Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Transportation Ferries in Eastern Washington

Not all public transport ferries in Washington State are in the coastal areas:

Given the recent, unusual opportunity to ride both of Eastern Washington’s vehicle carrying ferries on the same day, I decided to do this post to capture that experience but more importantly look at the vital services these two ferries provide to their respective communities and delve into a little of their histories.

Lets first address Eastern Washington’s two vehicle carrying ferries in order of general usage:

1. The Keller Ferry – vessel name: Martha S.

2. The Gifford / Inchelium Ferry – vessel name: Columbia Princess

Both of the above ferries operate on Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake. There is another private passenger ferry operating on Lake Chelan, Lady of the Lake, but that is not a vehicle carrying ferry and will not be addressed in this article.


We’ll start with the smaller of the two ferries: the M/V Columbia Princess a.k.a. the Gifford-Inchelium Ferry operated by The Colville Confederated Tribes. The route across Lake Roosevelt links the areas of Inchelium and Gifford on the eastern side of the reservation. Connecting the Inchelium Highway to State Route 25 across the river. The fare to ride is free. The weight limit is 40 tons. The ferry operates between 7 days per week between 6:30 AM and 10:00 PM. The tribe operates the ferry under a Public Law 93-638 contract. The average daily traffic for cars is 227. One round trip takes approximately 30 minutes.

Initially costing the tribe $28 million, the Gifford / Inchelium Ferry began operation in 1982. Recently the tribe received $940,000 in Ferry Boat Discretionary funds to construct the new dock facility.

While the Columbia Princess ferry does carry transport traffic moving across the Colville Tribal lands and Ferry County it primarily serves the village of Inchelium on the Colville Indian Reservation in Ferry County, Washington, United States.  The population of the town was 409 at the 2010 census. The village Inchelium was relocated from an earlier site in the early 1940s. Old Inchelium had been on the banks of the Columbia River before the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. As the waters rose behind the dam, the town had to be moved.

THE KELLER FERRY (a short history)

The history of the Keller Ferry extends back further in time, predating the creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake. This ferry crosses the Columbia River linking Ferry County and the Colville Indian Reservation on the north bank to Lincoln County on the south. The Columbia River is approximately one and a half miles wide at this point with towering basalt cliffs and rugged scab land forming both shores. The river wasn't always as wide. 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 1942. Prior to that, the ferry crossed a free-flowing Columbia River rather than the slack water Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake as it does today.

One of the signatures of the Pacific Northwest are the intricate ferry/transport systems linking the major areas of the Salish Sea and some of the great cities of the NW. Thus it may come as a surprise to note that Washington States 1st ferry was located in Eastern Washington long before it the cross-sound routes in Western Washington that are familiar to so many. 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. 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.


The Martha S. is 80 feet in length with a 30 foot beam. The capacity of the vessel is 12 cars with a maximum vehicle size of 75 feet in length with a gross weight of 80,000 lbs. This ferry is powered by two Detroit Diesel 6-71 engines with an approximate combined horsepower of 470. The top travel speed is about 12 miles per hour and the crossing takes about 10 minutes on the water. The Keller Ferry crew consists of eight people. Ferry operators are licensed by the United States Coast Guard after being tested to operate this specific class of vessel.

On the morning of September 9, 1998, the Washington State Ferry, Martha S. made her 50th anniversary crossing of the Columbia River between Lincoln County and Ferry County. The vessel was launched in 1948 and has been in continuous service since.

The MARTHA S. departing the southern landing point of the Keller Ferry route in Lincoln County, WA.