Moored Ferry Harbors Big Dreams, Big Complaints -- Owner Calls It Great, Neighbors Call It Folly

ANDERSON ISLAND, Pierce County - Chet and Helen Palmer have a 365-passenger, 50-car ferry in their front yard.

It sits high in the shallow water covering the mud flats of tranquil Vega Bay, a steel vessel with a rich history begun on the Delaware River in 1923.

The engine is gone, and its blue and white paint is chipping. The Ocean City is not particularly beautiful as ferries go. It looks like it hasn't seen much recent use.

So it's hard not to ask, what on earth is it doing there, moored in front of the Palmers' small home?

"Well, it's kind of part of the family," said Helen Palmer with a note of surprise at such a question.

The ferry belongs to Chet Palmer's son, Tom, who has a contract with Pierce County to run the ferry service between Anderson Island and Steilacoom. He bought it in 1984, thinking it could serve as the backup ferry for the route.

A long voyage

Palmer discovered the Ocean City on the James River in Virginia just as it was being retired after years of service.

Driven from run to run by the construction of major bridges and tunnels, it went from crossing the Delaware River to Chesapeake Bay, then to Norfolk and Newport News, Va.

Finally it was sent up the James River when a new tunnel-bridge connected Hampton to Norfolk.

It took Palmer 54 days to get the ferry from Virginia to Steilacoom - through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal, then up the West Coast, through bad weather almost the whole way.

"It was a long voyage, but it was fun, it really was," says Palmer. "That's a memory I like to think about. I'd like to do it again someday, now that I've done the route."

The ferry was docked for a while at Ketron Island and also at the Anderson Island dock before it ended up in Vega Bay in the late '80s. By 1988 island residents were clamoring for a new, bigger ferry.

At that time, the Internal Revenue Service had put a lien on the Ocean City. Pierce County, thinking it could save the boat from an uncertain fate and themselves a little money, was interested in making a purchase, according to public works director John Trent.

After the county assessed the boat, itconcluded that it would cost too much to overhaul (about $2 million), too much to man because it was bigger than the Steilacoom (ironically, the new Anderson Island ferry being built now for service beginning next summer is the same size) and, possibly due to age, too much to repair in the future. The Ocean City was rejected.

Since then, the IRS lien has been dropped, and the boat is back in Palmer's hands.

Long-time islanders will tell you he has big plans for it, then roll their eyes.

Palmer says the Ocean City will get a new engine and an overhaul and be turned into either a party boat or cruising transport for motor-home owners who want to tour Puget Sound.

"It's just a matter of time," says Palmer. "Believe it or not, I've got more enthusiasm about that boat now than I've ever had before."

His enthusiasm is not shared by his father's neighbors. Bob and Marilyn Waterman own the property on either side of Chet Palmer's. To them, the Ocean City is nothing but a folly that blocks the water view on one piece of their property.

They even sued Chet Palmer to get the ferry moved about 100 feet away from their land, but that isn't far enough.

"I wish he'd get it out of here entirely," says Bob Waterman. "We had the judge come out here and look at it, and he said the daylight couldn't even come onto the property because of the ferry."

Unwanted view

Since the ferry is parked on tide lands owned by the Palmer family, the Watermans are forced to share the view of the towering boat. They say it lowers the value of a second lot they want to sell.

"If we took a big ferry like that and put it in the bay, you can be sure someone would tell us we couldn't do that without a permit," says Marilyn Waterman.

Tom Palmer says he applied to the county for a permit to keep the ferry moored in Vega Bay over a year ago, but he still hasn't received one. But he isn't worried.

"Those are my tide lands. The ferry is there and that's where it's going to stay," he says.

The Watermans say the Ocean City is a hazard for children who might be tempted to climb up and play on it. Chet Palmer said the ramp was removed to prevent that.

The deserted ferry may be a bigger attraction to weekend tourists who get lost on the island. They drive down scenic Vega Bay and catch a glimpse of the white ferry moored near the shore.

"People come over here trying to get on that ferry to go home," says Marilyn Waterman, shaking her head. "It's really almost a joke."