What is the Mosquito Fleet?
The Mosquito Fleet was the myriad of steamboats that served the Puget Sound’s shipping and transit needs for the more than 50 years that straddled the dawn of the 20th century. The name, so the story goes, came from a fellow in an office overlooking Elliot Bay and remarking as he observed all the boat activity that it looked like a “swarm of mosquitoes.”
In the early 1850's, as the settler population grew, ancillary businesses developed; stores, brickyards, boat builders, dry docks, hotels and services for summer visitors. Since there were only trails in this land, heavily forested to the water’s edge, the population was supported by the steamboats collectively called the Mosquito Fleet that used the Sound as a watery freeway to move mail, products and passengers.
The fleet was the lifeblood of the community and commerce that launched the Pacific Northwest. Steamer schedules governed daily lives, and the whistle of an approaching boat was the call to collect the mail, greet friends, or send a package. To ride on a steamboat was an occasion, a chance to visit and enjoy the leisurely, often long passage to the city. Old-timers recall the smooth, gleaming wood on the passenger cabins, the box lunches en route, and the fact that, for a child, the journey enlarged the world.
About the Boats
In short, a Mosquito Fleet boat was a craft of any size that performed any required task on Puget Sound.
The smallest was less than 40 feet long and the largest nearly 300 feet. As passenger and freight businesses grew, the boats became larger, and there came a distinction in nomenclature. Generally boats over 50 feet were called steamboats; those under that were called launches.
When they first arrived (the Beaver was the earliest to the Northwest in 1836), these boats ran all over Puget Sound and even into Canada. They simply went where they were needed. By 1880, they began to settle into regular routes, though boats changed hands and moved to different parts of Puget Sound quite often.
In the beginning, they were steam powered, first by wood, later by coal, and still later by oil. There were experiments: non-steam engines boiled naptha (an idea soon abandoned) and then, more safely, were fueled with gasoline. Boilers sometimes exploded, or heat caused fires with disastrous results.
They fleet delivered passengers, mail, newspapers, produce, fish, eggs, bricks, shingles, brush, logs and more. Basically if there was water access and it could be loaded or towed, a Mosquito Fleet boat took care of it.
So many boats did so many different duties that it was not always possible to define a boat as a tugboat, freight boat, or passenger boat.
Boat Design and Construction
In the beginning, the early steamers were built elsewhere - England, the East Coast, San Francisco, or Portland - and their designs reflected riverboats, which had shallow drafts for travelling at low water, and advantage on Puget Sound. Before docks, a boat that could run up close to a sloping shore needed only a gangplank to load passengers and goods. If that was not possible, the transfers took place from a rowboat. By 1880, local builders began competing in the growing market for boats. Not all boats were built in boatyards though. Some were built on the beach, like the Virginia V, even as late as 1922.
In design, an early steamboat usually had a wooden hull with a sharp bow, a fine stern, a wide flat deck, and a flat bottom. The lower deck contained the engine and space for cordwood (later fuel tanks), cargo and passengers. These designs evolved as the engines gained more power and freight, such as crates and cars, became bulkier. If there were an upper deck, passengers would be carried there, often in separate cabins; the men could smoke in theirs. Facilities ranged from primitive to elegant, occasionally with a dining room. Staterooms were sometimes offered on very long routes, perhaps from Olympia to Victoria, but were not part of the standard design.
The End of an Era
The Mosquito Fleet era ended as customers switched their allegiance to cars and paved highways. The traditional design of the steamers were outmoded, too, as newer boats came down the ways with gasoline or diesel motors instead of steam, propellers instead of paddle wheels, and steel instead of wooden hulls. To survive, the fleet tried to adapt, the larger boats finding new life as ferries, the smaller ones as tugboats, freighters, or excursion boats. Ultimately, they did not endure. By the 1920’s, car ferries were taking over, and passenger-only patronage was declining. By the 1930s, they were gone.