Ferry Martha S. of Keller

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 5/26/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11072

The ferry Martha S of Keller was launched on Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake in 1948 and transported vehicles and passengers across the Columbia River between Ferry and Lincoln counties at the Keller Ferry crossing, located some 14 miles north of Wilbur. The 80-foot diesel-powered vessel had propellers at both ends, allowing it to travel back and forth across the river without turning around. It was operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation and its predecessor, the Department of Highways, as part of State Route 21 (previously designated State Road Number 4). The Martha S served travelers for 65 years until she was replaced by the MV Sanpoil in 2013.

Early Ferries

Ferry service near the confluence of the Sanpoil and Columbia rivers began around 1890, when Native Americans from the Colville Indian Reservation operated an oar-powered boat across the Columbia. A few years later, Todd Clark and William Robertson began operating a cable-driven scow in the same location. This service was purchased by J. C. Keller soon after his namesake town was established in 1898 about 12 miles up the Sanpoil from the confluence.

Keller used the ferry to capitalize on mining traffic en route to the southern portion of the Colville Indian Reservation, which opened up to non-Indian prospectors in 1898. He oversaw the ferry run until 1925, when Lincoln and Ferry counties purchased his operation. Two years later, the counties leased it to William H. Latta, who began operating a toll ferry on the route.

In 1930, the Washington State Department of Highways received funds to improve State Road Number 4 (now State Route 21), of which the Keller Ferry was a part. But since federal funding could not be spent on roads that charged tolls, a three-way deal was struck between the state, the counties, and Latta, who agreed to sell his lease. The state highway department then began operating the concession as a free ferry.

Rising Waters

Throughout the 1930s, the ferry transported cars and people, as well as thousands of sheep destined to graze on the Colville Reservation. But after construction began on Grand Coulee Dam in 1939, and water levels in the Columbia began to rise, the ferry landing became submerged. A new landing was built on higher ground, but the recently created Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake (the portion of the Columbia River above the dam) was too wide for cable-ferry operations. A new service had to be implemented.

In 1939, the ferry Macleod -- a diesel powered side-wheeler -- was launched, and nearly half the town of Wilbur came to see the christening. But the vessel proved to be a dud. The wheel that controlled the rudders often got stuck, and the boat also went of course during high winds.

In 1944, the tugboat Ann of Wilbur began pushing the 10-car barge San Poil of Seattle across the lake, but the service was slow and inefficient. In 1947, bids were opened for a new 12-car ferry that could operate at sufficient speeds and in icy conditions. The contract was awarded to Hydraulic Supply Manufacturing Company, in the nearby town of Grand Coulee.

The Martha S

The Martha S -- the boat was named for Martha Shain, wife of Clarence Shain, who directed the highway department from 1945 through 1949 -- was designed with propellers at both ends, allowing it to travel across the lake and then straight back again. Measuring 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, the diesel-powered vessel weighed approximately 196,000 pounds. A pilothouse and storage lockers were located on one side of the deck, and compartments and equipment were housed on the opposite side.

The pilothouse had two steering wheels, one on each side of the cabin, allowing the captain to steer the vessel in both directions. Two compasses were located in steel boxes adjacent to the pilot windows, and although GPS units were added many years later, the compasses were still used as backups.

The compartments opposite the pilothouse were originally toilets for passengers and crew. One of the toilets was later converted to tool storage. Next to the compartments was a fire-extinguishing system connected to the engine room, in case of a fire below deck. A generator was also located nearby, used to power welding equipment.

Mel Novotney

For many years the Martha S was captained by Mel Novotney, who began piloting ferry boats at the Keller crossing in 1928. Around the time that the Macleod was launched the State of Washington built a house near the ferry dock for Novotney and his family. They lived there until his retirement in 1972.

Novotney and later captains oversaw a crew of six men, who worked three at a time on nine-hour shifts. At the time of Novotney's retirement, the boat was making approximately 40 trips per day on the 2.5 mile round-trip run, using more than 760 gallons of diesel fuel per week. By the 1970s, the Martha S was transporting more than 75,000 passengers a year.

During his lengthy career as the boat's captain, Novotney got to know every inch of the Martha S. Besides acting as the vessel's pilot, he oversaw its maintenance, from changing lightbulbs to overhauling the engine. On the occasion of Novotney's final voyage, Richard Stroll -- Maintenance Director for the Highway Department's District 6 operations -- noted that the spirit of the Martha S might just follow him right out of Lake Roosevelt.

Bon Voyage

During the six decades that the Martha S was in service, the boat underwent a few upgrades. In the 1980s, electric motors replaced the hand-cranked winches used to raise and lower the boarding ramps. In 1988, after nearly 70,000 hours of service, the original engines were replaced with two new engines that had a combined power of approximately 470 horsepower. And in 2010, an inflatable life raft replaced the metal lifeboat housed on board.

But even with all the care and maintenance that went into the Martha S, by the 2010s the vessel was starting to show its age. Replacement parts had to be custom manufactured, and at one point the aging hull sprang a leak, forcing the boat in for repairs. In 2012 the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) determined that maintaining the Martha S was no longer an option and that a new vessel was needed to replace it on the Keller run. The contract was given to Foss Maritime Co., which made a $9.5 million bid that won out over two Pacific Northwest competitors.

WSDOT partnered with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CCT) in funding the project, and the CCT contributed $2 million toward the vessel's construction cost. WSDOT also spent about $3 million to improve the terminals on the north and south shores. On August 14, 2013, the MV Sanpoil went into service and the Martha S was retired. It is estimated that the Martha S made more than 1.5 million crossings during its 65 years of service.

Sources: "Keller Ferry to Be Free: $140,000 Gained for Road," The Wilbur Register, August 7, 1930, p. 1; "New State Ferry at Keller Crossing Now in Operation," The Wilbur Register, September 16, 1948; "'Martha S' Has Ancestors Dating Back to Late 1800's," The Wilbur Register, August 17, 1962, p. 1; "A Pictorial Saga of the Keller Crossing," Washington Highways, January 1974, p. 7; "Ferry Service across Columbia Vital Transportation Link for Area," The Wilbur Register, April 10, 1986, pp. 1, 6, 8; "Getting There: Upgraded Keller Ferry Expected to Run in 2013," The Spokesman-Review, November 28, 2011, p. 1; "High-tech Ferry Christened on Shores of Columbia River," The Spokesman-Review, August 15, 2013, p. 1; Walt Crowley, Kit Oldham & the HistoryLink Staff, Moving Washington Timeline: The First Century of the Washington State Department of Transportation, 1905-2005 (Seattle: Washington State Department of Transportation and HistoryLink, 2005), 54-57; "Martha S Replacement Project: Draft Section 4(f) Evaluation," September 20, 2012, copy in possession of Washington State Department of Transportation, Eastern Region, Spokane, Washington.

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