For three years following the nation’s transcontinental railroad completion in 1869, it was linked to the rest of the national rail network with a railcar ferry at Omaha. Similar operations were established across the country for various reasons. Santa Fe used a carfloat to extend the western reach of its line from Richmond, Calif., to the port of San Francisco. Railroad car ferries across Lake Michigan eliminated delays through the congested Chicago terminal. Even today, New York New Jersey Rail operates carfloats between Brooklyn and Jersey City, a stop-gap awaiting a freight rail tunnel that may never come.
The use of car ferries and floats also allowed railways to connect where bridges and tunnels were unfeasible. Grand examples include Florida East Coast’s ferry linking Key West to Havana, Cuba (105 miles); the CG Railway railcar ferry from Mobile, Ala., to Veracruz, Mexico, (900 miles); and perhaps most impressive of all, Alaska Railroad’s carfloat operation linking Whittier to Seattle, nearly 2,000 miles away.
My favorite, though, is in Washington state, and is an example of yet another way that ferries and carfloats were used by railways — as a means to invade a competitor’s territory. The line I have in mind is the old Milwaukee Road Port Angeles Subdivision. Built in fits and starts throughout the early 20th century, the Port Angeles line linked its namesake town with Port Townsend, 50 miles east. This is the heart of Washington’s timber country and well within the area that Northern Pacific considered exclusively its own. To upset NP and reach the two towns, Milwaukee turned to a 40-mile barge operation on Puget Sound, linking Port Townsend with Seattle.
Though Milwaukee was often financially troubled, the Port Angeles line endured into the 1970s. Unfortunately, Milwaukee was never able to reinvest in the branch. Several wood Howe truss bridges, original to the line, remained in service, sources of slow orders and maintenance headaches. More critically, by 1978 the wooden ferry apron at Port Townsend was in such poor shape that the railway placed weight restrictions on it, and in the process killing almost half of the branch’s traffic.
When Milwaukee ceased western operations in 1980, there was still enough business on the Port Angeles line that several local businessmen formed Seattle & North Coast (SNCT) to take it over. Few lines were ever so quaint, or so doomed. As strapped for cash as Milwaukee had been, SNCT assembled a used locomotive fleet as anachronistic as the line itself, a gaggle of first-generation diesels, the stars of which were three streamlined, ex-Great Northern EMD F7s acquired secondhand from Burlington Northern. Operation began just days after Milwaukee pulled up stakes.
The big mills at Port Angeles and Port Townsend kept carloads high, but not enough. Repairs to the ferry apron remained unaddressed and with estimates of well above $800,000, the little short line just didn’t have the cash. On March 25, 1984, the tug Diane Foss pulled the last barge of railcars away from the Port Townsend apron toward the outside world at Seattle’s Pier 27. For those few last years, with its F-units, tugboats, and barges of boxcars, it was a grand dream.
—Consulting Editor ALEXANDER BENJAMIN CRAGHEAD is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.