16 June 2022 — Happy 100th, Virginia V!

The steamer Virginia V, the last steamer of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet, is celebrating her 100th birthday this month! The ship has been undergoing extensive renovation at the Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, not far from her home berth on the south shore of Seattle’s Lake Union, behind the Museum of History and Industry and the Center for Wooden Boats. What was planned as a haulout of a few months ended up taking over a year, as further deterioration was uncovered, particularly fungal rot. Debra Alderman, executive director of The Steamer Virginia V Foundation, reports that the crew “replaced the stem, the knee in the forefoot area of the ship, virtually all frames on the port side between the stem and the 1st bulkhead, and on the starboard side another 20–30 individual ‘futtocks’ (parts of frames) going all the way back to the transom. A total of 98 planks were replaced—some as long as 40 feet.” The work cost about $1.5 million; the efforts are being paid for by grants and donations from organizations and individuals, but the Foundation is still seeking contributions to its whimsically nicknamed “Fungus Fund” to offset the expenses. While the vessel was returned to the water this past Memorial Day, there are still a few bits of work to do, including USCG-required studies and inspections, before her expected return to her home berth in July.

The Steamer Virginia V Foundation has been taking 3D scans of the vessel, creating digital documentation. This image was used to support a recent grant application. Image: Steamer Virginia V Foundation.

Virginia V was the fifth in a series of vessels operating for Nels Christensen’s West Pass Transportation Company serving the communities of the Colvos Passage (“West Pass”) near Vashon Island, Tacoma and Seattle. The first Virginia, the 1908 gas-powered launch Virginia Merrill, renamed Virginia upon her 1910 sale to Christensen, was replaced with Virginia II in 1912. Virginia III succeeded Virginia II in 1914, and Virginia IV (ex-Tyrus) joined the Virginia III in service in 1918. Virginia V, the last of the Virginias, was built by M. M. Anderson in Maplewood, and launched without an engine on 9 March 1922. She was towed to Seattle’s King Street Drydock and outfitted with the engine and boiler taken from Virginia IV (the steamer had been badly damaged at the dock), a triple-expansion 500-horsepower steam engine from Seattle’s Heffernan Engine Works. Virginia V made her maiden voyage on 11 June of that year. Seven days a week she made a round trip between Seattle and Tacoma, stopping at each village along the West Pass—about 70 miles, making 13 stops in the communities, carrying passengers, mail, and produce. In 1931 an express run between Seattle and Tacoma via the East Pass was added—for a total round-trip of 126 miles per day. The passenger fare was 35 cents. The steamer was part of the legendary Mosquito Fleet of the region, so nicknamed because, with their bustling activity in the Washington waterways, an observer said they were “swarming like mosquitoes to carry commuters and supplies.”


The team at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard has been hard at work for over a year to bring Virginia V to the beautiful shape she is in today, ready to enter her 2nd century. Image: Debra Alderman.

A major hurricane on 21 October 1934 battered the vessel against the dock at Olalla, Washington, damaging the superstructure and collapsing the pilothouse, amassing $11,000 (about $240,000 in today’s dollars) in damages, but she lost only two months to repairs and was back in service by the year’s end. Virginia V would steam the West Pass circuit for another four years as the company’s fortunes flagged due to the Depression, the ascendence of the automobile, and Christensen’s death. After a brief stint as a summer excursion vessel, Virginia V was placed in passenger and freight service between Portland, Oregon, and Astoria, Oregon; she would be the last commercial steamboat to operate on the Columbia River. That, too, didn’t last long; at the end of the season she was sold again, and would pass through several owners. In 1968, however, a consortium of steamboat enthusiasts, the Northwest Steamship Company, purchased her and began a preservation path that included restoration work, securing her designation on the National Register of Historic Places (1973), and the establishment of The Steamer Virginia V Foundation, which purchased the steamer in 1980. The Foundation, whose mission is “to promote the Puget Sound’s maritime heritage through the restoration, preservation, operation, and interpretation of the National Historic Landmark vessel Virginia V,” placed the vessel back in service. Prior to the pandemic she maintained a busy schedule of public excursions, private charters, and maritime festivals. Upon her return later this summer, her dance card will doubtless fill up quickly. 

A few of the Virginia V crew celebrate the 100th anniversary of the steamer’s maiden voyage on 6 June. Photo: Doug Brusig. 

We’d like to extend all the best birthday wishes to Virginia V, and our sincerest congratulations to The Steamer Virginia V Foundation and the many donors, volunteers, and friends of this proud member of our fleet of historic ships on their continuing service to preserve her and keep her active for generations to come.  


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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