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The Unlucky Flight of the Kalakala

One of the wonderful sights in the Puget Sound in the early twentieth century was the Art Deco sculpture-like passenger ferry, the Kalakala. The Kalakala sailed the waters of the Puget Sound between Bremerton and Seattle from the 1930s to the 1960s. She left the Sound in the 1960s, only to return like a ghost in the 1990s.

The Kalakala began its existence in 1927 San Francisco as the Peralta: a passenger and auto drive-on, drive-off ferry. It was open at both ends, and cars drove on board, headed to the far end of the ship, and parked.

When the ship docked, the cars simply drove off the front of the ferry, rather than backing off. To prevent sinking as the weight shifted with the cars, the Peralta had a series of trim tanks at either end, which acted as ballast. When the cars unloaded at one end, the tank at the other end filled with water, keeping the ferry on an even keel.

Some suspected from the beginning that the ferry was bad luck. During her launch, the Peralta got stuck in the launching ramp. To old salts, this was a sign that the ship was jinxed. And it seemed to follow on February 14, 1928, when the ferry crew filled the wrong trim tank. As the passengers unloaded, the docking end of the Peralta sunk. Waves swept over the landing ramp, and many passengers went overboard. Five people drowned.

Another disaster struck the ship the night of May 6, 1933. The Peralta was docked at the Oakland ferry terminal, which caught fire. The fire spread to the ferry, and by morning, the upper decks were burned and twisted. Only the hull remained intact beneath the waterline.

The Puget Sound Navigation Company bought the remains of the ferry for $10.00 and towed her to the Lake Washington shipyards, where they rebuilt the superstructure. And rather than just rebuild a functional ferry, they decided to incorporate Art Deco features and aerodynamic stylings into its design. A Boeing employee carved a wooden model that the shipwrights used as a template. They welded aluminum and steel plates together on the new superstructure and painted it silver. The end result looked like airplane without wings (or a giant floating toaster). Even the new name fit the design: Kalakala is from the Chinook language and means, “fast flying bird.”

The Kalakala certainly seemed fly. She was the fastest ferry in the Puget Sound, making eight round trips between Bremerton and Seattle every day at a brisk eighteen knots an hour. It had room for 110 autos on her car deck. The remaining decks had room for 2,000 passengers. There were shower facilities for shipyard workers returning home, a lunch counter, three observation rooms, a sun deck and a ladies’ lounge. It became a hot nightspot. The lunch counter catered parties and the observation deck became a ballroom.

Despite the ferry’s rebirth, bad luck seemed to dog her new incarnation. The Kalakala’s distinctive design had serious drawbacks. The crew in the pilothouse had a hard time seeing where she was going. She ran into other ships and the ferry docks several times over the years. And sadly, at least one woman committed suicide in the Ladies’ Lounge.

Despite this, the Kalakala was a Seattle icon for decades, until she was simply too old to serve. Her engines needed an expensive overhaul, and by 1967, the increasing size of cars made it impossible to fit more than 60 cars on the car deck. At the same time, fewer passengers traveled on foot. The Kalakala’s owners decided to sell her that year, and a fishing company bought her and towed her to Alaska. She spent over 30 years there as a floating fish processor and cannery.

In 1998, Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis and the Kalakala Alliance Foundation purchased the ferry and towed her to the Puget Sound. They had plans to restore her, but the Kalakala’s bad luck seemed to follow, as the Foundation went bankrupt in 2003.

Even after a private buyer purchased her rusting bulk in 2004, she continued to be unlucky. She was towed to Neah Bay, where the Makah Indians had donated moorage, but she damaged one of their docks and they sued (but dropped it in 2006). Another buyer purchased her and she’s been moored in Tacoma since October 2004.

Today, the Kalakala Alliance Foundation has plans to fully restore the Kalakala. They’ve obtained state and national historic registrations and created a new master plan that places her in a park called “Columbia Gardens,” located in Tacoma. Perhaps the fast flying bird has really come home to roost this time.

Kalakala Ghosts
In 2001, Ross Allison, President of the Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle, Tacoma (AGHOST,) noticed the Kalakala, and contacted Peter Bevis. He asked if the ferry was haunted, and Bevis had a few tales to share with Allison, including a story from when the ferry was towed back to the Puget Sound in 1998.

The trip back took several days, and Bevis and several workmen he hired to help stayed on board during it. Bevis slept near the Ladies’ Lounge. Several times, he heard women talking and laughing, which at first he attributed to a nearby cannery. One night he heard what sounded like three women talking as they walked along the companionway outside his quarters.

He put on his shoes, grabbed a flashlight and then followed the sounds of the conversation. He trailed the sound down the next two decks, catching up at the foot of a spiral staircase. He could hear women giggling there, but could not see anyone. Then, the sounds stopped abruptly.

Bevis thought this ghostly manifestation might have had something to do with a passenger from 1940 named Adelaide Bebb. She had recently lost her father and sister in a car crash, and was not married (practically a tragedy itself in those days). Unable to cope, she shot herself in the Ladies’ Lounge.

In 2002, AGHOST and the Washington State Ghost Society toured the Kalakala with Bevis. Some of the sensitives in the group felt drawn to the Ladies’ Lounge and a female psychic detected the spirit of a woman who did not like men.

Other investigators brought devices that measured electromagnetic energy, which detected energy readings in the Ladies’ Lounge. The investigators set up motion detection sensors and energy detectors, connected to a computer that recorded all of the readings at the same time.

They left the Lounge and investigated other locations on the ferry, where they got more energy readings that coincided with the presence of the sad female spirit. When the psychic detected the spirit, the meters around her went off. As the technicians moved forward, the energy went down. The psychic moved, following the spirit, and the energy readings rose. The psychic suggested that the spirit moved away because the technicians were men, and she did not want them nearby.

When they returned to the Ladies’ Lounge, they had surprising results. The motion detectors worked by emitting low-level noises that bounced off of the walls. If someone stepped in front of the emitter, the signal bounced back too soon, telling the computer something had stepped inside the room. The motion detectors spiked several times while the investigators were away. Oddly, the computer indicated one of the sounds took too long to bounce back from the wall. The only way this could have happened was if the walls of the Kalakala had moved further away from the sensor.

Ross Allison speculated that the sound emitted by the sensor may have traveled out to the wall and back, but passed through something that was not solid; something that slowed down the sound waves long enough to trip the sensors. Unfortunately, they were not able to return for more investigations.

Weird Washington


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