SS City of Seattle

Ferry History

The SS City of Seattle was built in Portland and launched in 1888. She was the first ferry on Puget Sound and today is the oldest surviving ferryboat on the West Coast.

Originally commissioned by Seattle speculators who were convinced the Pacific Railway was going to terminate in West Seattle, they bought up all the land and built the Seattle to begin the first regularly scheduled service on Puget Sound.  There she ran for 35 years, setting several speed records in the process.

In 1923 automobiles had become more common. The “old ferry” City of Seattle, was purchased by the City of Benicia to provide the first auto link on Carquinez Straits. By now she had been rebuilt to replace the single pilothouse in the middle with pilothouses at each end. As a “double ender”, meaning the ferry would simply reverse directions rather than turning for the return trip, dual pilot houses made it a lot easier to see where you were going and to steer. Also it was a lot cooler not to have the stack running through your pilothouse.

The City of Seattle saw her final service during WWII as a yard ferry, carrying 900 shipyard workers to Mare Island in Vallejo. Eventually she was retired in 1946 and moored in the Vallejo estuary.

The Tellis family came across her, beached and rotting in 1956. At the time they had already lived on two old ferries in Sausalito, the Vallejo and the Issaquah. It made perfect sense to adopt the City of Seattle and turn her into a private residence on the Sausalito waterfront. Since the waterfront was also a hotbed of painters and sculptors, it also seemed obvious to paint her bright yellow, a color originally mixed by the legendary artist, Jean Varda.  

Maintaining the wooden Ferry turned out to be a big project. For one thing, there is an underwater worm in Sausalito called a toredo that can turn a 4x4 into a 2x2 in a year. Although they could not survive in the brackish waters of Carquinez Straits, they love the waters in San Francisco Bay and proceeded to devour the wooden hull with great relish. Eventually the ferry sank and remained for 12 years as a ark moored in the mud flats, with only the main deck above high tide. Throughout these years, Miriam Tellis continued to live on the Ferry and run the marina, eponymously called Yellow Ferry Harbor.

In 1983, the younger Tellis son, Christopher, decided to restore the ferry and refloat her on a new concrete barge. This took five years, but on Bastille Day in 1988, the City of Seattle came off the bottom on the incoming tide and floated again. There was an enormous party.

Over the next couple of years, the Yellow Ferry was fully restored with new, double wall redwood, central heating and modern wiring and accommodations throughout. Overall living and shop space on the Yellow Ferry is 8,000 square feet. She is being lovingly maintained and should survive for several centuries. The Tellis family still lives on the other half of the Ferry and owns and manages the marina. 

  © Chris Tellis 2012