he largest steamer set afloat in the Northwest in 1883 was the big railroad ferry-boat built to transfer Northern Pacific trains across the river at Kalama, Wash. The steamer was brought out from New York by the American ship Tillie E. Starbuck, her manifest showing the ferry-boat to consist of 57,159 separate pieces. She was put together at Portland and launched May 17th by Smith Brothers & Watson, and was handled on her trial trip by Capt. E.W. Spenser. She was first christened the Kalama but is now known as the Tacoma. Capt. George Gore was placed in command of the steamer, with Charles Gore, chief engineer, and that they are both still holding those positions is a high compliment to their ability as steamboatmen. Other members of the crew for several years past and present time are William Simpson and A.F. Hedges, pilots; John Larsen and Thomas Poppington, mates; William Lewis, Elias Vickers, Joseph Collyer and Michael O'Neill, engineers. The Tacoma's dimensions are: length, three hundred and thirty-eight feet; beam, forty-two feet; depth, eleven feet seven inches; engines, thirty-six by one hundred and eight inches."
Source: Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, edited by E.W. Wright, published by The Lewis & Dryden Printing Company, 1895, p.320. "The Northern Pacific contracted the construction of a mammoth steam-powered ferry. Originally named the Kalama, she was renamed Tacoma before being placed into service. The ferry was 340 feet in length and 76 feet wide and was capable of carrying an engine and 23 freight cars, an entire train, on its deck. The ferry was powered by two large steam engines that turned paddle wheels 29 feet in diameter. The pistons in the steam engines were three feet in diameter and had a stroke of eight feet. The Tacoma ferry was able to carry a complete train across the Columbia River to Goble, Oregon, in about 20 minutes. Constructed in New Jersey, the Tacoma was disassembeled into 57,000 pieces, sailed on a ship around the tip of South America, and reassembeled in Portland. The Tacoma was captained by G.A. Gore for most of her 25 years of service. Eventually, the rail line was completed to Vancouver and a bridge was constructed between Vancouver and Portland, and the need for the Tacoma ended in 1908."
Source: The Kalama Community Action Plan, prepared in 2004, description of the Kalama-Goble ferry.
How did the Ferry Work ? In 1888 Emma H. Adams wrote about the Train Ferry of 1887 in her journal about her life in the west:
Goble to Kalama, 1887
"Emerging from thriving, driving Portland, at fifteen minutes before midday, the train speeds nearly northward down the western bank of the Willamette, twelve miles, with the fair stream in full view on one side, and precipitous fir-crowned bluffs on the other. Then turning westward, the iron horse plows along the southern brink of the Columbia until opposite Kalama, in Washington. Here, close by the river, the creature stops, un-couples from the coaches, backs a few rods, glides off on a side track, and -- looks on. In an instant, another engine near, homely of aspect, gigantic in strength, slowly approaches the train, from behind, locks into the rear car, and gently pushes the whole down the bank and on board a huge transfer steamer, pouring columns of dense black smoke from its tall pipes, at the end of the track. On the broad deck of the steamer three railways are laid. The coaches glide upon the middle one. Immediately the great locomotive disengages itself, retreats a few feet, switches on to the left track, comes aboard, and halts beside the train. Meantime engine number one has left the side-track and may be seen creeping down the incline. Taking the right-hand rails, it, too, comes aboard, flanks the passengers on that side, and stops breathing.
Now slowly the immense boat pushes out from shore, moves up, and partly across, the broad river; then, reversing its engine, it drops down to the landing on the Washington side, and adjusts its three tracks to those of the staunch, sloping dock built down the side of the bank. Instantly the engine on our right wakes up, rolls off the steamer, up the steep grade, and gets out of the way on the main road. This done, the Black Sampson starts its wheels, moves out upon the dock, switches to the middle track, backs on board again, lays hold of the coaches, and pulls passengers and all up the bank, with an air which plainly says: 'That's nothing for an engine to do.' Leaving us on the main track, locomotive number one again proffers it services, and away we speed toward the north."
Excerpt from: Emma H. Adams, 1888, To and Fro, Up and Down, in Southern California, Oregon, and Washington Territory, with Sketches in Arizona, New Mexico, and British Columbia: Cranston & Stowe Publishers, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, p.390-392.