Thurston County Connection Newsletter
Thurston County Connection
Thurston County Connection
December, 2014
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 Last Buzz of the Mosquito Fleet

From the Archives:

Next time you’re stuck in I-5 traffic between Olympia and points north, imagine a similar trip 100 years ago—not on pavement but on the water. Before the advent of motor vehicles and well-built roads, the quickest way to travel from Olympia to Tacoma or Seattle was aboard one of the members of the Mosquito Fleet. The short history that follows is based on accounts from Wikipedia, and the History Link and City of Olympia websites.

The Splendid Steamer

In the 19th century, every settlement along Puget Sound, no matter how small, had a pier or float connecting them to the greater world. The first American steamboat on the sound was the side-wheeler Fairy built in San Francisco in 1852. Fares were high: $5 for Olympia-Steilacoom and $10 for Olympia-Seattle. Previously, mail and passengers traveled by canoes and other craft that took at least two days to make the trip from Seattle to Olympia. In the 1860s and 70s many new steamboats appeared on Puget Sound. One of the earliest and most famous was the 140-foot Eliza Anderson, featuring a steam calliope that blasted out a variety of tunes.

By the 1880s and 90s, the fleet had grown to hundreds of vessels of all sizes. The smallest was less than 40 feet long; the longest nearly 300 feet. The fleet delivered passengers, mail, newspapers, produce, eggs, bricks, logs and more. In the early 1900s, larger and more durable steel hulled boats joined the fleet. The Tacoma, launched in 1913, could make the Seattle to Tacoma run in 77 minutes.

Navigating by Whistles

In the days before GPS, radar and depth sounders, navigation through fog or stormy weather was often a hair-raising business. Captains were remarkably adept at determining their position with echoes from the steamboat’s whistle. Maritime historian Jim Faber writes:
“Experienced navigators not only could estimate how far they were from shore, but also could determine their position by the sound of the echo. This despite the fact that a low shoreline, a high bank, or gravel beach all return a different sound. A short echo denoted a narrow island or headland. With only a few seconds' leeway, the navigators also had to decide whether the echo was bouncing from floating logs, buoys -- or even a solid fog bank.”

So Long, Mosquitoes

The era ended as travelers switched to cars and paved highways. The last scheduled run occurred in 1939. The last remaining steam-powered survivor of the Mosquito Fleet is the Virginia V, a National Historic Landmark Vessel.

By Keith Eisner

The historic Virginia V on Puget Sound. The historic Virginia V on Puget Sound.