26 January 2023 — Kalakala—"The Ship That Launched a Thousand Electric Shavers"

In 1962 Seattle, Washington, hosted the World’s Fair, also called Century 21. The national imagination was caught up with the Space Race and generally with the promise of the new, the sleek and the futuristic. The fair’s planners constructed a monorail to transport visitors in what they hoped would be a conveyance fit for the new age, and the Space Needle to bring them closer to the stars. The Space Needle, not surprisingly, was voted the most popular attraction at the fair. But what was the second-most popular? The pre-WWII ferry Kalakala. The ship’s smooth Art Deco-inspired lines and gleaming silver finish fit right in with the shiny space-age aesthetic of the Century 21 fair, despite her veteran status as a fixture of Puget Sound. 

Before the Kalakala, there was the Peralta. Built in 1926 by the Moore Shipbuilding Company in Oakland, California, along with her sister the Yerba Buena, Peralta carried cars and passengers for the Key System on San Francisco Bay. Even from the beginning, Peralta had a rough go of it; she got stuck on the ways at her launch, and just a month after entering service in 1927 she slammed into the docks in San Francisco, causing $35,000 (that’s around $550,000 in today’s dollars) in damage. One year later there was an incident when approaching the Oakland dock, the bow was unusually low, and then the ferry hit a wave trough. The resultant wave across the deck washed thirty people overboard, and five people died. Finally, on 6 May 1933, a fire at the pier spread to Peralta and destroyed the superstructure. Key System, certain that the planned Golden Gate Bridge would significantly cut in on its ferry business, concluded that investing in a rebuild would be a losing proposition and accepted a payout from the insurance company. 

ferry Kalakala

For the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, Kalakala sported green contrast paint and the "Century 21" branding. Even though she dated back to the 1930s, her iconic look fit right in with the futuristic theme of the fair. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

One insurance company’s write-off was Alexander Peabody’s opportunity. A descendant of one of the founders of the Black Ball Line of sailing packet ships, Peabody adopted the name Black Ball Line for his Puget Sound Navigation Company, which operated ferries on the Sound. He purchased the hull for $6,500 and enlisted the services of Lake Washington Shipyards to transform Peralta’s hull into something completely new. The new design employed the Streamline Moderne style, which had been introduced to the design of airplanes and automobiles to make them more aerodynamic. The Seattle Daily Times opined that “[t]he startling design of the new craft will give the impression that Elliott Bay has a visitor from Mars or some other planet inhabited by supermen. A flying bridge on either side of a wheelhouse will give the appearance of modified wings and a low tapering stern will accentuate the illusion.” Rather than rivets, arc welding—a fairly new technique at the time—was employed to fasten components. The main engine was produced by Busch-Sulzer (the engine-building company kept the idled Anheuser-Busch brewery employees employed during Prohibition). The ten-cylinder 3,000 brake horsepower engine was the only one of thirteen built to be installed on a ferry. 

The new ship made her debut at a formal event on 2 July 1935; citizens crowded the waterfront to get a peek, and 500 honored guests boarded for the ceremonial first run from Bremerton to Seattle. The shining new ferry was named Kalakala (kah-LOCK-ah-lah), a word meaning “flying bird” in the Chinook language. She could carry up to 2,000 passengers and 110 cars, and she could reach a speed of 18 knots. She went right into service in the Seattle-to-Bremerton circuit, with additional chartered excursions and moonlight dance cruises, where couples could dance to the swing tunes of the Flying Birds Orchestra. Kalakala was well-appointed, with three large observation rooms, a sun deck, and men’s and ladies’ lounges; she offered a shower for shipyard workers coming off shift, a dining area, and a bar.

Vintage footage of ferry Kalakala inaugural voyage

The Seattle Daily Times reported that Puget Sound seagulls were dismayed by Kalakala's smooth lines: "A gull, when following a ship always picks a spot behind some square object which creates a suction. In these back currents the gulls, with wings spread, coast indefinitely without flying. But this new-fangled Kalakala has no square objects, so the disgusted gulls have to flap their wings all the way if they want to pick up morsels thrown overboard."

For all of her sleekness and fancy interior, Kalakala had a few serious issues. Her wheelhouse was set quite far back and its windows were small portholes, seriously impairing visibility from the bridge. Her silver surface made her difficult—or even impossible—to see in the fog. She racked up an impressive record of bumps and scrapes with other vessels and the dock facilities, often causing serious damage. The ferry also vibrated like an unbalanced washing machine, possibly due to the alignment of the massive engine. It is said that the waitstaff in the famous double-horseshoe lunch counter never filled a coffee cup more than half-full, to avoid spills. The vibration also routinely broke the windows in the lower car deck, to the point that the ownership gave up and had the glass removed entirely.

two concentric round lunch counters with red surface and red stools

Kalakala's iconic double-horseshoe lunch counter served made-to-order meals. Colorized B/W photo courtesy of Steven J Pickens/evergreenfleetcom.

The ferry’s glamour years were to be short-lived; when laborers poured into the region to work in the shipyards in World War II, Black Ball ferries carried them to and from the factories by the overstuffed boatload. In response to vandalism, the taproom and shower were closed, never to be reopened. The state of Washington purchased the Black Ball fleet in 1951, and Kalakala continued her ferry service and runs to Victoria, BC, but she was shifted to seasonal service. Despite many structural improvements, she was an aging vessel and, thanks to the size of the new generation of automobiles, she could fit relatively few cars. In 1967 she was sold for use as a seafood processing vessel in Alaska, where she was eventually gutted and beached for use as a cannery. 

virtual tour of Kalakala created with Unreal Engine 5 software

This virtual tour shows Kalakala's interior in the postwar years.

Seattleites never quite forgot their one-of-a-kind ferry, however. A group of volunteers led by sculptor Peter Bevis managed to have her towed back to Seattle, and his group, the Kalakala Foundation, fought valiantly to raise the funds to restore the vessel, including some very clever posters with slogans like “The ship that launched a thousand electric shavers” and “She enchanted sailors, mesmerized fishermen, and baffled seagulls.” But the foundation was unsuccessful and she changed hands again. Without funds and needed repairs, she deteriorated and became more fragile, until she was eventually scrapped in 2015. A few pieces were saved and remain in private hands, in hopes of commemorating the ferry in some fashion. But even though she no longer steams across the Sound, Kalakala is fondly remembered for the audacity of her design, and her decades of service.

Extra Credit

The public Facebook groups Remembering The MV Kalakala and Seattle Vintage have a wonderful collection of photos from the ferry over the years. Look for pictures of the humongous engine, and the ferry filled to the rafters with passengers on their way to the shipyards during the Second World War.


Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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