Rising from the ashes of the remains of the San Francisco ferry Peralta in 1933, Black Ball Line’s new ferry would be an inspiration to all who saw her. Kalakala (pronounced kah-LOCK-ah-lah), is Chinook for flying bird, a name that would describe the new ferry’s soaring art deco lines and its performance. Kalakala wasn’t just beautiful to look at with her modern, curvy shape and round portholes, she was also fast. Her top speed of 18 knots, made possible with a 3000-horsepower engine, was a full 5 knots faster than any other ferry.
On her maiden voyage on July 3, 1935, passengers were able to pass their journey in subdued luxury. The art deco style continued on the interior with subtle shades of browns and tans on the upholstery and paint. Brilliant brass accented stair railings, window frames, and trim. Women could find even more comfort in the ladies’ lounge which was fitted with full-length mirrors and more comfortable seating while men could sneak away below deck to the taproom for a beer. Hungry travelers could also have a full meal at the double horseshoe-shaped lunch counter.
For her first six years, Kalakala made six round trips every day between Seattle and Bremerton. Each evening, a special moonlight cruise took place and couples danced to the music of Joe Bowen and The Flying Bird Orchestra. Early in her career, she ferried a group of Masonic Lodge members to Roche Harbor to enjoy a salmon bake on Pearl Island. She became the second most photographed object in the world. Kalakala’s glory days would not last for long, however.
During World War II, Kalakala played her part in the war effort but paid a high price. Her new passengers, soldiers and yard workers from the Puget Sound Naval Yard vandalized her. After the war, Kalakala resumed her Seattle to Bremerton with an occasional run to other ports.
Washington State took over the operations of the ferry system in 1951, and they did their best to keep Kalakala operating, but her time was running out. Kalakala’s final run was on August 7, 1967. New owners stripped her of her art deco interior and sentenced her to a new life in Alaska as a floating cannery until they could no longer maintain her. They beached her, making her a stationary cannery until the 1980s. In 1992, the Kalakala Foundation was founded, with the goal of restoring the ferry. Sadly, two years later she was again on the market. Subsequent owners were also unable to acquire the funds necessary to restore the ferry and Kalakala’s luck finally ran out in January 2015 when she was scrapped.
Workers took care to salvage as many artifacts as they could. The city of Kirkland, Washington, purchased approximately 30 pieces of the ferry and sent out a request for ideas for a public art installation using them. Drawing on the inspiration of the name Kalakala (flying bird) and the mythical Pheonix rising from the ashes, a Portland architecture firm proposed a massive 80 feet long, 15-25 feet tall bridge in the form of a heron. No matter what shape the project takes in the end, Kalakala has risen from the ashes before and there is no doubt she will do it again.