Remembering the Ferry

Jan 18, 2013 | 4 comments

There are some days in winter, even now in the year of our Lord 2013, that we donThe Tourist, 1921’t see more than a handful of cars in Oysterville.  Even more unusual, there are times that we can drive the seventeen miles to Ilwaco and see nary a vehicle on the road.  Usually that happens in winter, though not on clam tide weekends.

I’ve been told that as many as 10,000 vehicles crowd the beach during a clam tide which is not hard to believe.  Seeing the cars and pickups parked head-in, side-by-side along most of our twenty-eight-mile stretch of ocean beach always makes me wonder if the entire Peninsula might tip to the west.  Seeing all the out-of-state license plates on those vehicles makes me think of how the bridge has changed things for us.

Most of us who remember the days of the ferry are getting a little long in the tooth now.  Remembering the days before the bridge – pre 1966 –has become a mark of how far back your Peninsula connections go.  My shirttail relative, Virginia Williams Jones, (who is now in her ninety-eighth year) can even remember the very first car ferries and their Captain, Fritz Elfving.

It was in the summer 1921 that the first regularly scheduled auto-ferry service began between the slip at the foot of 14th Street in Astoria to the dock on our side of the river at McGowan.  At that time, the dock at Megler was still the terminus for the train and the boats that regularly met it from Portland and other points along the river.  It wouldn’t be until the trains quit running in 1930 that Megler would become the ferry landing on the Washington side and “going to Megler” became synonymous with “catching the ferry.”

That first car ferry, the Tourist, could hold up to fifteen vehicles.  The statistics for 1922 show that it carried 6500 vehicles and 25,000 people across the river that summer.  That prompted Captain Elfving to build a second ferry and in 1924 the Tourist II began service.  She had a wood hull, was 98 feet long, 36 feet wide, 8 feet in depth, and could carry 22 cars.  Her 200-horsepower diesel engine could propel her along at about twelve miles per hour.

Although other ferries were added to the ‘fleet,’ the Tourist II continued to serve the Astoria-Megler crossing until the beginning of WWII when Elfving sold her to the Army for $35,000.  She was given a coat of gray paint, became the military ferry and mine planter Octopus and received the “E” pennant for her outstanding service.  At the end of the war, Elfving bought her back for $36,000.

It’s more likely, of course, that most of us with memories of the ferry are remembering the M.R. Chessman which went into service in 1947 or the Kitsap which began the run in 1962.  Both of those ferries belonged to the State of Oregon to whom Elfving sold the ferry business in 1946.  And, for those of us who do remember the ferry days, there are dozens of stories…

4 Comments

  1. Frank Lehn

    All the years I was growing up (and many years before I was ever thought of) my family would come to the Peninsula every summer for a week or so. On the trip back to Camas, we would catch the ferry at Megler, ride across the river to Astoria, drive down to Seaside, and then home. I loved it when my dad would bounce the family car – usually a huge Chrysler product – up onto the ferry for the rattling ride across the river. I remember one summer we drove the newly completed road that finally connected Naselle to Megler and seeing huge sections of the new bridge being towed down the river to be hoisted into place. And finally there was the summer we actually got to drive across the bridge. We had to stop half-way across and wait for a pilot vehicle to come and guide us the rest of the way. I didn’t know at the time that much of the bridge was built on sand bars in the river, and as a 12-year-old kid I was worried that we were stopped over some endless depth of water. The bridge has had an incredible impact upon everything in this area. I’m glad I got to see and ride on the old ferries . . .

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  2. Susan Windham

    So many childhood memories connected with the Megler ferry. My mother would dress in a dress with nylons and high heels and park the car at Megler. She would then take 3 children across for clothes and school shopping. This included lunch at the drug store lunch counter. Our last stop was always the shoe store because it was closest to the landing. It was a Buster Brown store that had a goose that would lay a golden egg with treats in it for us. When she heard the ship’s horn she would grab us and take off running(in high heels, mind you) to catch the boat. I only remember missing it once. Those rides were thrilling for me, my imagination free to go wild. I also loved throwing popcorn for the seagulls. Thank-you for the post.

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  3. Jean stamper

    My most vivid memory of the ferry was unloading on the Megler side at night with the wind blowing like crazy and we had to wait until just the right time to unload so the ramp met the dock. I had nightmares about driving off and missing the dock..

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  4. Stephanie Frieze

    Thank you, Sydney, for the trip back in time on a ferry! I, too, remember riding the Megler Ferry when we wanted to go to “the city.” It was a big deal and you went for the whole day, had lunch and shopped downtown Astoria which had fewer empty shops in those days. I remember when the bridge was being built that there were Peninsula threatening, albeit tongue in cheek, to blow it up so more tourists couldn’t come. Now we need them desperately. The mother of a local friend of mine moved over to Astoria before the birth of each of her three children and spent a couple of weeks in a hotel just to make sure that she was in Astoria and could go to Columbia Memorial without worrying about the ferry trip. Would a baby born in river be a Washintonian or an Oregonian?

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