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Revisiting Washington Blog

It's not why it's called Ferry County

Monday September 3, 2007

When you think of Washington State Ferries, you usually picture one of the twenty-eight ferries that cross Puget Sound and its inland waterways, carrying over 26 million passengers annually to 20 different ports of call. What many people don’t know is that the State’s involvement with ferry boats began on the Eastern Washington “dry side” long before it ventured into the cross-sound routes in Western Washington that are familiar to so many. From the earliest years of Euro-American settlement in the mid-19th century, private ferries operated at key crossings along the lengths of our State’s major and minor rivers. Eventually, bridges replaced most of the early ferry crossings in those locations that provided connections within the State’s transportation infrastructure.

One ferry remaining in service is the Keller Ferry (Tours 1a and 7a) that crosses the Columbia River at its confluence with the Sanpoil River from Ferry County and the Colville Indian Reservation on the north bank to Lincoln County on the south. On September 1, 1930, the State of Washington Department of Highways took over control of the Keller Ferry run on the Columbia River, operated by Mr. William Latta, completing a link on what was then known as State Road #4. At that time, the river wasn’t as wide as it is today. Construction of the Grand Coulee Dam about 15 miles downstream from the ferry route quadrupled the width of the river when the reservoir was filled in the early 1940s, creating what is now Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake. The State’s tenure as a Puget Sound ferry transportation provider did not begin until over 20 years later, with its purchase of the Black Ball Line on June 1, 1951.

Launched in 1948, the vessel Martha S. has been in continuous service ever since, carrying approximately 60,000 vehicles across the Columbia River each year. Unlike its Puget Sound counterparts, the Martha S. carries few walk-on passengers as the ferry route is a link in a rural highway, State Route 21. The nearest communities are Wilbur, 14 miles to the south through golden wheat fields, and Republic, 53 miles to the north through green forests. The free ferry operates “on-demand” seven days a week, 18 hours a day, from 6:00 a.m. until midnight with an average crossing time of 10 minutes. A drive from either direction is well worth the trip for a unique experience and the spectacular views of the basalt cliffs and scab land forming both shores.

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