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Life and Times in Leschi: The Leschi Ferry Dawn, Part 2

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

When we left off last month, the redoubtable Lake Washington ferry Dawn had mostly sunk at the Leschi dock in a ferocious 1923 storm.

Enter some early Leschi residents. Harry McElhaney Sr, along with his nine-year-old son, Harry Jr, went down to have a look the next morning. Finding a way onboard, they clambered up to the nice wooden sign displaying the ship’s name. (See arrow on the photo above.) When they left, the fine old Dawn sign left with them. It stayed in the family for what is now 100 years, and counting. The younger Harry’s daughter interviewed her father 70-some years later for an article in the Leschi News of May 1996. She now displays the sign by her Leschi window that looks out upon the ferry’s long-ago pathway to Mercer Island.

Photos of the boat from before the sinking show the sign atop the boat, but it is definitely missing in subsequent pictures.

The McElhaney family left another lasting mark on the neighborhood. On the 1100 block of 32nd Avenue South is a tall redwood tree planted in 1923 by the senior McElhaney’s wife, Kathy.

Missing sign or no, the Dawn was repaired and back in service the following April, continuing the run, without further catastrophe, until October 1938, when it was retired. By that time, according to Captain Gilbert, the boat was “so patched up you can’t hardly find any of the original ship left.” (It would have been out of work by 1940 anyway, when the opening of the Floating Bridge brought an end to ferry service from Leschi.) It may have been used as a party boat over the next few years. Subsequently, with the engine and boiler removed, it was moored at the Atlantic City Boatyard, not far from Rainier Beach High School.

The ferry remained at Atlantic City, later partially sunken, until September 1946. Authorities considered it a nuisance because children were able to get aboard and could be injured. King County Sheriff’s deputies and Harbor Patrol officers refloated the boat and towed it out to deeper water, where it was sunk. Exploration divers report that numerous other scuttled boats are to be found on the lake bottom in that vicinity.

Captain Gilbert, after the Dawn was beached, took over the helm of the ferry Leschi, on the Madison Park-to-Kirkland run, from 1940 to 1950, when service from the Leschi dock ended. (Faithful readers will recall that it’s the boat I rode shortly before I was born.) Gilbert was later memorialized with a bronze statue at the old Leschi LakeCafe (now BluWater). He lived across the street from the ferry dock and drank at Benson’s Café, which preceded the LakeCafe by many years. He reportedly ate apples to sober up before taking the helm. The Times noted that, like its real-life predecessor, the statue had a hollow leg. Unfortunately, the 350-pound statue, mounted to a concrete base, was stolen from outside BluWater and has not been found since.

This publication would be interested to hear from any readers who have a clue about the statue’s later whereabouts. Did it end up in some family’s rec room? If so, are they tired of it and would they like to give it back? Or was it perhaps melted down for the cold cash, never to be recovered?

~Roger Lippman

The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 47 years in the neighborhood.


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