Remote Yet Vital Inland Northwest Ferry Crossing Gets An Upgrade

By Jessica Robinson

Washington's most famous ferries are in Puget Sound. But another, inland ferry operated by the state has been quietly shuttling cars across the Columbia River since 1948. And Wednesday, that ferry crossing got a badly needed update.

No new boat ceremony would be complete without breaking a bottle over the bow. (Jeanne Jerred: “I hereby christen the M.V. Sanpoil.”) But it took a few tries to actually break this bottle.

The M.V. Sanpoil makes its inaugural trip across the Columbia River at the Keller Ferry crossing. Crowds turned out for the christening, but usually there's little foot traffic on this remote ferry. Photo by Jessica RobinsonAnd with that, the new Keller Ferry was up and running on State Route 21 in eastern Washington. This ferry has long been a lifeline across the Lake Roosevelt reservoir for the Colville Indian Reservation and Ferry County. A bridge across this stretch of the Columbia would have to span more than a mile.

Joyce Nee of Keller, Wash., used to send her nine kids across the ferry every morning for school.

Joyce Nee: “And we came back and forth for all the games and whatever. It was pretty reliable then, but it's been in later years since they found the holes in the tin. We all got a little concerned.”

The holes appeared in the hull of the Martha S. That 12-car ferry was so old replacement parts were no longer available. Al Gilson is with the Washington Department of Transportation.

Photo: The M.V. Sanpoil makes its inaugural trip across the Columbia River at the Keller Ferry crossing. Crowds turned out for the christening, but usually there's little foot traffic on this remote ferry. Photo by Jessica Robinson

Al Gilson: “You know, it was time to replace the boat. We needed something that had a bigger load, was more reliable ...”

Jessica standup: “I'm standing on the M.V. Sanpoil and it is a brand new boat. The paint is fresh and sparkling, so far there's not even a tire tread mark. But that will change soon. This is a major part of life for people in the area and they're happy to finally have it up and running again.”

The new ferry cost $12 million dollars – money that came from the state and federal governments, as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

Up in the wheelhouse, ferry captain Dave Coffman says he’s watched a cross section of eastern Washington come and go in 30 years on this job. Cattle trucks. Combines. RVs. Wildland fire crews. He stands over the brand new controls, manufactured by Rolls Royce. The Martha S. still had two old fashioned wooden wheels for steering.

Dave Coffman: “There's really no comparison. Martha was a good ol' boat. This is absolutely spectacular. I wish my career was ahead of me instead of behind me, to get something like this. It's a marvel.”

Travelers can still expect a nine minute ride from one shore to the other. Coffman says the new ferry can go faster. But he’s not going to push it. This boat has to last.

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