Last updated on: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:39 PM (Pacific)
Alaska News Nightly Radio November 10th 2009

CFlying Bird (Part 1)

Flying Bird (Part 2)

Historic Kalakala

Galloping Gertie

Alaska Film Archives

MV Kalakala

Steel Electric Class

The Puget Sound Navigation Company (PSN), or the Black Ball Line as it was dubbed due to its distinctive house flag, was already a well-established shipping company by the time of the Peralta's demise. The company had been in business on Puget Sound since 1903, operating the largest fleet of ferries across Puget Sound and into Canada. For the company flagship, PSN had converted the former Great Lakes passenger vessel, Chippewa, into a ferry. The handsome Chippewa had her bow and stern shorn off, and her lower decks hollowed out, making room for 90 cars, and also making her the largest auto ferry on the West Coast. The Chippewa had been an unqualified success. By the 1930's though, she was already over thirty years old. PSN's owner, Captain Alexander Peabody, had been mulling the idea of an all-new, radically designed new flagship - something that would give them plenty of publicity and become not only be the talk of Seattle, but of the world.

The Opportunity

Word of the Peralta's fiery demise had been well reported. The destruction of the Key System pier and the largest ferry on the West Coast at that time was major news. Key System Ferries did not intend to rebuild the Peralta, a fact that soon made its way to the offices of PSN. Alerted of the sale of the hull, Captain Peabody, sensing a deal, purchased the Peralta's still-sound hull and had it towed to Seattle. The most expensive part of his new flagship was already built. A new superstructure would be grafted onto the hull to become Peabody's vision of the future.

Kalakala under construction - William O. Thorniley Photograph
George Bayless Collection

Construction and Debut

Arriving at the Lake Washington Shipyard at Houghton (the current location of Carillon Point), the remaining burned-out superstructure was stripped away, and the main deck was trimmed from a 68-foot beam to 55'1". The deck plating was left as is, rippled from the heat of the fire that had destroyed the Peralta. To power the new ferry, PSN chose the largest Busch-Sulzer direct-drive diesel then built. The Busch-Sulzer engine installed on the Chippewa had proven to be a success, and at 3000 hp, the engine on the Kalakala would make her even faster than the former flagship.

Soon the streamlined design rose seamlessly from from the hull. Her graceful lines were smooth due to revolutionary electro-welding--making the Kalakala the first vessel to utilize the technology. The sweep of the bridge gave the ferry wings, though it proved to be more artistic than functional: from the wheelhouse it was impossible to see the prow of the ferry. For her interior, the Kalakala would be less ornately adorned than the Peralta but not Spartan by any means. At the height of the Great Depression, PSN was budget-conscious. There would be no mahogany paneling as in the Chippewa. Instead, emphasis was placed on the Kalakala's sweeping art deco lines. Moldings and trim around the wide, round windows, and the railings of her cast iron art deco staircases were finished in gleaming brass. Eggshell, tan and browns hues were selected for interior paints and upholstery.

Also, keeping the demise of the Peralta in mind, materials that were particularly fire resistant were chosen. A new sprinkler system unseen on any vessel was installed, and various "fire stations" were placed around the vessel. They consisted of a brass pipe fitted with a fire-hose attachment that could be pivoted in any direction where flames might be present. (These stations later proved to be popular with children, who took a liking to spinning the nozzles around.) In addition to the spacious main passenger cabin, there was also a ladies lounge, finished with full-length mirrors and plush seats.

KALAKALA's forward observation lounge - Asahel Curtis photograph
Washington State Historical Society

The galley, with its double horseshoe counter, functioned as a restaurant, with a full menu of made-to-order meals. To the aft of the galley, there was an open-air "Palm Room," which opened on to the promenade deck, outfitted with wicker furniture. Below decks there was a men's taproom, and showers were installed for workers leaving the shipyard so they could clean up on the way home.

Legend has it the ferry was to be named Willapa after the first Black Ball ship on Puget Sound. The name, however, was problematic: it has no known meaning. William O. Thorniley, Puget Sound Navigation's publicist, and a student of the Chinook jargon from which most of the PSN vessels got their names, convinced Captain Peabody to christen the new vessel "Kalakala." Pronounced Kah-lock-ah-lah, as postcards handily pointed out, the name means "flying bird," something that was more evocative of the sweeping design of the vessel. Peabody agreed, and the new vessel was christened Kalakala. Her maiden voyage was scheduled for July 2, 1935. However, the weather was unfavorable, and PSN delayed the voyage for a day, on the grounds that "finishing touches" needed to be made. The sun came out the next day, and the Kalakala's silvery hull dazzled the crowds. True to PSN's prediction, the ferry quickly gained recognition worldwide. Newsreels and photos appeared all over the world. One magazine went so far as to dub her "the most important vessel since Noah's ark." She became the second-most photographed object in the world, second only to the famed Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Contributed by: S. J. Pickens