Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Short Career of the Alida

This iconic image of the Alida snug up to the shoreline of Seattle about 1870 has been frequently reproduced in newspapers and books. The Territorial University of Washington can be seen on the crest of the hill. The log pond is that of Yesler's Mill on the waterfront. Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

In 1870 local Washington papers announced a new member of Puget Sound's Mosquito Fleet.

The "Alida." -- This new steamer, formerly known as the Tacoma, intended for mail and passenger service between Olympia, Port Townsend and Victoria, and owned by the Starr Bros. of Portland, under the construction of Mr. Hammond, is now nearly completed, and will make her trial trip in about ten days, and on and after the first of July run regularly between the above named ports. Her length of keel is 115 feet; depth of hold 6 feet. She has one boiler with six ten-inch flues, and forty-four four-inch tubes, with a heating surface of twenty-two hundred feet; double engines of two hundred horse power, with 14 1/2 inch cylinders; and one mast with a jib-sail. On the upper deck there will be twelve state-rooms, one ladies' cabin, a dining saloon, 60 feet long, and a promenade deck forward of the pilot-house, and one aft of the ladies saloon. The model and powerful engines indicate considerable speed, whilst her general appearance in creditable to her builders. (The Commercial Age, June 18, 1870)

Lewis & Dryden describes the Alida as a "neat little craft" and explains  an early change in ownership. Apparently a man named Nash had secured the federal contract for mail delivery between Olympia and Victoria and commissioned the building of the new steamer to that end in Olympia, but for financial reasons he turned the vessel over to the Starr brothers before it was complete.  This may explain the reference in the above citation to the name Tacoma.

It is common to find references to the Alida's 20 year history. All agree that the steamer ended her days by fire in 1890 while anchored off Gig Harbor. Apparently a brush fire sent burning embers on the wind which set fire to the ship. However, a review of sources indicates that she ceased active life much earlier. An article in the Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer from 1884 states:

The Isabel, Alida and Otter have long been lying in Gig Harbor, out of commission. The Otter has been condemned and been shoved up on the beach. She will probably never again be floated, while the Alida is not expected ever again to turn a wheel. ("Steamboat Matters," April 16, 1884)

The Alida's short career was due both to her lack of sea-worthiness and to the cutthroat competition that abounded among the Puget Sound steamers of the day. In the days before highways and trucking firms, the cost of transporting mail, freight, and passengers throughout the inland waters of Puget Sound and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca was critical in determining success or failure on the water. Larger, faster boats had a natural advantage. 

An engraving of the Alida from Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1895.
Only a year after the Alida had entered service, her owners, the Starr brothers (the Oregon Railway and Navigation Co.), put a larger steamer, the North Pacific, on the Victoria mail run. The Alida was assigned to service only inland ports from Olympia to Seattle to Port Townsend, sometimes meeting up with her sister ship, the Isabel, which made the crossing to Victoria. The Starrs also faced stiff competition from a firm headed by George S. Wright which operated the large steamers Eliza Anderson and Olympia.

Competition between steamers sometimes involved actual races, both short and long. These events were trumpeted in the press and were the occasion for heavy betting. The Washington Standard, an Olympia paper, reported on one such contest in 1873:

The steamers Zephyr and Alida engaged in their usual weekly race last Wednesday, blowing their whistles at the same moment, casting off lines together, and starting from the dock almost abreast. The captains and owners show considerable pluck, but as the victory is always on one side -- in favor of the Zephyr -- we fail to see the object of this strife. ("Race," October 11, 1873)
This race exemplified the rivalry between a side-wheeler (the Alida) and a stern-wheeler (the Zephyr). More than once in the history of the little steamers, the operators of side-wheelers attempted unsuccessfully to drive stern-wheelers from the scene with unproven safety concerns.

The Alida came out on top in a contest of a different nature in 1876. It seems another vessel, the Eureka, accused the crew of the Alida of cutting the ship's hawser (mooring rope), perhaps deliberately.

The Eureka* claimed $30 for the hawser cut, $30 for dragging the bottom for its recovery, $25 for loss of half a day's time, and $10 for a steamer to tow her out of the harbor -- $95 in all. The plaintiff lost not only the damages but the costs of suit, amounting to upwards of $50. (Washington Standard, August 12, 1876)
In the mid 1870s there are newspaper mentions of the Alida carrying passengers and freight around Puget Sound, although it appears she had lost the all-important mail delivery contract to the North Pacific and others. An item in the Washington Standard from July 8, 1876, notes that "the (ss) Alida was obliged to get a special permit to carry the large number of passengers returning [to Olympia] from the Seattle 4th celebration." A similar item in that paper from 1874 refers to the vessel as "the old (ss) Alida" -- only five years after her keel was laid! Nostalgia seems to have been a manufactured commodity in many cases.

Mentions of the Alida in newspapers peter out about 1877 and it is likely that she was spent more than a decade cooling her heels in one or more ports-of-call. She did make one attempt to escape her fate. The Seattle Daily P-I reported in 1883,

The steamboats Alida and Isabel, which have been moored off the railroad wharf for some months, on Saturday last dragged their anchors and went to sea without commander or pilot. The steamer Otter, lying at the wharf, was sent after them. She towed them into Quartermaster Harbor [Vashon Island], where they are now anchored. (January 13, 1883)
The geography of this paragraph is somewhat questionable. It is highly unlikely that the sisters left Puget Sound. A likely scenario is that they slipped their moorings at Gig Harbor and headed into the Sound where they were overtaken by the Otter in the passage between that community and Vashon Island.

Despite her few years on the water, the Alida, like many of the Mosquito Fleet, left an indelible mark on maritime history. An 1883 item in the Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer refers to the little steamer as "that favorite of the traveler of by-gone days" -- those days being only five or six years distant. The column details the visit of the former captain of the Alida  to Seattle, noting "Mr. Harker looks as young and handsome as when in the '70s he daily mashed the girls in the towns on the route of the Alida." (August 18, 1883)

A scale model of the Alida graces the gallery at Foss Maritime Seaport in Tacoma.

-- Eleanor Boba

Sources for this essay include Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest; Joe Williamson and Jim Gibbs, Maritime Memories of Puget Sound; various articles from the Seattle Daily Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Times, and the Washington Standard.

*Note, this would not be the ferryboat Eureka, now berthed at San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier, which was built in 1890.