Before automobiles and highways paved the way to land transport, the waterways of Puget Sound were essential. When settlers first came to these inlets to homestead, Native American canoes and small watercrafts were the best method of transport. But this method of passage often required Native American guides, traveling in an open canoe for several hours and the man-powered craft was at the mercy of the strong tides, currents and weather of the Puget Sound waterways.
Towards the turn of the 19th century, the canoes were replaced as steam powered sternwheelers, side-wheelers and propeller crafts became available—which were capable of comfortably taking many passengers and freight.
These crafts became so ubiquitous and plentiful that they have been dubbed the Mosquito Fleet of Puget Sound. Later, as ships became tailored for these routes, more luxurious on-board amenities were provided, such as white table cloth dining and unusually, aboard the Eliza Anderson, the steam engine was put to further use as it powered a calliope – a keyboard instrument similar to an organ with music produced through a series of steam whistles. In many areas, such as the route between Seattle and Tacoma, the Mosquito Fleets established the routes later followed by the Washington State Ferries.
Perched on the Hood Canal, Case Inlet and Hammersley Inlet, Mason County, in particular, relied on the ships of the Mosquito Fleet to connect it with the hubbub of the rest of the State. Mail, supplies and later tourists were brought in by ship and local products such as oysters, salal, timber and canned fish were shipped out. Shelton and its early lumber industry was serviced by several ships, connecting it to Olympia. The Willie, Clara Brown, The Doctor, The Josephine, City of Shelton, Irene, Agnes, S.G. Simpson, Marie and the Emrose were just a few of these ships serving Shelton, Oakland Bay and Hammersley Inlet from the 1880s to the mid-1920s.
The 110-foot sternwheeler City of Shelton was built in 1895 in Shelton for the Shelton Transportation Company to replace the Willie on the Shelton-Olympia Route. According to historical gossip, the nick-name for the City of Shelton, propagated by the competing crew of the Marie was “Old Wet-Butt,” as she was built without a guard for her paddles causing water to splash up her stern. Captain and crew of these boats had to travel without the modern aids of GPS and sonar, using landmarks, compasses and problematic techniques such as rudimentary echolocation. As such, there were many marine accidents – some resulted in tragic loss of life and others were harmless such as the grounding of the City of Shelton on the tidal flats of Arcadia Point. Coming too close to shore on a low tide, in a thick fog, the City of Shelton was grounded for some time as the passengers and crew had to wait for the tide to rise to free her. Seizing upon the opportunity, the cook had himself lowered ashore on a bosun’s chair where he harvested three geoducks. Before the tide had risen he had made chowder to the delight of the passengers and the slight annoyance of the Captain who is recorded to have remarked: “Yah, you t’ink a steamer iss to dig clams.”
In 1907, the City of Shelton was replaced by the 117-foot sternwheeler, S.G. Simpson named after the logging pioneer Sol G. Simpson. The S.G. Simpson was much more efficient, she could make the trip from Shelton to Olympia in 90 minutes on a good tide. She served for many years, and she was the last of the Mosquito Fleet to run the route between Shelton and Olympia.
The communities of the Hood Canal provided many “whistle stops”—or quick stopovers—for the Mosquito Fleet. Boat day was an important occasion as freight, mail and news came in from the outside world. The story of the propeller steamer, the Dode and her stalwart skipper offers a snapshot into the enterprising services each of these ships struggled to provide. Originally called the William Bryant, she had previously been used as a “coffin-ship” transporting desperate gold-miners to Alaska in the 1890s. She was purchased in 1898 and renamed the Dode by Capt. Dan Troutman after his wife Dora Wells Troutman (1860-1937). This was the second ship of their flotilla and it was to be run by Dora who was also a licensed captain. She was highly respected and could do everything from setting the boilers to manning the tiller, to unloading freight. The Dode had an extensive overnight route, traveling from Pier 3 (now Pier 54) in Seattle to Union City, with stops along the way in Kingston, Port Gamble, Seabeck, Brinnon, Holly, Dewatto, Lilliwaup Falls and Hoodsport.
As well, the Troutmans were instrumental in delivering the mail and installing the postal system along the Hood Canal. The Troutmans picked out potential post offices and postmasters and gained direct approval for these choices from US Mail representatives whom they transported out to the Hood Canal to inspect their selections.
In 1899, Dora was met with crushing debt when her husband suddenly disappeared. Although she hired detectives, he could not be found—but it was discovered that before he left, Dan had sold their first boat the Delta and these funds were missing with him. It was rumored that he took the money and made for England.
The Dode was seized for arrears. Dora managed to have the Dode released back to her, and she operated her for another year attempting to get ahead of the debt, but in-the-end Dora was left with no option but to file for bankruptcy. Dora was forced to sell the Dode and a large part of their farm in Lilliwaup. However, on her remaining property in Lilliwaup she turned her hand to hospitality, and built a hotel in 1910, which she ran successfully until 1927.
Other ships of the Mosquito Fleet filled the gaps lefts by the Dode and Dora in the Hood Canal, and in 1914 early roadworks began to connect these places by car. In fact, Dora was the first woman to drive by automobile from Lilliwaup to Port Townsend along the newly completed Olympic Highway – an accomplishment of which she was very proud.
Although the practicality has passed away, the romance and legend of the Mosquito Fleet still lives on in Belfair. Mosquito Fleet Winery takes inspiration from the stories of ingenuity and endurance that made these little ships connect small communities with the major metropolises of Olympia and Seattle. Each of the winery’s award-winning vintages has a specially illustrated ship of the Mosquito Fleet adorning its label that share the stories of these little ships-that-could with a wider audience.