As we move forward with the opening this week of the new Mukilteo Ferry Terminal, we thought it appropriate to look back at the start of the car ferry service at Clinton.
In the summer of 1919 the first car ferry service began on South Whidbey.
(View the late Bill Hunziker’s account in the attached video.)
The mosquito fleet provided passenger service to and from the Island for years, but about 1918 it became obvious that the automobile was fast replacing the horse and buggy and that a ferry built to transport cars was needed. (Prior to this, a few cars were loaded onto scows or barges and brought over.)
Two visionary men arrived in Clinton with the idea of starting a car ferry service. They became pioneers in the cross sound ferry service but also fierce rivals in the business that erupted into fistfights and court cases.
Captain Olaf Joyce came from Minnesota and started a purse seining business. He later added tugboats to his operations. He saw the automobile as the wave of the future. He, his brothers, and Captain H.B. Lovejoy formed the Whidby Island Transportation Company.
Willis Nearhoff, (originally from Indiana) came to Whidbey Island also with the idea of starting a car ferry service.
Joyce commissioned Nearhoff to build the Whidby I, a fifty-nine foot gas driven car ferry.
Nearhoff at the same time built his own carry ferry, the Central I. Both boats were similar and built at Columbia Beach. Nearhoff actually launched his boat on July 10, 1919, but did not put it into service until August 26, 1919.
Joyce’s car ferry, went into actual service on August 10,1919. It ran between Mukilteo and Phinney Beach about a mile below the present ferry dock. Phinney Beach is the site where Jim and John’s Resort was later built.
Nearhoff started service two weeks later running between Everett and Clinton. Nearhoff’s Clinton Dock was about a thousand feet south of the present ferry terminal.
Hard feelings developed between the two ferry operators. It came to a head when Captain FG Reeve bought controlling interest in the Whidbey Transportation Company. He commissioned the Whidbey II to be built. It was a larger ferry that could carry twenty five to thirty five cars. It made the run between Clinton, Langley, and Everett. It was in direct competition with the Central I. The strain became so great between the two ferry lines that a fistfight erupted outside of the Progressive Hall in Clinton.
Nearhoff appealed to the courts to settle the question. Do counties or does the state have the right to control ferry services. It became a test case for all cross sound ferry operations. It was ruled that the state had the right to control all boats operated outside any county within inland waters.
Eventually both ferry services were purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company better known as the Black Ball Line. By the late nineteen twenties the dock was moved to its present location.
*The material in this document was derived from Lorna Cherry’s book “South Whidbey and Its People Volume II” and Bill Hunziker whose father was a captain on the ferry.