New Puget Island Ferry
Ferry and Landings Complete $10 Million Project
Washington State Ferries is well known as the fourth biggest ferry service in the world, but there are several small county-run ferries in the state that provide a vital transportation link and also deserve attention. The Puget Island, Oregon to Wesport, Washington route is the last remaining car ferry on the lower Columbia River, connecting communities located between the Longview and Astoria bridges. The hourly service has been operated year-round by Wahkiakum County since 1962, using a 12-car vessel built by Nichols Boat Works of Hood River, Oregon.
The county commissioners started discussing the need to replace the old ferry in 2006, and began applying for grants from state and federal governments in 2010. The new boat was designed by Elliott Bay Design Group (EBDG) in Seattle, who have designed ferries for routes on the East and West Coasts. The new vessel is 115 feet long and an impressive 47.5-feet wide, giving it a capacity of 23 cars and 100 passengers. The hull is practically flat-bottomed and very shallow draft to enable it to pass over the sandbanks that quickly build up along the shore.
The builder was Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, on Whidbey Island, Washington, who have built the large superstructures for the last six Washington State ferries. There is a family connection between the two Nichols yards: Matt Nichols, executive vice-president of the Freeland operation, is the grandson of Mark Nichols, who founded the Hood River yard in the 1939. (It continued building barges until 1997, closing when the wind-surfing boom took off in the Gorge.)
The Whidbey Island Company also operated a yard in Portland next to the St John's bridge for a few years in the 1990's, where they built a 54-car 214-foot ferry for the Anderson Island run on south Puget Sound.
The new ferry's hull is steel, but the superstructure is aluminum, and includes a small passenger lounge and ADA-accessible restrooms. The pilothouse is a step up from the old Wahkiakum, where the helm station was so narrow the helmsman sat on a small bench seat on one side. The new boat has a comfortable chair, a large wheel, and modern electronic engine controls. Below the car deck is a vast inter-connected space with deep stringers supporting the skin and cargo deck--with no standing headroom--containing the two Cummins QLS diesels, each delivering 285 HP at 1,800 rpm. They turn two widely-spaced fixed‐pitched propellers via ZF Marine reduction gears. A pair of Cummins gen-sets meet the ferry's electrical needs. Crossing time is about 12 minutes at a speed of 8 knots.
The ferry was named Oscar B, after Captain Oscar Bergseng, who served for 17 years as the last private owner/operator of the service and the county's first captain in 1962. The cost of the new boat was $5.7 million, but the work to upgrade the two landings brought the total bill to nearly $10 million. The pile driving and construction work at both ends of the route was performed by Legacy Contracting of Salem. The Washington-side work cost $575,000, the Oregon-side work was more complex and cost about $2.4 million.
The rates are $1 per pedestrian, $2 for bicycle and rider, $5 per car and do not meet the overall cost of the service. The deficit is covered 80 percent by Washington State and 20 percent by the county.
Many commuters make the crossing daily, saving as much as a 60-mile round trip on winding roads. Wahkiakum Public Works Director Pete Ringen pointed out that when the Astoria or Longview bridges have been closed, or there have been landslides on the highways, the waiting line has extended to as many as 50 cars.
The ferry was introduced to the public in a ceremony on the Washington landing on a very wet Saturday March 14. Commissioner Blair Brady introduced the speakers, who included other county commissioners, representatives from the DOT and senator Patty Murray's office, and Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, from Southwest Washington's 3rd District, who spoke about the importance of the route to commerce. She had teamed up with Senator Murray to assist the county in obtaining the U.S. Army Corps dredging permit last November. "I congratulate this county with a population of only 4,000 – the smallest in the state – for its amazing accomplishment," she told the audience.