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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Goodbye, Rhododendron — Historic Washington State Ferry's last day on the run between Vashon Island and Point Defiance (video included)

When I awoke to a downpour this morning, I thought about Monday's remarkable sunshine and the odd way it arrived just in time for an event that was both sad and largely ignored. My husband and I appreciated the meager warmth as we leaned against a railing on the Point Defiance waterfront and watched history being made. We witnessed the 64-year-old ferry Rhododendron making its last run between the Talequah landing on Vashon Island and Point Defiance in Tacoma, before being retired. On a rainy day, it would have felt even more depressing to say goodbye.

View of Chetzemoka from North Tacoma
We had been in Tacoma's Proctor District and headed north from there to go down to the Point Defiance Park because I wanted to take some photos in the sunshine. But as we reached the bluff, we saw how opportune our decision had been. There was the replacement ferry, M/V Chetzemoka, sailing past Maury Island in a spot where no ferry belonged. Until we saw it, we didn't realize the day had come, the day the Rhododendron would sail off forever. We headed straight for a vantage point above the ferry landing. By the time we arrived, the new ferry was pulling in.

The Chetzemoka approaches the ferry landing at Point Defiance

Built at Todd Shipyard in Seattle at the cost of  $79.4 million, the Chetzemoka caused all kinds of fanfare when it arrived in Port Townsend to serve the Port Townsend/Coupeville run. That was only a little over a year ago. (You can read about the whole expensive and probably misguided saga in this article from the Port Townsend Leader.) This ferry was meant for Port Townsend and named for a Native American leader from that area. The passenger cabin even features artwork portraying historic Port Townsend. Now we have it here in Tacoma, and they don't.

Maybe I'll get used to the Chetzemoka, but it might take a long time. Right now, it doesn't feel like it belongs here. With a gross tonnage of 4,623 and horsepower of 6,000—compared to the Rhododendron's gross tonnage of 937 and horsepower of 2,172 it will obviously use far, far more fuel for the 1.5 mile, 10-minute trip. How much shorter does a 10-minute trip need to be? And so what if it has a galley? Who has time to buy food and consume it during this short trip? Here is a comparison of the two vessels: M/V Rhododendron and M/V Chetzemoka

The Rhododendron heads for the Point Defiance dock with the Chetzemoka waiting in the background.
After what seemed like some kind of test, the Chetzemoka pulled out, heading toward the passage on Vashon's west side, then made a surprisingly quick maneuver, turning around and positioning itself for another approach to the dock, even as the older boat headed for Point Defiance. At that moment, I felt the sadness of what was happening. It seemed like the 64-year-old Rhododendron, still beautiful—and in the opinion of many, still repairable—was leaving a long marriage against her will. And out there in the water, her much younger replacement watched and waited impatiently, to move in.  Here is a video of the Rhododendron's arrival.

Leaning against that railing, surrounded by things I love—the gulls, the smell of the salt water, sounds of boats and waves, the sight of Vashon Island I thought about change and how many endings life brings. Ships, like people and places, can be taken for granted, there one day and then gone forever. I've seen many ferries come and go and I treasure childhood memories of some of the older ones. Even though the Rhododendron showed up on the Vashon-Point Defiance run many years after  my childhood, I've come to know it well. And my husband had worked on this ferry when it was in the dry dock. He loved it. Now it was leaving.     

M/V Rhododendron at the Point Defiance ferry landing.
I know my husband and I weren't the only ones who cared. I am sure the officers and crew did, along with the islanders who depended on and loved this vessel. I know that last Sunday a group of folks from Vashon took a farewell ride, described here in the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber. But where was the press on Monday? Did the people sitting in Anthony's seaside restaurant pay attention? 
It seems that too often people quickly lose interest in the things that are part of our local history and every day livesand in this case our maritime heritagejust because they are old. Why must we always replace things with something newer and always far more expensive? Old buildings and old ships seem to lose their lustre in some people's eyes. Not mine or my husband's. He had worked doing repairs on the Rhododendron in the past.

So for all of you who will miss this great old ferry as much as we will, no matter how few your numbers, here's a gift. I discovered a wonderful website called "Evergreen Fleet" and on this page, ou can hear the Rhododendron's whistle blow once again, lest you should forget.

Note: Video recorded by Candace Brown. All text and photos in this blog post are the property of Candace Brown and cannot be used without permission. Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown


Reed Fitzpatrick said...

This is a fine tribute to the Rhododendron's long service on Puget Sound.

Equally interesting is the reflection looking back, while considering the future and the new vessel.

The pictures capture the transition for all to remember. Heartfelt thanks.

Jenn Chushcoff said...

I didn't know this was happening and read/watched with a heavy heart. Thank goodness you were there to capture it. Where was the media?!

You're right about the new ferry being too big for the run. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Thank you for capturing the Rhody's last day, Candace. I'll miss her.

Anonymous said...

Candace - Thanks for all the information - sorry never rode on the Rhododedron so hopefully will be able to check out and ride on the new ferry

John Carter said...

Thanks for the great write up, pictures and video. I rode the Rhododendron throughout my childhood on the Mulkiteo to Whidbey run, with its near sister the Olympic, and the original "wooden electric" Chetzemoka. For me, the Rhodendron was the last of the small old ferries with unique personality. I did drive down to Tacoma for one last ride on Sunday the 22nd. If the 23rd hadn't been a work day, I would have been there for the last run, so I appreciate seeing the pictures.

Candace Brown said...

Thank you to all who left comments. I'm so glad you enjoyed the photos. Did you see the second post on this topic, with more photos? It immediately followed this one and is called "Goodbye Rhododendron Part 2"

I appreciate having you read Good Life Northwest and hope you will come back.

Thanks again,

Little Dipper said...

The Rhody served Pierce County's route from Steilacoom to Ketron and Anderson Islands during our main vessel's dry dock. (Our backup boat, Steilacoom II was helping out Port Townsend/ Keystone.) The Rhody was lovely. I'll miss her.