Seated in Dave the Barber's chair, getting a haircut, I found my attention drawn to an old black & white photo attached to his wall. It's obviously a ferry, but unlike any I'd ever seen before. The ship, with its curved prow, round windows and almost totally enclosed steel hull, was aerodynamically shaped above the waterline and had overtones of art deco in its design.
After Dave had informed me that the ferry is called the MV Kalakala (pronounced Kal-AH-kala) and once carried passengers between nearby Victoria BC and Seattle Washington, I came home and did a little research. What I discovered was that the Kalakala had been dubbed "the world's first streamlined ferry," was built in a San Francisco shipyard in 1935, served Seattle's Puget Sound and its islands for two decades before commencing the Canadian run, was at one point beached and converted to a canning factory in Alaska, then was saved by a benefactor and brought back to Seattle. It has so far been denied a National Heritage Grant but is undergoing a total restoration, thanks to the efforts of the Kalakala Alliance Foundation.
Restoration of such a ferry is a vast and costly job but it is hoped that the ship will someday return to service on tourist cruises around the islands of Seattle waterfront. My sense is that this historic vessel would be a huge attraction. Admirers of ships, vintage transportation and the "streamline era" will surely flock to see and ride on the Kalakala for there's never been a ferry like it.
For all its modernity the Kalakala rides on the hull of an older ferry, the Peralta, that carried passengers from San Francisco to Oakland from 1927 to 1933. A fire, which began in a pier to which the Peralta was tied, destroyed the upperstructure but left the hull and its engines intact. The salvaged hull was towed to Seattle and sold to the Puget Sound Navigation Company. There it was transformed in the Streamlined Moderne style that had influenced the Chrysler Airflow car, the Union Pacific streamlined diesel train and the Douglas DC-3 aircraft. Nothing like it had been seen before, nor has any ship since.
Recently the Kalakala has been dragged around from pier to pier since both government and commercial interests considered her rusty steel to be an eyesore and even a shipping hazard. I'd say their eyes should be sore if they can't see the the beauty of this innovative ship and its symbolic art deco design. Alliance head Steve Rodrigues has been trying to restore it for eight years. "It was silver; the sun made her glow in the light," he says. "Nothing exists like the Kalakala in the world. It is art deco. There is nothing that ever followed that ... looked like it again."
Rodrigues now says its been sold to an anonymous billionaire who has promised to spend the millions to get the job done. Let's hope he succeeds for the Kalakala deserves to be saved and appreciated for what it is. One of the most unusual and truly remarkable examples of art deco streamlining, she was also the first commercial vessel ever to use radar, and the first electric arc welded ship in the world. She now has a new and permanent home in Tacoma and restoration is underway, using a small army of enthusiastic volunteers.
To read the complete and fascinating story of the Kalakala, including historic and contemporary photos, click here.