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Foot ferries may have island future

A former ferry dock on Eagle Harbor. Small steam-powered ferries used to criss-cross Eagle Harbor. Some are now talking about a small ferry service between Winslow and Pritchard Park. - Courtesy of Bainbridge Island Historical Society
A former ferry dock on Eagle Harbor. Small steam-powered ferries used to criss-cross Eagle Harbor. Some are now talking about a small ferry service between Winslow and Pritchard Park.
— image credit: Courtesy of Bainbridge Island Historical Society

Local leaders envision a short route crossing Eagle Harbor.

Merrill Robison is no longer alone in his dream of bringing passenger ferry service back to Eagle Harbor.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity that I hoped was going to come,” Robison said of a possible 10-minute water taxi link between the downtown waterfront and the harbor’s south shore. “Now I think it’s got to happen.”

So do members of the Winslow Tomorrow planning project, Kitsap Transit and downtown business leaders.

Robison has tinkered with the idea of running the service himself for over 10 years, but isn’t sure if he has the energy to undertake the enterprise.

He’s crunched the numbers and says the notion has financial merit.

“Somebody could make a living off it,” he said of a service that would potentially carry 200 tourists, shoppers, park-goers and south island commuters across the harbor each day.

Kitsap Transit’s director Richard Hayes believes such a run could be “a terrific success.” The public transportation agency has listed the harbor ferry option as a long-term priority and may kick in cost subsidies to keep it afloat.

Cris Beattie, executive director of the Bainbridge Is­land Down­town Association, echoes Robison’s frequent usage of the word “wonderful” to describe the potential service. She’s particularly keen on establishing an easy, fast and car-less link between downtown and the south shore’s attractions, including Pritchard Park and the Japanese-American memorial taking shape nearby.

“It’s something we have to start planning for,” she said, adding that her association has already begun wooing tourism industry players with trips to Pritchard Park.

“The closer we get to Pritchard Park, the better.”

A harbor ferry was also one of the key recommendations that boiled to the top of Winslow Tomorrow’s downtown planning process. Project manager Sandy Fischer said a small-scale water taxi matches the citizen-led planning effort’s goal of increased transportation options and connections to Winslow’s waterfront.

Winslow and the rest of the harbor were once strongly dependent on ferry travel before roads criss-crossed the island.

Eagle Harbor, in the early part of the last century, buzzed with ferries launched from eight landings. Part of the Puget Sound’s famed “mosquito fleet,” small steam-powered ferries, launched from piers at Eagledale, Wing Point, Hawley beach, the Hall Brothers Shipyard, the community of Creosote (the present-day Pritchard Park) and at the south end of Madison Avenue.

“No section of the island was more thickly dotted with landings than Eagle Harbor,” wrote Allen Beach in his island maritime history book “Bainbridge Landings.”

Allen recounts that the harbor’s ferries serviced many interests.

The Hawley dock, Allen wrote, was built in 1926 on the north shore to serve a real estate development sprouting up south of Wing Point Way. The landing “required skillful ship handling due to winds and tidal currents” and was later abandoned in favor of easier docking spots.

One of the most prominent ferry landings jutted out from Creosote, a burgeoning industrial town. The landing stretched as far as the modern-day flash beacon that now sits off Bill Point and included a waiting room, a railroad track and a cart to transport mail and groceries to a nearby store.

The Creosote landing was sliced in two when an off-course sternwheeler plowed through it one night in the early 1920s.

One of the harbor’s more prominent ferry companies was established by three captains flush with money from Alaska gold investments. But when gold wasn’t in ready supply, island residents desiring better ferry service sold a more plentiful treasure.

“Eagle Harbor residents held a baked bean social to raise money to build one of the first little steamers, the Eagle,” wrote Beach.

“We were a waterborne community then,” said island historian Jerry Elfendahl. “It was a whole lot easier to get around by water and it was cheaper than building roads.”

Riders wanted

But it was the growing network of roads, and the cars they serviced, that eventually led to the mosquito fleet’s decline.

While some would like to revive a much more modest water link between the south and north shores, serious challenges loom.

According to Kitsap Transit’s Hayes, the run may struggle financially unless more people move to the Eagledale area and provide the ferry with a stable base of residents within easy walking distance.

As for the rest of the south end, gearing the harbor ferry toward commuters bound for the Seattle ferry could pose parking problems, according to Hayes.

“There’s not many places around there where we can put parking,” he said. “And the worst place in the world to put a parking lot is on the shore. You get a lot of runoff and that’s not good.”

While commuters may not provide the backbone for the enterprise, tourist dollars could inject some needed financial stability, Hayes said.

He suggests broadening the ferry’s usage with tours of the harbor during off-peak commuter hours.

“There could be a seasonal service giving tours of the harbor because it’s quite pretty there,” Hayes said. “If it’s marketed in Seattle, people could be scheduled in groups for a stable market.”

Tourists will likely desire a way to hop the harbor anyway, said Beattie, who is already taking Seattle hospitality business leaders on tours of the south side.

“People are going to want to go over there,” she said. “They’ll want to see the park and memorial because many will know about the internment, ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ and other tidbits.”

Members of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Com­munity expect to draw 25 to 30 people per day to the memorial they are establishing to the west of Pritchard Park.

The memorial will include gardens and a reconstruction of the Eagledale ferry pier, where many Japanese-Americans bade goodbye to the island before they were shipped off to internment camps during World War II.

But memorial committee chair Clarence Moriwaki stresses that no ferry will dock at the memorial.

“Let’s make it clear,” he said. “The memorial is not going to be that spot. It’s going to be a contemplative and reflective place, so we don’t want ferry traffic coming in and out of the site.”

The reconstructed pier will also be substantially smaller than the original, which stretched far into the harbor and connected with a dock. Instead, the memorial’s pier will span 150 feet – each foot representing an island resident forced into an internment camp during the war.

However, a nearby ferry pier – not within the memorial’s confines – would be a welcome addition, Moriwaki said.

“If it brings more people who want to come and learn the story, it’d be a fantastic thing,” he said.

While admitting that finding and building a viable spot for a new ferry landing “is a real hurdle,” Hayes said the overall operation could run at a very low cost.

He said the bare-bones facilities and small labor crews Kitsap Transit uses for small ferry runs connecting Bremerton to Port Orchard and Annapolis have been “howling successes.”

Robison believes a two-person crew splitting a 16-hour day could easily run a 25-person pontoon boat across the harbor and turn a profit. Whether Robison or some other operator steps up, Kitsap Transit stands ready to help – possibly with a 20 percent to 30 percent cost subsidy, Hayes said.

First, however, Kitsap Transit is set on jump-starting major cross-sound passenger runs, including links from Bremerton and Kingston to Seattle.

Once those routes are in place, Hayes said the Eagle Harbor run, and possibly even a Lynwood Center to Bremerton crossing, are on the shortlist.

But for some islanders, making Kitsap Transit’s second string isn’t good enough.

“We should not be on a second list of priorities,” Beattie said. “It should be the priority. How are we going to get over to the Pritchard Park and the memorial? How are visitors who walk off the ferry going to get there? Are they going to take the time to take a taxi or bus?

“These are things we have to start planning for.”

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