

On June 24th, - amazingly, Alexander Peabody's birthday, after touch and go final hour negotiations with the city and the Coast Guard, the removal of the Kalakala from Gibson Cove was successfully accomplished. At 3 o'clock in the morning, pushed by bulldozers and pulled by tugs, the Kalakala was wrested from the beach. The crew and Kodiak's residents cheered the event as she glided across Gibson Cove.

The KALAKALA floats free again! June 24, 1998 - Seattle Times Photo

Floating regally out of the cove, she moved gracefully a few miles away to Women's Bay. Work then began to ready the vessel for the long trip home to Seattle.

She was towed out and moored about six miles away at Women's Bay, where she stayed until October. The dock and the boat both suffered when the winds in the bay kicked up. Fearing that the Kalakala might be forced to spend another winter in Alaska, plans to use a submersible barge to ensure her safe return were abandoned due to lack of funds, and the decision was made to risk the tow.

Fred Dahl, the generous owner of Dahl Tug and Barge, contracted to tow the Kalakala for 50% of the actual value of the job. This donation and the August 31st anonymous donation of $100,000, along with thousands of dollars in additional smaller donations, made the tow home possible.

The tugboat Neptune towed the Kalakala, as they set a course through the Barren Straits along the southern coast of Alaska; a 24 hour journey through potentially dangerous waters. The crew had sealed any openings where the boat might have taken on water during the tow, got equipment on board, and made final arrangements with salvors to begin the journey home.

The Ruby XVI (the Foundation's tug) was not able to leave with the Kalakala, and the Coast Guard required that a support vessel accompany the Kalakala for the safety of the crew. The tug Kodiak King, which had pulled the Kalakala off the beach, again came to her aid and headed out into the Gulf with her and the Neptune.

The tow from Kodiak to Seward was a great success. The Kalakala performed well depite the crews having encountered some heavy seas during the crossing. The arrival in Resurrection Bay was greeted with enthusiasm by the people of Seward.

Pinned down in Seward by severe weather. Phil Munger Photo - Kalakala Foundation

For the several days prior to the departure from Seward, the crew was pinned down by severe weather, but was busy preparing the Kalakala to begin the next leg of the journey home to Puget Sound. The surveyor and the Coast Guard were both pleased with the way the Kalakala held up to the "sea trial" she received the previous week, but in order to assure continued success, further repairs and reinforcements were completed by the crew.

The Neptune and Kalakala had planned to set a direct course for Ketchikan; straight across the Gulf of Alaska, but the weather refused to cooperate. The previous day's forecast had called for calmer winds and seas by morning, but the predicted clearing never materialized, and the crews risked being held down again by the poor weather conditions. Odd Johnson, Captian of the Neptune, and the crew of the Kalakala, determined to continue the trip, set course for Prince William Sound, racing the against gale force winds that had been predicted for later that week.

A sign of a new beginning, a gorgeous rainbow framed the Neptune and the Kalakala as they slipped out of Resurrection Bay. They were prepared for the worst, and set a course along Alaska's southern coast. From Seward, they crossed Prince William Sound, then hugged the coastline to Icy Bay, Yakutat, and on to Southeast Alaska. The Kalakala would have to be be unmanned during this leg of the journey, as no escort could be arranged.

As they entered the inside waters at Cape Spencer, having reached Alaska's "Marine Highway", they had put the worst and riskiest part of the journey behind them. It was a great day on October 31st, as the Kalakala approached Ketchikan, Alaska. With the US Coast Guard's cooperation, the crews departed Kecthikan on the first of November. Neptune's skipper Capt. Odd Johnsen took the Kalakala down through the Inside Passage in the most protected of waters. They continued along the east coast of Vancouver Island past Comox and the Gulf islands, and finally to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound.

After entering US waters, they rounded the east side of Orcas Island into Rosario Strait, along the western shore of Whidbey Island to Port Townsend. In order to time their arrival in Puget Sound, they slowed south of Port Townsend, and overnight passed Marrowstone Island and on to Foul Weather Bluffs.

As ths sun rose on a beautiful morning, the Kalakala rounded Point No Point and entered Puget Sound for the first time in 30 years. As she ran along the eastern shore, with the sunlight glinting off her superstructure in the distance, the deterioration of those years seemed to disappear, and she felt like new again.

As though appearing out of nowhere, more vessels crowded around her minute by minute as she made her way south. The Neptune made good time from there to Elliot bay, arriving at about 9:15. She 'took a bow' a couple hundred yards off shore, surrounded by her admirers, before pulling in to Pier 66 right on schedule.

The KALAKALA enters Elliot Bay to the salute of ferries, yachts and fireboats.
Brandon Moser Photograph

The ceremony was a great success. As the tugs maneuvered the Kalakala into position, a series of exuberant cheers rose up, as the Portage Bay Swing Band got everyone "In The Mood".

The Port Commissioner and Mayor spoke of the possibility of the Kalakala finding a permanent home on Seattle's waterfront, Peter, who was received by the crowd with much enthusiasm, encouraged and challenged everyone to join in as this project moves into its next phase; the renovation of an historical treasure to its former glory.

KALAKALA arrives home, Novemeber 6, 1998 - Photo courtesy Peter Carey

Heading into Pier 66, November 6, 1998 - Photo by Gregory Joseph
Ferryboats blasted their whistles in salute, and the fireboat Alki had her water cannons spouting in tribute fit for the former Queen of Puget Sound. For several months she was tied up at Pier 66 on the Seattle waterfront, welcoming former commuters who relived old memories, and new fans that wanted to see the floating Art Deco icon of Seattle.