Islander boats

This is the final in a series of four “Mercer Island Old & New” columns written by Virginia Ogden Elliott (1908-1981) and first published in the Reporter on March 22, 1961. “Nin” tells of the Island’s boats of the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the legendary steamer, Dawn.

The Boats

The Triton, the Aquilo, the Fortuna, and J.M. Coleman’s Cyrene were household words to Islanders, and we children could tell by the sound of their whistles which boat was passing in the fog.

The Calypso and the Cyrene played a vital part in our childhood.

One foggy night, the Calypso missed its way and piled up on top of our sewer pipe, breaking it and giving us a night of excitement. It took the whole neighborhood to get her afloat again. Not so lucky was the Cyrene, but it made fresh water captains of us children; for, after its disintegration, Mr. Coleman gave our dad (Ray Ogden) the pilot house. It sat for years up on our hill, where we could look out over the lake as we steered our courses to parts unknown.

The Virginia V, known later to generations of Camp Fire Girls, became a substitute boat whenever our regular boats were laid up. This top-heavy, high-sided boat belonged to Mr. Carmine and was no favorite of ours. Because of its high sides, we called it “the cattle boat” and were always glad when it left our run. The Virginia V won an undying place in history as the “Camp Sealth boat,” shuttling countless girls to and from Seattle and Vashon Island in later years.

Not so lucky was the Aquilo. After the lake was lowered in 1916 and before the snag boat dragged the tops off the Sunken Forest, the Aquilo ran afoul of one of the petrified tree-tops and ripped a great hole in its hull.

Later, the Geodetic Survey boats took the forest tops off to a safe depth of 20 feet below the surface by dragging a cable between two boats. We could no longer see the ghostly limbs reaching up from the shadows of the lake. So badly was the Aquilo damaged that her hull was cut in two to make another boat of another name, and her identity was lost forever.

Another Anderson boat used on the Island run was the Fortuna, which ran between Seattle and Fortuna Park (now Covenant Shores), carrying picnickers and sightseers and conducting the much-advertised “moonlight tours” around the Island. She eventually was modified into a sort of ferry boat and ended her career on San Francisco Bay. The Atlanta became the sightseer that made daily runs all summer through the locks from Leschi dock to the Seattle waterfront as part of the Grayline Tours.

The best-known and most remembered of Johnny Anderson’s fleet was the little steamer, Dawn. It was for many years our link with the outside world of “town.” We learned that the little Dawn was only half a boat; that as a bigger boat, it burned and was converted into the Dawn and the Evening Star. And that explains our Dawn’s funny sawed-off stern.

Inside, it was divided like all Gaul, into three parts. The inside cabin was for the women, children and transient travelers; the outside and upper decks for the teenagers; and the warm engine room with benches for the men. You might say this was the smoking section, for no women were bold enough to smoke on the boat in those days. Most of Mercer Island’s affairs were settled in that warm oil-smelling, smoke-filled cabin. It was at once transportation and city hall.

“We didn’t need a community club in those days,” writes Judy Gellatly in the ‘History of Mercer Island.’ “We had the Dawn.”

Our fathers sat in a certain irrevocable order on the long benches and we remember in amusement one of them standing reading his paper, glancing up occasionally until an offender took the hint and moved to another seat. You could find them in their same seats every day: Mr. Higday, Fred Clarke, Ray Ogden, Jim Lane, Mr. Albin, Mr. Kellogg, and so on. Newer Islanders or summer cottage folk sat on the other side of the boiler, as did a few bold women who knew no better.

Behind the hooded boiler in the warmest spot crowded the teenagers, all giggles, scuffling and chewing gum. We took the Dawn first to Franklin High and later to Garfield High in Seattle in those days. The overflow from the choice boiler seats hung over the square stern, or roistered on the top deck, thus causing the harassed purser to make frequent trips through the cabin to remonstrate at such goings on. Or, in a final show of authority, summon the captain to turn the wheel over to a patiently waiting youngster while law and order was forcibly restored.

In later years, we realized that such outbursts rarely occurred on morning runs, when town-going fathers lined the benches. We waited long in the pilot house on the school boat to get our chance at steering the Dawn for a few blissful minutes, until Frank returned. Many years later, when our small daughter rode the Dawn all alone to Grandfather on the Island, she sat upon Frank’s knee and had her turn as captain of the Dawn.

To contact Nancy Hilliard, e-mail her at

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