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.
“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.