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'A Death With Dignity' For The Kalakala

The Kalakala on the day she was to be scrapped. The unlucky vessel had shone on Puget Sound waters as a ferry from 1935 to 1967.
KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph
The Kalakala on the day she was to be scrapped. The unlucky vessel had shone on Puget Sound waters as a ferry from 1935 to 1967.

It was before dawn on Thursday, and the cold air off the Blair Waterway in Tacoma was damp and penetrating.

Karl Anderson, a mustachioed man in his 70s, stood on his company’s graving dock, waiting for the Kalakala.

He had bought the doomed vessel in 2012, when everyone knew she didn’t have a chance at being rebuilt. She had been listing in the Hylebos Waterway not far away, and officials worried she would become a huge environmental liability. She had to go, they said.

Anderson, the chairman of Concrete Technologies, was overwhelmed with emotion as he described why he bought the Kalakala. He viewed her as a beautiful woman who wanted a death with dignity. He was proud to give her that, he said.

Indeed, the Kalakala was an aging diva in her way – decades ago the most glamorous thing in town, but now high maintenance. Anderson had spent half a million preparing to move her to his dock; he would spend another half million to get her scrapped.

But Anderson felt chosen for the job. His dock is the highest on the straight, and he had the deep pockets to pay for the job. A high dock was necessary. The former ferry could be tugged onto the dock during high tide and left high and dry during low tide. When the tide ran out, she would implode on dry land – that was the idea, anyway.

The Kalakala had been unlucky since her debut. She was built in 1926 (then named the Peralta), an Art Deco creation with curvy countertops and velour interiors. She was an identical twin when she was launched into Bay Area water. The other vessel, the Yerba Buena, was smoothly lowered to water, while the Kalakala got stuck on her launching ramp.

The Yerba Buena went on to live a charmed life in San Francisco while her sister bungled her way up and down the West Coast.

That unfortunate launch left some wondering if the Kalakala was cursed. They were validated when, in Oakland, her docking ramp dipped into the water, throwing passengers overboard. Five people drowned. Years after that, she caught fire, requiring a nearly complete overhaul.

[asset-audio[{"description": "KUOW announcer Kim Malcolm speaks with reporter Carolyn Adolph about the scene on Kalakala's final morning.", "fid": "114873", "uri": "npraudio://201501/20150122_CA_kalakalah2way.mp3"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "The Kalakala at the time of the World's Fair in Seattle, 1962.", "fid": "114877", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201501/Kalakala-1962.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Wikimedia Commons"}]]Renewed, she moved to Seattle, where she graced Puget Sound as a car ferry from 1935 to 1967. She became famous, second only to the Space Needle as an icon of quintessential Seattle.

Ferrying cars was her day job. By night, she entertained raucous parties with big bands with names like The Flying Birds Orchestra. Enormous works of art hung in the foyer. A previous owner described the ladies’ lounge so: “Resplendent with red velvet covered settees, it accommodated 100 women and had its own restrooms.”

But problems persisted. She moved so slowly that she was nicknamed the Silver Slug. Her engine whirred so loudly that her windows blew out.

After retirement, she moved to Alaska, where she worked as a crab processor. When they were done with her, they stripped of every bit of charm, every curvy countertop and brass fitting. She had become a shell of her former glory, left to rot on a reef.

But Seattle wanted her back, and so she returned in 1998. Tug boats bumped her about Puget Sound until a previous owner, desperate, listed her for sale for $1. But no one bit.

In the wee hours on Thursday, tug boats nudged the famed vessel out from her moorage and she began the quiet journey to her wake.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The Kalakala's copper and steel walls had been painted a shiny silver, earning her the nickname, the Silver Slug.", "fid": "114878", "style": "offset_right", "uri": "public://201501/IMG_1346.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph"}]]She was silent as she slipped through the inky waters. But as she moved along, and as dawn broke, docks along the strait came to life. Lights flashed on, reflecting off the water, as though giving her a final runway. The air smelled like seawater and tree sap from a nearby mill.

Back on the dock, Anderson’s wife Christine looked at her husband and said it had been a great day for him.

When he had told her years back about his plan to buy the Kalakala to give her a proper burial, she had responded, tongue in cheek, “Then I’m going shopping.” But over time she said she has come to understand how important the ferry was to him – and to the region. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not specify that the Kalakala, when built in 1926, was named the Peralta. After being damaged in a fire, the vessel was rebuilt and renamed.