MV Kalakala: The Rusting Hulk of Iconic Art Deco Ferry (Before Scrapping)

The abandoned hulk of Art Deco ferry MV Kalakala before scrapping (Image: Guy de Gouville/SolDuc Photography; the decaying hulk of MV Kalakala)

She was an Art Deco masterpiece of the high seas. Motor Vessel Kalakala was nothing short of futuristic when she was launched in 1935, embracing an elegant modern design that gradually took on a retro charm as the years passed by. During the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair she was voted the city’s second most popular attraction after the Space Needle. And from the time she set sail until her retirement in 1967, the unique ferry afforded passengers a level of modern style and luxury never before experienced on the waters of Puget Sound. Yet her early years were almost as troubled as her fate.

Promotional artwork for the Art Deco ferry MV Kalakala (Image: Drums600)

For all her elegance, popularity and stylistic appeal throughout the middle third of the 20th century, MV Kalakala was blighted by a somewhat chequered career. The ferry’s beginnings had been troubled. She was built in 1926 under the name Peralta and was destined for San Francisco Bay. But when arsonists set fire to the moored vessel in 1933, Peralta’s entire superstructure was largely destroyed. The scorched hull was sold to the Puget Sound Navigation Company (aka Black Ball Line) and a major refurbishment got underway to restore the floating wreck.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 2 (Image: Guy de Gouville/SolDuc Photography)

Had it not been for the fire, though, MV Kalakala may never have acquired the unique lines for which she was best known. A radical modern look was sought, and Boeing engineer Louis Proctor produced a concept to match the bold vision of company bosses. The sweeping, Art Deco wonder that emerged incorporated elements of aircraft design into a gleaming superstructure, with a copper-clad wheelhouse set back in the manner of a cockpit and a flying bridge to mimic wings. The relaunched vessel was christened Kalakala, meaning “bird” in Chinook Jargon, the region’s trade language.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 3 (Image: Guy de Gouville/SolDuc Photography)

The vessel was an instant hit with tourists and locals alike, becoming an icon of the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. Before the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937, MV Kalakala was the most photographed object in the world after the Eiffel Tower. At 276 ft-long with a displacement of 1,475 tons, she cut an awesome sight as she plied the Sound. With its beautiful Art Deco interior, the ferry even offered moonlight cruises complete with live orchestra, and boasted modern luxuries including a men’s taproom, ladies’ lounge and full-service galley.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 4 (Image: Guy de Gouville/SolDuc Photography)

But World War Two brought with it the role of personnel carrier between Seattle and the US Navy shipyards of Bremerton, and MV Kalakala – which was soon dubbed The Workhorse of Puget Sound – fell victim to vandalism. She would later offer tours of those same shipyards during the 1962 World’s Fair. But by then, the iconic ferry was beginning to show her age, and her designers’ focus on form over function had unwittingly condemned the grand ship to early obsolescence.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 8 (Image: Guy de Gouville/SolDuc Photography)

The width of her car deck had been compromised in the interests of appearances, which didn’t sit well with the larger cars of post-war America. Furthermore, the set-back position of the wheelhouse made docking difficult since the crew couldn’t see the ship’s bow. Combined with a heavy vibration reverberating through the superstructure, likely from poorly-aligned engines, the way was paved for younger ferries to usurp her. Around this time, the beautiful MV Kalakala – which had been known as the Silver Swan – acquired less than complimentary nicknames including Silver Slug, Cockroach and even the Galloping Ghost of the Pacific Coast.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 6 (Image: Joegoodfriend)

In 1967, this iconic yet tired icon of Puget Sound was finally withdrawn from service. She was sold to a seafood processing company and used as a factory ship in Alaska, before being beached in 1970 at Kodiak for shrimp processing.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 7 (Image: Choking Sun)

By 1984, the vessel that once symbolised the future had been turned into a cannery, its insides ripped out and replaced with a bland concrete floor and drywall. But restoration plans were proposed and she was re-floated and towed back to Seattle in 1998. But nothing came of them, and the plight of Kalakala’s deteriorated hulk continued unabated.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-being-scrapped (Image: Joegoodfriend)

By 2004, the ailing MV Kalakala arrived in Neah Bay, Washington, a corroding shadow of her former grandeur. From that point on, the vessel’s presence became the centre of controversy, as legal wranglings between her owners, the state of Washington and the Coast Guard slowly condemned Kalakala to the breakers. In January 2015 it was announced – finally – that the rusting shell would be scrapped. Less than three weeks later, MV Kalakala was towed from Hylebos Waterway to Tacoma and broken up. By early February, little was left of what was once an Art Deco masterpiece of transportation design, a future that quickly became outdated. Gone but not forgotten, she now has her own website.

The-abandoned-hulk-of-Art-Deco-ferry-MV-Kalakala-before-scrapping 5 (Image: Guy de Gouville/SolDuc Photography; the “preserved” wheelhouse)



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