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 Willapa in Rich Passage at the time of the Seattle World's Fair, Century 21.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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.
Even though the war was a year off, work at the Puget Sound
Naval Shipyard in Bremerton was already ramping up. Black
Ball needed additional capacity to meet the demand of the
commuting work force at PSNS, and the Steel Electrics as built
weren’t large enough or fast enough. The importance of the
work at shipyard allowed for a special dispensation for Black
Ball to procure two Busch-Sulzer engines for the Santa Rosa
and Fresno to replace their diesel-electric power plants,
resulting in an increase in cruising speed of four knots, from
12 to 16. With the vessels now single-ended, one rudder was
welded into place, and the propeller removed.
To increase their passenger capacity, the cabin was
extensively remodeled and expanded. One wheelhouse now
redundant, it was removed and replaced with a flush-sided
ladies lounge at what was now the stern of the ferry.
Passenger capacity went up from about 800 to 1500.
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 turnaround
time, could still cover the run to Seattle quicker than the slower
double-ended boats. By the late 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 Willapa's five.
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 decades of neglect finally sank at her berth
in the 1990’s 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.
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
ferries. 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 June 2018,
the hull of the San Leandro remains at Spud Island.