Seattle Central Waterfront, Part 4: From Mosquito Fleet to Ferry System at Colman Dock

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 5/24/2000
  • Essay 2474

Colman Dock, Pier 52, now the Washington State Ferries terminal at the base of today's Columbia Street, was originally built by Scottish engineer James Colman in 1882 to service the growing regional steamship traffic. Immediately to the north (now an auto-waiting area) stood the Grand Trunk Pacific Pier, built in 1910 and consumed in a tragic fire in 1914. Colman Dock served as the terminal of the Black Ball line before that private enterprise was taken over by Washington State Ferries in 1951.

Colman Dock burned with the rest of Seattle in 1889, but it was quickly rebuilt to handle Puget Sound's swarming "Mosquito Fleet" of private ferries. Colman extended the dock and added a domed waiting room and tower in 1908.

Mistakes Were Made

On the night of April 25, 1912, as the Alameda was approaching the Colman Dock, her captain, John "Dynamite" O'Brien, ordered the ship's engineer to put engines in reverse. Instead he got a "full speed ahead." The effects of the steel-hulled ship ramming the dock were spectacular.

The Colman Dock tower fell into the bay. The Telegraph, a sternwheeler that had been tied to the south side of the dock, went to the bottom. "Miraculously," as the papers reported, no one was injured. At daybreak the floating tower was towed from harm's way, and its clock salvaged. The Telegraph was raised from the bottom to resume her rounds. The dock was promptly reconstructed with a new tower.

Grand Trunk Pacific Dock Fire

The Grand Trunk Pacific dock, located at the foot of Marion Street just north of Colman Dock, was built in 1910 for steamships operated by Canada's second largest railroad. On July 30, 1914, the dock was destroyed in a huge fire of indeterminate cause. The structure, at the time the largest wooden pier on the West Coast, literally exploded into flames, most likely due to the air within the warehouse section reaching flash point from a smaller fire within. Five persons were killed and 29 injured.

The fire scorched the new tower on Colman Dock. The crews of city's Fire Station No. 5 could only hose down adjacent piers to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The Puget Sound Navigation Company consolidated control of regional ferries in the 1920s under the ensign of the Black Ball Lines. It modernized Colman Dock in the Art Deco style of its signature ferry, the Kalakala.

Following the end of World War II, commuters increasingly chafed under Black Ball's monopoly. In 1951, Washington state took over the ferry system, and in 1961 built the present terminal. New auto waiting areas expanded north into the space once occupied by the Grand Trunk Pacific Pier.

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Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916) and History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, Vols. 1, 2 & 3 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991, 1992 & 1999); Padraic Burke, et al., Pioneers and Partnerships: A History of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1995); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, 1998); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now & Then, Vols. I, II & III (Seattle: Tartu Press, 1984, 1988 & 1989); Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: MacMillan Company, Publishers, 1950); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: Viking, 1951); David J. Olson, et al., Port in a Storm: An Historical Review of the Founding of the Port of Seattle (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1970); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past & Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City: Seattle (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1981).

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