The Martha S – Keller Ferry and Her Crews

by Elsie Eide Kelly

On September 1, 1930 Washington State Dept of Transportation (DOT) took control of the ferry crossing at Keller making it the first ferry in the Wash State Ferry System. For twenty years, Keller Ferry was the only ferry in the system. Then, in 1948, the Martha S came into service replacing everything before her. She was a steel, diesel powered, twelve car ferry with engines fore and aft. She is described by the Novotneys (original operators of the old ferries) as “a trim, V-bottomed lake type vessel with speed and easily operates at all lake levels and storm and ice conditions.” In fact, she was rock solid and sometimes had to be used as an ice breaker when Lake Roosevelt was frozen over. On those freezing periods the ferry ran 24 hours, 7 days a week to keep a channel open. Now the schedule is 6 am til 12 pm, 7 days a week.

When I think of the crew of the Martha S, I picture the guys laughing and sharing stories of their adventures on the high seas of Lake Roosevelt and I was lucky enough to spend time with some of them. Now, don’t kid yourself, Lake Roosevelt sometimes actually has “high seas” and can become uncrossable due to winds, driving waves, or fog, and it happens suddenly and regularly. Rough weather they’ve had, including the lake freezing over. The crew had to deal with those conditions and make sure they knew where to draw the line as to whether to cross or not. The safety of the public, and their own, depended on their good judgement. Not to say there weren’t times when the worst-case scenario happened. There were a few collisions with the docks and the rocks caused by the dense fog that can suddenly drop from a smooth sailing visibility to zero. Also, the winds hitting 70 and 100 miles per hour occasionally made sailing impossible. The Martha S was always repairable and bounced back online from scratches before you knew she had paused. With two engines, fore and aft, she didn’t have to turn around to cross. They just steered with the opposite rudder and left the dock.

The crew are officially employees of the Washington State Dept of Transportation (DOT) and are not part of the Washington State Ferry System. DOT personnel, unless assigned specifically to the ferry, only worked onboard the Martha S when an extra crew member was needed. The DOT employee responsibilities in the Lincoln County and Keller Ferry areas included care and maintenance of the rest areas at Keller Ferry and the one between Creston and Davenport. They also maintained the state roads year round. From what is said, a position onboard the Martha S was always a great job to do, in fact, a DOT job was usually a very good job to possess.

Each crew on the Martha S consisted of two; one pilot and one deckhand. Each had to be dedicated to the job. The ferry and traffic depended on everyone being there to do the job, every day, and on time. The Lead Technician position required the ability to serve as deckhand and be licensed as Pilot. The Tech on duty each day worked the office and was available to replace either position as emergencies might arise.

The way I hear it, the job of deck hand was a pretty desirable position and it made me wonder why, so I asked around. The responses I got were unanimous about how much fun the deck hand position was. They could talk to all the people crossing, including friends passing north or south on Hwy 21. They sometimes got to see folks they hadn’t seen for a very long time. You just never knew when something neat would happen and there were very little extra job obligations. It was straight forward – load the vehicles so that they were balanced on the ferry and unload on the other side. Then load up again and make the return trip. On occasion, the deck hands were given a bad time by drivers who had to be left behind on a trip across due to the way the ferry had to be loaded for proper balancing of the load. Drivers could see what they thought was room for them on the ferry but did not understand how the ferry had to be loaded for safe crossing. Sometimes they just couldn’t put another car on safely, balance wise. In between crossings the crew maintained what needed maintaining, weather permitting.

Martha S Crew
In the photo, L to R are: John Miller, Cody Morava, John Rivera, and Norm Gleason.

The Martha S was a local legend in most local people’s lifetime for the 65 years she sailed the Columbia River at Keller Ferry, Lake Roosevelt. And, most folks really enjoyed the crossing and spent time out of their cars talking with the crew and asking questions. One of the former pilots said, “I didn’t know if I became more confident when I made Captain, or more arrogant.” It was brought back down to reality with time on the job. Kids loved to go up to the wheelhouse and get to learn about and “help drive” the ferry while she was in the middle of crossing. One of the regularly crossing folks said his kids loved to take the ferry and never lost the chance to explore and pester the crew about anything they could think of.

The wheelhouse, where the boat’s controls and pilot were housed, was very small and crowded, about 4 feet by 6 feet and for many years had an oil pot-bellied stove underneath it to keep the crew warm. A grate in the floor allowed the heat to rise into the building. There was a constant smell of oil especially when the engines were started or shut down. Then a smart idea in the late 90s got water hosing installed bringing hot water exchange heat from the engines into a small radiator with a battery-operated fan that gave better heat.

For many years the rotating schedule was difficult for the crew. It meant the guys had a more difficult time conducting their outside lives and their home lives. There were not enough crew members to have a normal, known, schedule like most other working folk had. They had to negotiate with each other to take over shifts and have special days off, like holidays, birthdays, Dr. appointments, vacations, etc. Some people quit because of those types of difficulties.
The ones that stayed were “Lifers” as they say in the military. You couldn’t get them off that boat if you tried! They were there for life and they put in the years necessary for a good retirement. The current ferry, the new San Poil, has a larger crew and stable work days, making for better ability to enjoy a normal, known schedule and an easier home and off-time life.

There are a few men who had worked on the Martha S for many, many years working up to a 25-30+ year retirement. They liked their jobs and wanted to stay, even though schedules were rough. Each crew consisted of a pilot and deckhand. The deckhand would load and unload the ferry traffic. He must have a good understanding of how to balance the ferry’s load. He operated all equipment to control the ferry dock and help guide in the vessel. He was also the chief Inspector on the engine room condition at the beginning of each shift. The Pilot would start, stop, steer, and navigate the vessel in fog, wind, T-storms, sunshine or dark. Not a job wanted by everyone. He had total responsibility for the safety of passengers, crew, and the vessel. He had to be aware constantly as there was no time to slack off or daydream.

