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Old ferries’ tales

It was the curiosity of ferry passengers that prompted Thomas Kilday Janus and Carolyn Neal to write about the big boats.

When Janus worked at Waterfront Books near the Bremerton terminal, he fielded questions from a steady stream of ferry passengers looking for books about the transport.

But Janus had no resources to offer; the only published history, a technical and expensive tome, was out of print.

So Janus – whose credentials include a degree in American studies and skills in design and photography – decided to put a book together.

He teamed up with Neal, a historian who had done post-graduate work at the University of Washington and taught history at Olympic College, with whom he had worked at the Bremerton branch of Kitsap Regional Library in the early 1990s.

Neal would work on the text, and Janus would assemble the photographs from historical collections and his own work.

The result is the recently published “Puget Sound Ferries: From Canoe to Catamaran” (American Historical Press), from which the authors will read and show slides at 3 p.m. Jan. 10 at Eagle Harbor Book Company.

When the book was proposed, Neal was enthusiastic.

“I thought it was a great idea,” she said. “My goal when I was teaching college was to get people excited about history and this seemed like another way to do that.”

The book took more than five years to complete, and Neal resisted moving from the research phase to writing.

“I like to do the research, but writing is not easy for me,” Neal said. “My husband was yelling at me, ‘write, write!’”

When at last she did, Neal wrote in an informal style – laced with anecdote and free of technical jargon – tracing the history of organized water transport: the shallow-draft, shovel-nosed dugouts of Puget Sound natives that carried the first settlers; the miscellaneous small craft that plied the waterways in the 1830s; the side-wheelers and stern-wheelers of the Mosquito fleet; the streamlined curves of the Kalakala; and the contemporary super-ferries that carry several thousand passengers in one crossing.

Neal was careful to take more than a cursory look at the native peoples who first navigated on “Whulge,” the Salish name for Puget Sound.

“I took a step way back,” she said. “If it’s a marine highway, I had to consider the first people on it.”

Neal’s stance is more than a respectful acknowledgement; the native canoes were the first ferries, a necessity since few roads existed and underbrush and hilly terrain made cross-country travel difficult.

In the course of her research, Neal discovered that the canoe has made a comeback through a series of summer gatherings of coast tribes, initiated in 1989, and the re-opening of traditional whaling for the Makah.

“It is moving to see the canoe coming back,” Neal said. “I am glad that it’s happening.”

Her research took her from published texts to observing ferry commuters and tourists close-up.

“After I took the 6:25 a.m. boat, I have to say I don’t know how they do it every day,” Neal said, “especially since the crossing from Bremerton takes an hour.”

Neal was not completely comfortable, she says, with the self-imposed role of voyeur. “For a while, I liked to watch the tourists,” she said, “but then I began to feel like I was being intrusive – eavesdropping on people’s conversations.”

Neal doesn’t believe that ferries will be supplanted by bridges across Puget Sound any time soon, although she is convinced that the future of the ferry system will include more private/public partnerships.

“The rest is pretty easy to predict,” Neal said. “It’s going to get more expensive.”

Neal, who undertook the book, in part, to get readers excited about the region’s history, also learned from the project.

“I went in with the assumption that we take our ferries for granted,” Neal said. “That we get on them and complain, and we get off them and complain.

“But what I found was that people really do appreciate them.”

Community Events, April 2014

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