|The newly refurbished Rhododendron, about to be sent to her first assignment on Hood Canal in 1954. . Author's collection.|
| As early as 1952 the newly formed Washington State Ferries knew they were in need of additional boats. Preparation was underway for what would become the Evergreen State Class, but in the mean time the State needed ferries as soon as possible.
As luck would have it, two ferries from Chesapeake Bay had just been put out of work. The Governor Herbert R. O’Conor and the Governor Harry Nice were available, and while not huge they were of good size by 1950’s standards and would certainly be welcome additions to the fleet.
Towed through the Panama Canal and up the coast, the ferries were given an overhaul and cleaning. The Nice was renamed Olympic. Painted in the green and white of the new ferry system, her only outward change was to her car deck windows, which had been square but were turned into portholes to match her near sister. She was placed in service at between Lofall and Southpoint on Hood Canal.
A short time later the O’Conor was finished. Renamed Rhododendron, she was sent to replace the Olympic on Hood Canal. For the next eight years she worked the Lofall-Southpoint route, often with the Vashon or Crosline acting as back up boats in the summer months.
Again put out of work by a bridge—this time the Hood Canal Floating bridge—the Rhody was reassigned to work alongside her near sister Olympic on the Mukilteo-Clinton run. The pair along with the Chetzemoka worked Mukilteo-Clinton for many years.
1974 saw a change in the lineup. Olympic Ferries Inc had gone out of business and the ferry system was ordered to take over the route between Port Townsend and Keystone. The Olympic went first, and later the Rhododendron followed. The two ferries worked the route off and on until the early 80’s when the Klickitat became the permanent ferry on the route.
By 1983 both of the Chesapeake Bay ferries were scheduled to be retired. Problems with the Issaquah Class and the rebuilding of the Steel Electrics kept them in service. While never officially retired, the Rhody spent nearly a decade moth balls at Eagle Harbor while Washington State Ferries. The Olympic continued to work, but the Rhody remained moored at Eagle Harbor.
In the early 1990’s, with the Issaquah Class's bugs long worked out and the Steel Electrics all out of the yard and back in service, it was decided that the idled Rhododendron would go in for rebuilding.
As the project got underway, the state soon was regretting their decision. The Rhody was in far worse condition than anyone had anticipated. The entire passenger cabin was full of rotten steel. In the end a completely new cabin had to be made from fresh steel. The unexpected deterioration caused the project to run millions over budget, and canceled plans to similarly refurbish the Olympic.
After some teething problems with her new engines, the Rhododendron went to work on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route.
|At work at Clinton, the Rhody works alongside her near sister Olympic. At right, the Rhododendron during her long lay up at Eagle Harbor. Courtesy of Brandon Moser.|
The Rhododendron Today
|At right, the drawing by Johan Iversen shows the Rhody in mid-1980's livery. Above, the Rhody laid up at Eagle Harbor before going in for rebuilding. Courtesy of Brandon Moser.|