There were the pilots like DAVE COFFMAN, who also ran an irrigated wheat farm at the same time as working full time on the ferry. He was the one who built the first houseboat trailer which pulled out the newly added concession houseboats for their scheduled maintenance and winter storage. WAYNE FISHER, born and raised in Keller Ferry put in 30 years as deckhand and pilot from the 60s through the 80s.

BOB KELLER started with DOT as a surveyor on I 90 in Washington and transferred to the Martha S as deckhand and later became pilot and then lead technician. Like many of the other crew members, he had outside interests and had a house painting service in the area. He also became a strong presence within the State Employees’ union.
WILLARD PFAFFLE, a pilot on the Martha for 30+ years, was Dave Coffman’s grandfather. He also started the concession at Keller Ferry. He built a docking marina area in a bay close to the ferry which had boat houses and plenty of docks for visitors. Being a landowner there, he developed his property creating home sites for first mobile homes and then stick built; the area is known as Willardville!

CODY MORAVA, spent more than 30 years working the ferry. He started as deckhand, as most pilots in the old days did. In his career he held three positions within the DOT Ferry system. He advanced from deckhand to pilot and then to lead technician, overseeing the daily workings of the ferry.

NORMAN GLEASON spent 25 years on the ferry and retired shortly before the new ferry, San Poil, came on line. He started as a deckhand and became a licensed pilot for the Martha S. His pilot license was for all inland waterways. On the outside he was also involved in real estate management.

MARTIN CLUTTER served on both ferries and was the first to be hired from out of the area, times were beginning to change. Most had been hired or advanced not only on personal abilities but because they lived close to the ferry. Martin had been on fishing boats in Alaska, which made him perfect for the job.

CLEO REED, the first woman pilot, was also hired directly as pilot from her work on fishing vessels in Alaska. She had also been responsible for towing anything needing towing to and from McNeil Island in Puget Sound. She worked as pilot on the Martha S and the San Poil.

JOHN MILLER WAS pilot on both Martha and the new San Poil and is currently pilot on the new boat. He’s known as an excellent pilot and is a history buff, doing research that makes him extremely knowledgeable on workings in the progression of the Keller Ferries and everything surrounding it. He is involved in real estate investments in the community as his “second interest.”

Other crew members like JOHN RIVERA and ROLAND DOWNING were always part of the scenery and were much loved by the passengers. Roland was a local rancher who also worked two jobs. He was a deckhand his whole career, like John. John never lost a moment with the travelers and often spent time comforting them in very rough crossings, getting himself flung across the deck in his attempts to calm frightened people. He talks about one of the things that made him feel good about being part of the crew and that was stopping the ferry in mid-crossing for families to scatter the ashes of loved ones who had appreciated the ferry and its crew and had requested their ashes to be scattered from the Martha as she made her crossing. That’s the kind of devotion that made the Keller Ferry a well-known and well-loved boat. Everybody knew and liked John. In fact, the whole crew was well liked and familiar to everyone. The crews were men (and later, women) who did much more in life than work on the ferry. They had lives outside their jobs and filled them to the fullest. But not everyone wanted to be pilot. Some didn’t want the extra pressure and responsibilities of the position of pilot. They just wanted to do their job and do it well.

And we cannot forget the NOVOTNEY family. They had been on the Keller Ferries since the early beginnings, owning and operating the cable ferries. They continued to operate the ferries for several generations. The early legacy of the family needs to be remembered. They set the stage for the modern ferry system.

There were also temporary deckhands on the Martha S. Those were people who worked DOT in other positions, mostly road crews in the county and would fill in as deckhands as needed. ROGER ANGSTROM, LONNIE WARNEKE, JAY WINFREY, TYLER BEST, FELICIA PFAFFLE (also related to Willard Pfaffle).

The most current deckhand, a permanent hire, is JENNIFER BRAYBROOK, who has just begun as deckhand on the San Poil and spent a decade prior to this driving school bus crossing on the ferry taking children from north to school in the south. She has certainly crossed on the ferry for many years and will now work on the new one. What an exciting career leap!

It’s been about 8 years since the Martha S was taken out of service but the stories the crew tells keep them laughing even today. There was the time someone, who was quite inebriated, missed the ferry and actually took a shot at them as they set sail for the other side! Not funny at the time, but nervous laughter as the story is retold. Then there was the time that pilot Norm Gleason, while still a deckhand, was working to straighten out a bent I-beam on the bow. He was standing over the water on a large pry bar using his weight to leverage the beam into place when the tip broke off and sent him plunging into 10 feet of cold water with heavy boots and coveralls on. All that could be seen was a trail of bubbles until he finally broke the surface and they were able to rescue him. The laughter had the rest of the crew doubled over. Poor Norm was soaked, cold, and unimpressed with the humor of the situation at the time but joins in the laughter now.

There’s a new adventure on the Keller crossing with the operation of the San Poil. There are issues with that huge aluminum ferry, which the public is having to learn to deal with and the DOT is working to define and correct as much as possible. But it remains a fact that the Keller ferry is an extremely important part of the Washington State Highway road system and will be continued for the convenience of all local, commercial and tourist traffic alike. So join in the adventure and go for a drive up Highway 21. The scenery is beautiful and Republic is a great town to visit up in the north of our state.

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