In the days before roads and railways, Puget Sound residents and cargo traveled by waterways and rivers from community to community. The inlets and bays of Puget Sound made for a natural transportation route. From the 1850’s to around 1930, hundreds of steamers moved up and down Puget Sound, carrying everything from people, timber, and machinery to food, livestock, and mail. At one time, it was reported that there were nearly 1,000 steamers, which the public described as a “swarm of mosquitoes.”
The first steamboat to operate on Puget Sound was the Beaver, a sidewheeler built in London, which began service in the late 1830’s. The Fairy, a steamboat sidewheeler built in San Francisco brought to Puget Sound, offered the first formal schedule, published in the Columbian newspaper in November of 1853. The next steamboat on the Sound was the Major Tompkins, which arrived the following year and had an iron hull and propeller. Other steamers soon appeared and found success during the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858 by transporting supplies and gold seekers. Bellingham Bay was a jumping off point for the rush into British Columbia.
Newer steamboats arrived in the 1860’s and 1870’s, mostly built of wood and brought to the area or built locally, including those built at Lake Bay in South Puget Sound. Eventually, there were over 40 different steamboat routes on Puget Sound. Some vessels were even purpose-built for a particular route. Some of these routes were for high-speed passenger routes only.
By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, regular steamer passenger and freight service among Puget Sound communities had reached an end, the last scheduled run occurred in 1939. The arrival of the diesel-electric auto ferries replaced the old Mosquito Fleet.
The Virginia V is the last steamer vessel of her kind and is a National Historic Landmark. She is docked on Lake Union at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. The “Steamer Virginia V Foundation” was formed in 1976 dedicated to the ship’s preservation. The vessel is used for public excursions, weddings, and other events. Tours of the Virginia V are available as scheduled; for more information see https://www.virginiav.org/, look under “events.”