For less than the price of a latte, passengers can cross the Columbia River on the Wahkiakum Ferry. It runs from Puget Island to Westport, the last vestige of the ferryboat era on the lower Columbia. Tourists and commuters can board the boat on Puget Island from 5:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. on the hour. The ferry runs 18 times a day to Westport on a 12 minute run. It arrives in Westport at a quarter past the hour and loads up for the return trip.
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the official ferry route was first run by Walter Coates in 1925. He operated a three leg trip seven days a week for salesmen, Puget Island High School students and businessmen. The first ferry took passengers from Cathlamet to Puget Island and back. Then, Coates transferred foot passengers by car to a second ferry that traveled from Puget Island to Westport, if desired. Walter ran this system for seven years before selling his ferries. He handed over the reins to Arthur Houchen in 1932. Highway 30 had been extended westward and Coates thought it would be bad for business. Little did he know, his route over the Columbia would still be traveled 85 years later.
The Columbia River begins in British Columbia, traveling 1,243 miles before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Two other ferries still cross the Columbia today, the Keller Ferry and the Gifford-Inchelium Ferry. But the Wahkiakum Ferry is the only one left connecting Oregon and Washington on the lower portion of the river. It transects the river into two nearly equal halves between the Astoria-Megler Bridge and the Lewis and Clark Bridge in Longview.
Over the last century, the Puget Sound-Westport ferry route has changed hands numerous times. The route was also shortened when the county built the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge in 1939 to span the distance between Cathlamet and Puget Island. The remaining leg is now operated by Wahkiakum County. The county employs three sets of captains and licensed mates to run the ferry on two shifts, in seven day stints. The operators are responsible for loading passengers and the care and routine maintenance of the boat.
Captain Lamar Blix and Mate Luke Thomason work together on the boat. Lamar has been a captain on the route for 28 years. As a resident of Puget Island, he enjoys a short commute to work. “I’ve been here all my life,” he says. “I can get ho-hum about the area, but it’s beautiful.” Residents of Puget Island rely on the ferry to enable an efficient commute to Oregon. “The road is not as windy, it’s a quicker trip and it’s relaxing on the ferry,” Laurie Williams of Puget Island explains.
Luke lives over the bridge in Cathlamet and is glad to be back working near his home. He worked on the ferry in high school, but quit for employment on a dredging boat after graduating. Luke explains he spent long hours up and down the river. “I liked the work, but I like being close better,” he says.
The new ferry, the Oscar B, holds 23 cars, almost doubling the capacity of the Wahkiakum, the ferry purchased when the county took over the route in 1962. Lamar made the transition from the smaller 75-foot boat to the 115-foot Oscar B when the county upgraded. “It takes time to learn to run a boat,” he explains. “There are differences in driving and mechanical.” With almost three decades of experience under his belt, Lamar has been able to adjust to the nuances of a larger vessel since it was bought in 2015.
The new higher capacity ferry can carry semi-trailers, loaded logging trucks and RVs of all sizes. But drivers should weigh the aesthetics and convenience of the ride to cost. New pricing was enacted in February that charges trucks and trailers by the foot. “It’s $36.00 for me,” one RV vacationer explained as he made a tricky U-turn. “I’m going to go around.”
Summer months bring more tourists to the ferry, but regulars are why it’s run. “The deckhands are terrific and the ferry is always on time,” says Sue Boyle, a resident of Cathlamet who rides the ferry once or twice a week. The ferry will be run 24-hours a day this summer while the bridge to Cathlamet is shut down for maintenance, making it the only access to the mainland for residents. This is a throwback to the days when ferries were essential on the Columbia.
According to authors Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown in Ferryboats on the Columbia River, travelers have always found a way to transect the Columbia. They tell of Native Americans crossing in dugout canoes and boats powered by horses on treadmills. Many ferries even used overhead cables as a pulley system by anchoring the steel cables to bluffs and towers. Then came steam powered ferries and finally the gas engine. The ferryboat era met its end as bridges, highways and dams were built. These modern solutions made ferries nearly obsolete, but not the Oscar B. “They can run the ferry for a million years for the cost of a bridge,” Captain Lamar says. So next time you need to visit our Washington neighbors, opt for a nostalgic ride on the Wahkiakum Ferry.