Official Number: 226344 Radio Call Numbers: WB4495 Built as FRESNO, Oakland, CA, 1927 Length: 256' Beam: 65' Draft: 12'9" Auto Deck
Propulsion: Diesel, Busch-Sulzer, 2,800. Speed: 15 knots. Autos: 90 Passengers: 1,500
Name translation: from the extinct Willapa tribe from Southwestern Washington. Meaning unknown.
FINAL DISPOSITION: Upperworks scrapped November 2009; hull scrapped between 2012-14.
The upper deck of the Willapa, circa the 1950's. Courtesy Brandon Moser.
Launched as the Fresno in 1927, the Willapa started life as a
San Francisco Bay ferry for the Southern Pacific Railroad
After plying San Francisco waters for over ten years, the new
bridges over the Bay effectively ended ferry service across
San Francisco Bay. The Puget Sound Navigation Company,
looking to upgrade its fleet in the 1940's, purchased all six of
the Steel Electric ferries from Southern Pacific to bolster their
fleet and improve service. Starting in August of 1940, the
ferries began traveling northward in twos.
Traffic on the "Navy Yard Route" had picked up dramatically.
With WWII about to start, the run would soon be crowded with
workers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Like her near
sister Enetai, the Willapa was extensively rebuilt. One
wheelhouse removed. One rudder was welded into place, and
the propeller removed. Her New London diesel-electric
engines were removed and were replaced with one
direct-drive Busch-Sulzer diesel, which gave both the Willapa
and Enetai a speed of about 15 knots.
|At top,the Fresno sails under the bridge that will soon put her out of work. Middle photo: the redesigned
passenger cabin included a ladies lounge. Above, the Willapa in the 1950's. Author's collection.
With the transfer to Washington State Ferries, the Willapa
changed little in appearance. Like the others in the Steel
Electric Class (which technically neither the Willapa or Enetai
belonged to any more, having had their power plants
changed) the large windows on the car deck were welded in
and replaced by open, round portholes.
The conversion to a single-ended ferry by Black Ball was to
spell the end of the ferry's service on Puget Sound.
Initially,single-ended ferries were faster, and even with the
turn around time, could still cover the travel time quicker than
the slower double-ended boats. By the 1960's, that was no
longer true, and in addition, the aging Busch-Sulzer diesels
were expensive to run and maintain.
With the addition of the (then) gigantic Super Class ferries,
the state was able to retire some of the more inefficient
vessels. As soon as the Hyak arrived, the Kalakala and
Willapa were retired. The Hyak could make ten trips to the
The Willapa was sold to a group of San Francisco investors
and returned to the Bay area under her old name of Fresno
Unfortunately, little was done to her.
The Fresno after years of neglect finally sank at her berth
and remained submerged in about 30 feet of water, mid-way
up the car deck windows for six months. A salvage company
was hired to raise the vessel, patching her hull with concrete.
Her hull, according to the Coast Guard report, resembled a
slice of Swiss cheese. Constant pumping was maintained to
keep her afloat.
Efforts to sell the ferry on Ebay in 2006 failed. There were no
In October of 2006 her owner stated that if something wasn't
done soon, the Fresno would be sold for scrap. In December
the ferry caused a bit of stir when she showed up moored
unexpectedly in Port Costa. Her new owner, D.D. Parker of
Parker Oceanic had a dispute with the tug operator towing her
from Mare Island, and the captain of the tug tied up the boat.
The dispute was later settled and the Fresno was towed away.
|And then there was one...
The remains of the Fresno aground off Spud Island on the
San Joaquin River. The hull has since been broken up,
leaving only the Santa Rosa as the sole survivor of the Steel
Photo courtesy of Robert Mann.
The Willapa's interior was expanded and the passenger cabin
lengthened to the ends of the promenade deck. The wooden
benches were removed, replaced by plushy padded, longer
bench seats similar to those on the Kalakala.The two sisters
would lack any artistic touches though; both were intended to
haul people. Their passenger carrying capacity increased
from around 800 to nearly 1500.
The Willapa became a "Bremerton boat," not leaving the
route for 25 years. During her quarter century on the run, her
companions were the silvery Kalakala, the distinguished
former Great Lakes steamer Chippewa and her sister Enetai.
During the war years, two other ferries joined the route, the
steamers Malahat and City of Sacramento.
The Fresno ended up in Stockton for a time, but ended up
grounded off of Spud Island on the San Joaquin River and
listed "For Sale."
No buyers were forthcoming, so in fall of 2009 a contract was
awarded to Enterprise Marine Company Inc. to recycle the
The scrapping of the Willapa began in November of 2009,
leaving only the hull. After the hull had been there for a time,
both Parker Marine and the scrapping firm were sued for the
final removal, as both hulls were parked illegally. The
Willapa's hull was finally broken up, but as of the middle of
2014, the hull of the San Leandro remains at Spud Island.
|Top, the Fresno. Second photo, as the single-ended Willapa. #3, the ladies lounge, Asahel Curtis photo, color
by the author. Last photo, the Williapa in her final years of service.