The Mosquito Fleet Steamers that Brought Life to Yukon Harbor.

The original South Kitsap village of Colby took its name from this small ship that was owned by a Captain Cresswell and built in Seattle about 1884. It was named after a local native chief, who was a friend of the captain. The captain and the town fathers struck a deal: regular service would be given to the Yukon Harbor area in return for publicity for the shipping company. COLBY probably measured 30 feet in length, and featured a large towing bit on the after deck used for towing logs and barges. Photo provided by JB Hall.

The term “Mosquito Fleet” is often misunderstood, people thinking that it was an official organization or designation that served all of Puget Sound and Seattle. The truth is that there were so many steamers of varying types and sizes that it became popular to say that “they were buzzing around Puget Sound like a swarm of mosquitoes,” thus it is more of a catchphrase. The so-called fleet, is said to have included as many as 2500 vessels of all types of ships, big and small: side-wheelers, stern-wheelers, sailboats, propeller-driven tugs, and even oared boats.

For the most part, the “fleet” consisted of small ships, some as small as 15 feet in length, propelled by small single- and double-expansion wood-fired engines capable of towing a barge or a boom of timber. The first flat-bottomed ships would nose up on the beach and offload passengers via a plank dropped off of the bow. This was a chancy proposition, and it was possible to damage the ship if a rock was encountered. The Curley Creek area, with its sandy beach, was ideal for this technique. A more “sophisticated” means of delivery involved a raft of logs anchored offshore with a sack of heavy rocks; this required a friend to row out to deliver and pick up passengers. In 1890 a 400-foot bridge was built across the creek, and the designers cleverly included a trussed span in the middle that allowed goods to be hoisted up from a small steamship anchored below.

Initially, modest ships like ALTA, SWIFTSHIRE, GRACE, HATTIE HANSEN and COLBY regularly stopped here, and later with the addition of purpose-built piers the larger and more capable SENTINEL, ADVANCE, RELIANCE, and KITSAP brought passengers and cargo to the area. The first pier, located at Colby, was built in 1901.

Automobile ferry service began about 1925, and included stops at Manchester and Harper (Southworth did not come into use until many years later) and dramatically changed travel. Many of the first ferries were actually re-built steamers, but when San Francisco’s bridges were completed, reducing the demand for ferry service, many of the automobile-carrying boats from there were re-located to Puget Sound.

Here are a few photographs of the so-called “Mosquito Fleet” steamers that plied the Yukon Harbor route of Puget Sound from 1857 to 1925. Most of these photographs are specific to the area. Click on any image to view fully.

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The YOSEMITE (below) went aground on the bank of Sinclair Inlet in a fog in 1909. In the earliest days, sidewheelers and sternwheelers were the “modern” technology, and were a commonplace. Members of the Joseph Squire Grant family rowed around Rocky Point and took this photo. Photo provided by Shirlee Toman.

The steamer CARLISLE shown steaming off of Manchester in 1912. This is the forerunner to the “foot passenger ferryboat” currently operated by the Kitsap County Department of Transportation. Faintly in the distance is Mt. Ranier. Photo from Manchester Memories.

The mosquito fleet steamer DONCELLA, probably arriving at Colby around the turn of the century. It appears to be dangerously overloaded, and if it had foundered it is certain that many of these people would have drowned. The townspeople often referred to the DONCELLA as their “sturdy, small steamer” so she may have been based in Colby for a time.

Sporting a narrow beam and graceful lines, the passenger steamer DARING slides through the water with barely a wake. The ship measured 100 feet in lenght and was rated at 163 tons.

The Harper dock (above) was one of the very first auto ferry piers built on Puget Sound. Service began about 1925, and a rebuilt version of this pier still stands at the same location.

This sign above the Haper Ferry pier greeted the first automobiles in the 1920’s and touted the route to the nationally-known Olympic National Park, which lay well to the west. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge had not yet been built, so the Seattle-to-Harper service was a popular route to the landmark. The rather informal town of Harper lies beyond the pier. It did not have a “main street” but boasted a sizable brick factory, school, post office and several timber businesses. Photo provided by Shirlee Toman.

The smaller steamers that were the backbone of everyday transportation were built in small boat shops, like this one believed to have been located in Harper. This photo shows the NINA E being launched. Below, the THERESA is also launched from the boatbuilding same shop, which may have been run by the Foss family. Photos provided by Shirlee Toman.

This view of THERESA was apparently taken the same day of the launching, above. The land mass in the background appears to be South Colby. Photo provided by Shirlee Toman. Below, a very early auto ferry parked at Manchester Dock.


3 thoughts on “The Mosquito Fleet Steamers that Brought Life to Yukon Harbor.

  1. Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing preserving the history and heritage of our area. I currently live in South Colby in a house built in 1901 and at one time known as the Sound View Poultry farm. I have quite a bit of historical documentation on the ownership of this property. I am interested to know if anyone has come across any information about that enterprise.

    My grandfather was born in Kitsap County and his father Walter Willard cole married Fannie Anna Lloyd, the daughter of Frank George Lloyd. My grandfather was the oldest of 14 children. I’m wondering if anyone knows the origin of the Cole Loop and how it was named. Perhaps there is a connection.

    Susan Cole Kelley

  2. As a longtime follower of your historical efforts, congratulations on doing an outstanding job of digging into local history and getting to the roots of our towns, ships, and people. At our monthly meetings, it seems like somebody always bring forth a tidbit from your site. We can’t help but notice that you have several original photos of the old steamships that haven’t been seen before! Looking forward to your next post.

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