The little ferry that could

By guest blogger Steve Pierce

Wahkiakum County officials have our thanks for quickly stepping up and adding extra runs on the Lower Columbia River’s last remaining ferry, the Wahkiakum. This helps meet the unusual demand as people find ways to deal with the closure of State Route 4 about 5 miles west of Longview on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

A mudslide Tuesday morning covered SR 4 near Stella. In the process of cleanup, geotechnical experts discovered that the hillside above is unstable. Unfortunately, this means the road will remain closed until early next week while a contractor excavates the unstable slope and removes dangerous trees.

People who need to get past the closed roadway now must travel on US 30 on the Oregon side of the river, then cross to the Washington side via Wahkiakum County’s unique, open-air, 12-vehicle ferry. (The ferry takes you from Westport, Ore., to Puget Island, which is connected to the Washington mainland by the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge.)

Because of the increased demand, Wahkiakum County has essentially doubled the frequency of the ferry service and extended operation to 24 hours a day, instead of the usual 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule.

If you have never ridden this unusual little ferry, put it on your list of things to do – perhaps not now, however, because the wait time can be as long as three hours because of the SR 4 closure. The county has operated the vessel since 1962, with financial support from the state of Washington since 1969 since it is considered an extension of SR 409. The Wahkiakum operates 365 days a year with a minimum of 18 runs a day – basically on the hour from the Cathlamet side. The ferry and its predecessor vessels have an interesting history that goes back to 1925 (pdf 12 KB).

While you’re at it, consider exploring the historic town of Cathlamet, first established as a trading post in 1846 and the home for many years of the late U.S. Rep. Julia Butler Hansen.