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June 29, 2022

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Wahkiakum County Ferry’s tale is a historic one

Crossing is the last one remaining on the lower Columbia River

By , Columbian Features Editor
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The Wahkiakum County Ferry, Oscar B, has capacity for 23 vehicles. The ferry is the only connection across the Columbia River between the Lewis and Clark Bridge at River Mile 66 and the Astoria-Megler Bridge at River Mile 14.
The Wahkiakum County Ferry, Oscar B, has capacity for 23 vehicles. The ferry is the only connection across the Columbia River between the Lewis and Clark Bridge at River Mile 66 and the Astoria-Megler Bridge at River Mile 14. (Erin Middlewood/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

At just about every spot where a bridge spans the Columbia today, ferries once plied the river. Between Puget Island and Westport, Ore., one still does.

The Wahkiakum County Ferry is the last on the lower Columbia.

Drive aboard and let the rumble of the ferry’s engine lull you back to the days when ferries were the only way across.

After you park your car on the deck of the 115-foot vessel, you’ll need to hand the captain $6 in cash. Then you can roam around. Stand at the railing to feel the wind in your face. Look for osprey nests atop abandoned pilings or sea lions bobbing in the river. But do it quickly. The ride lasts only 11 minutes.

Without the Wahkiakum County Ferry, crossing the Columbia would require locals to drive either a half-hour east to the Lewis and Clark Bridge (between Longview and Rainier, Ore.) or 45 minutes west to the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

The ferry is a lifeline for residents on both sides of the river, but it’s also a fun diversion for tourists heading to the coast.

Wahkiakum County Ferry

From 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, the Wahkiakum County Ferry leaves the Puget Island dock at the end of state Highway 409 (a spur off Highway 4) on the hour; it leaves Westport, Ore., at a quarter-past.

A one-way trip is $6 for vehicles under 22 feet, $4 for motorcycles, $3 for bicycles and $2 for foot passengers. Cash only.

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“It can’t go away. Too many people rely on it,” said Darlene Jensen, accounting manager for Wahkiakum County’s public works department. The ferry carries workers to the paper mill in Wauna, Ore., for example.

Running a ferry is a big job for a small county, Jensen said. Only three other counties — Skagit, Pierce and Whatcom — operate ferries.

“We try to get the state to take it, but they just send money,” Jensen joked.

Washington considers the ferry part of state Highway 409, which connects Cathlamet to Puget Island, and supports 80 percent of its operating costs. In 2021, Wahkiakum County spent $1.1 million running the ferry, with fares covering about 24 percent of that and the state and the county sharing the rest of the bill.

Last year, 91,450 passengers rode the ferry, many of them likely repeat customers. By comparison, the Interstate 5 Bridge carries more than that every day.

It was the opening of the first I-5 Bridge span in 1917 that ended ferry service in Vancouver. The Longview bridge opened in 1930, and the Astoria bridge in 1966. But no bridge ever sprang up between those two. Instead, the ferry continued to do the job.

In 1925, Walter Coates began service with two eight-car ferries — one between Cathlamet and Puget Island, and the other to Westport. The 1939 opening of the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge between Cathlamet and Puget Island eliminated the need for that ferry crossing, but the ferry to Westport continued. Wahkiakum County took over the privately operated service in 1959.

In 1962, the county commissioned construction of a new 12-car ferry, the Wahkiakum. It remained in service until 2015, when it was replaced by a new ferry, the Oscar B, with capacity for 23 cars.

While two other Columbia ferry crossings remain in the state, both are above the Grand Coulee Dam — the Keller Ferry and the Gifford-Inchelium — making the Wahkiakum County Ferry the closest to Vancouver if you’re longing to experience an old-fashioned Columbia River crossing.

You can catch the ferry on the hour from Puget Island every day between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. Take Highway 409 (Main Street in Cathlamet) off Highway 4 and follow it to the ferry dock. Or catch the ferry on the Oregon side at quarter past the hour. Follow Westport Ferry Road off Highway 30 near the Berry Patch Restaurant, where you can stop for a slice of pie.

Either way, the ferry will take you back in time.

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