Kalakala – Make or Break Time for the World’s First Streamlined Art-Deco Ship

21 September 2013

The ferry Kalakala operated for over thirty years, working on Puget Sands in the US State of Washington from 1935 to 1967.  Her retirement from service has not, however, been a graceful one.  The world’s first streamlined art-deco ship has been diversely beached in Alaska, used as a canning factory and evicted from her anchorage by an indigenous American tribe.  Now moored at Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, it is make or break time for the Motor Vessel (MV) Kalakala.

How the might have fallen.  When the Kalakala began (seen here at her various resting places) her career she was famous for her lavish facilitates as much as her futuristic art-deco design.  When the World’s Fair visited Seattle in 1962 the ship was second only to the Space Needle in terms of popularity.  Yet her destiny was not to become a cherished and iconographic symbol of city or stare but to become a rusting hulk, no more than a shadow of her former self.

Image Credit Flickr User Kictchener.Lord
Image Credit Flickr User Kitchener.Lord
You may wonder why a fuss should be made over a dilapidated old ship.  Perhaps the sight of the Kalakala in her prime might persuade you what a thing of beauty she truly was.

Image Credit Flickr User Barnaby
Image Credit Flickr User Michael Stevens
Beautiful perhaps, but even in her prime, she was not without problems.  The steel structure of the vessel was judged detrimental to the functioning of the ship’s compass so the bridge and wheelhouse had to be rebuilt (after a fire) out of copper.  These were set back from her superstructure but this bow to aesthetics meant that the bow of the Kalakala was not visible from the bridge.  Her round portholes, extended to the wheelhouse and replacing the usual full glaze, made visibility even worse.  She garnered a reputation for being a difficult ship to handle, particularly when it came to docking.

Image Credit Flickr User Choking Sun
Image Credit Flickr User Kitchener.Lord
That wasn’t all.  The engines were poorly aligned and this meant that the Kalakala was something of a bone-shaker.  The entire vessel would vibrate when in full operation and even when he propeller was replaced in the fifties it only reduced the shaking and shuddering by 40% .  Little wonder, then that this Silver Swan (as her owners wished her to be known) soon became nicknamed The Silver Beetle.

Image Credit Flickr User Beaster725
There was more.  The Silver Slug soon became the Silver Beetle and even the Galloping Ghost of the Pacific Coast.  Her name had been taken from the pidgin trade language, Chinuk Wawa and meant bird.  However, many of Seattle’s large Scandinavian community could not help notice the similarity between Kalakala and the Swedish word Kackerlacka.  Unfortunately, the latter means cockroach.

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It was hardly a surprise, then, when her 1967 retirement and sale led to few regrets or appeals for her conservation. Above is a picture taken during her conversion period the year after. Any guesses how she ended up?


Image Credit Flicrk User PD Quesnell
No-one could foretell just how ignominious her fate would be.   Towed to Alaska she became a crabbing ship.  Then, just three years later the Kalakala was beached in Zodiak and turned in to a shrimp processing factory.  The once glorious vessel’s shame was, perhaps, complete.

Image Credit Flickr User FrankFarm
Image Credit Flickr User Salva
However, this was not to be the end of her story.  The rusting hulk was bought by a group of people interested in her restoration.  Although they managed to refloat her and bring her back to Seattle (causing a stir as she was tugged up the local ship canal, above), the money ran out before any refurbishments took place.  Moved on by another new owner to Neah Bay the Kalakala soon attracted the ire of the bay’s owners, the Makah people, who lost no time in evicting her.

Image Credit Flickr User Choking Sun
Relocated to Tacoma, new owner Steve Rodrigues announced in 2008 that she could be the flagship of a new fleet of ferries or even the centerpiece of a floating museum.  Yet unfortunately for the hapless Kalakala neither of these came to pass. Indeed, no work on her took place at all and by 2011 she was deemed a hazard to navigation.  Rodrigues maintained that he had sold the ship but offered no evidence to support that claim.  However, he had tried over for over a decade to get the ship’s restoration underway at considerable personal and financial loss to himself.

Image Credit Flickr User Choking Sun
Image Credit Flickr User Barnaby
Now the owner of the waterway where the ship is currently moored has taken possession of the Kalakala – in exchange for the rent which is owned him.  The new owner, Karl Anderson, does not want to see the ship scrapped; in fact, the steel is so deteriorated it would cost him more to dismantle the ship than it is worth.

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Image Credit Flickr User EvilSoapBox
So, forlornly, the Kalakala sits in a kind of ship limbo.  The authorities have no intention of offering the $50 million that it would cost to repair and preserve this noble old ship, the first of its kind in the world.  Its current owner, although a wealthy businessman, does not have the enormous funds needed to commit to this kind of project despite his reluctance to witness the demise of the Kalakala.

Kalakala
Perhaps a prince will one day arrive for this dishevelled old princess of the Washington waterways.  Until that happens, the fate of the Kalakala is almost certainly going to be a sad one. Despite that, however, she still flies the flag.

Image Credit Flickr User Barnaby
First Image Credit Flickr User Gexydaf


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