Washington State Ferries (WSF) is the largest fleet of passenger and auto ferries in the United States. The ferry system, perhaps the third largest in the world, is maintained by the State of Washington.
Washington State Ferries came into existence with the state’s acquisition of Puget Sound Navigation during the beginning of the second half of the 20th-century. The Puget Sound Ferry Service, which originated in the early 1900s, was initially manned by the “Mosquito Fleet" - a collection of small steamer lines.
By 1929, there were only two lines in the state - the Puget Sound Navigation Company (known as the Black Ball Line) and the Kitsap County Transportation Company (KCTC). A strike in 1935 forced KCTC out of business and left only the Black Ball Line.
During the 1940s, the Black Ball Line desired to raise its fares, to balance the increased wage demands from the ferry workers' unions. But, the state government denied this move which resulted in the Black Ball Line shuting down.
The government acquired all of Black Ball's ferry assets for $5 million, in 1951. The boats, which were purchased from the Puget Sound Company, included a number of steel diesel-electrics, wooden diesel-electrics, steamers, and wooden diesel-powered boats.
The new system’s first challenge was to include more ferries to meet increasing demands for service, relieving backups that had started occurring at terminals.
The Puget Sound Dredge and Bridge Company was commissioned by the State in 1953, to build the first Evergreen State-class vessel that could carry 100 vehicles and 1000 passengers.
In 1957, tax support of the ferry system started as the State Legislature brought ferry system employees into the State Retirement System.
Until 1966, the ferry system responded only to rebuild and expand the existing fleet. The responsibility for managing the system was shared by the Toll Bridge Authority and the State Highway Commission. These two agencies were united under the existing Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), around 1977.
In 1967, the company built the super-class ferries such as the Hyak, Kaleetan, Yakima, and the Elwha; each able to carry 160 cars and 2500 passengers.
Over the years, these super-class vessels became incapable of handling the demands of the ferry system. Subsequently, the Jumbo-class Spokane and Walla Walla ferries were built in 1973, with a capacity of 2000 passengers and 206 vehicles.
To improve operations and replace aging boats, the Issaquah, Kittitas, Chelan, Kitsap, Cathlamet and Sealth ferries were added in the early 1980s.
During 1997-99, the ferry system expanded with the influx of the Jumbo Mark II-class vessels - Tacoma, Puyallup, and Wenatchee - which were built by Todd Shipyards. Each one carries 212 vehicles and 2500 passengers.
Today, Washington State Ferries serves eight counties, Pierce, King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Skagit, Island, San Juan, and Jefferson, within Washington, and the Province of British Columbia, Canada.
The system has 10 routes and 20 terminals that are served by a variety of vessels of various sizes (around 28 vessels). Currently, it has more than 1500 employees.