Thursday, February 5, 2015

Captain Nels G. Christensen

When looking through the files at Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, like any search in other museums, it is like opening a treasure chest.  You never know or anticipate the treasure that will catch your attention, or why?  What was there about the treasure you found?  I have no answers.  I know everyone’s treasure may be different.  

But my treasure for today is the following letter I discovered.  This very heartfelt letter was written April 30, 1987 to the Washington State Historical Society Centennial Hall of Honor Committee in Tacoma, Washington.

Dear Committee Members:

I would like to nominate my uncle, Capt. Nels G. Christensen, to the Washington State Historical Society Centennial Hall of Fame.  He was captain and owner of the Virginia I, II, III, IV and V passenger boats on puget sound.

Nels G. Christensen was born in Denmark, in 1872.  As an infant he arrived in the U. S. with his parents.  The family settled in Seattle, Washington in 1876.

Grown to manhood and married in Seattle, he moved his family to Lisabuela on Vashon Island, March 12, 1908.  A barge with a tugboat to tow, transferred all their possessions plus lumber for a new house to be built on the Island.

During the next year he became dissatisfied with the commuting service, the water transportation was not adequate for the residences of the West Pass.  The summer of 1910 several meetings of interested men was held, to attempt to solve this problem.  Nels was elected to collect enough money to buy a boat.  His efforts resulted in zero dollars.

A friend and neighbor, John Holm, later agreed to put up half the money, $2,00.00 ($62,500.00 in 2014).  The next day for $5,000.00 ($125,000 in 2014), Nels bought the … boat Virginia Merrill.  She was renamed and christened Virginia I, the first of the Virginia series was started.  Captain Christensen was founder, and president, of the West Pass Transportation Company from 1909-1936.

John Holm dropped out of the company after one year.  Capt. Christensen continued to hold controlling interest in the company stock, for the next thirty years.

The service of the Virginia I was so dependable the business expanded.  Over the years the Virginia II, III, IV and V continued the water service on Puget Sound from Seattle to Tacoma.  These boats were a part of the well-known “Mosquito Fleet”.

The Virginia V was constructed in 1922, the last passenger steamboat to be built on the sound.  The Virginia V was designed by Capt. Christensen, and built for him at Maplewood, Washington.

Capt. Christensen died July 19, 1936.  The Marine Digest July 25, 1936 printed “Capt. Christensen was long known as one of the constructive leaders in Puget Sound shipping.  He had the confidence,, esteem, and friendship, of the North West business world, as well as the waterfront shipping circle and the traveling public.  He founded the West Pass Transportation Co. in 1909, and from then until his death was its active head and manager.  No other transportation concern now engaged in the sounds local routes, had such a record of continuity of control, and managership by one man.  In the west pass district embracing the west side of Vashon Island, and the mainland districts on the opposite side of that body of water, Capt. Christensen had come to be regarded as an institution in himself.”

In 1973 the Virginia V was placed on the “National Register of Historical Sites, a testimony to her well deserved distinction, as a contribution to the annuals of American History.”

Under the auspices of the Virginia V Foundation and the Northwest Steamboat Company, and many volunteers, she will celebrate her 65th university this June 1987.

The well built Virginia V is still using the steam engine from the Virginia IV steamer, & has outlived all other steamboats on the sound.

To-day the Virginia V is still a pleasure steamer plying the waters of Puget Sound.

Thank you for reading this,
Wallace Christensen
Deck Hand 1928-1929

References:  1. Family History
2. Isle of the Sea Breezes - Roland Carey
3. Steamboats - Virginia V - M. S. Kline
4.  (Not legible)

Of course, once I read the letter then all sorts of questions entered my mind; most important of course was, did Captain Nels G. Christensen’s name get placed on the Washington State Historical Hall of Fame.  Joy Weblink, Research Librarian, WA State Historical Society, has advised that Capt. Christensen was not one of the 100 Washingtonians selected for the WA State Centennial Hall of Honor in 1989.  That does not however diminish his contributions to sea transportation in the Puget Sound.
Virginia III at Pier 4, Seattle.  Originally "Typhoon II" and built for Lorenz Bros. in Tacoma in 1910.  91 Tons, 92.8 ft long, 19.4 ft. beam, 5.5 draught.  In 1914 acquired by West Pass Transportation Company and completely remodeled & renamed Virginia III.  One of her captains was a J. J. Macmillan who died 1935 at age 43.

I do know that the Tyrus built by the Lorenz Brothers was sold to West Pass Transportation Company in 1918 and renamed Virginia IV.   I also found a reference in Google Books -Pacific Marine Review, Vol. 15, The Past Month in Tacoma by Special Correspondent “The passenger steamer Tyrus, built here in 1904 by the Lorenz Brothers, has been sold by them to West Pass Transportation Company, and will be operated between Tacoma and Seattle, via the East Pass route, both in freight and passenger trade.  The new owners have been running boats on the West Pass route for several years.”
Built by John J. Hill, Tacoma, 1904, for Lorenz Bros. (Ed, Otto & Oscar).  174 Ton passenger steamer, 97.6 ft long, 22.7 ft. beam, 6.7 draught.  Sold Nels Christensen of Lisabuela 1918 renamed Virginia IV.  Wrecked 4/24/1935 near entrance to Lisianski St. while bound for Kimshan Cove, AK

In an article on the “History of the Virginia V” I found that the Virginia Merrill Captain Christensen’s first steamboat was a 54-foot (16 m) long gasoline-powered tug, and Capt. Christensen converted her into a small ferry.

The engine which powered the Virginia V as mentioned by Wallace Christensen in his last sentence was a “1898 triple expansion reciprocating steam engine built by Heffernan Iron Works of Seattle, an engine that was originally fitted into her predecessor, Virginia IV”. 

I discovered at the Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room Image Archives that the crew of the Virginia V saved several people when a municipal streetcar crashed through the gate of the 11th Street (Murray Morgan) Bridge plunging into the Thea Foss waterway.  The streetcar broke apart spilling passengers as it fell.  The Virginia V was docked nearby and the crew rushed into action, pulling several people from the water four of which were injured.  The death count was five.  Crew members included:  David Balduzi, Alfred Jergenson, J. Christensen, Joe Brooks, Claude Williams, Al Torgeson and Capt. Nels Christensen.

Karen Borell wrote an excellent history of Lisabeula for the Washington Water Trails Association - Cascadia Marine Trail.  I suggest reading it to better understand Captain Christensen’s home on Vashon Island.

Have I whetted your imagination yet on how much you can learn from a simple letter?  (Are you ready to become a history detective?
© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.


  1. My grandpa wrote this letter. He was the son of Andrew, Nels brother, who also worked the fleet. My grandpa Wallace and his twin brother, Willis had their 80th birthday party on the Virginia V.

  2. Thank You Krista.

    My Great Grandfather was Captain Nels G. Christensen. My Grandfather was Vernon Christensen. My father was Darrell Christensen.

    Actually, I'm the last (blood-related) male "Christensen" of my Grandfather's line of descendants (maybe even the last of my Great Grandfather's line as well) with the last name of Christensen.

    On his deathbed, my Great Grandfather warned his son (my grandfather) to sell the boats and get out of the business. He could see that rail and road-vehicles were taking over. Unfortunately, my Grandfather had a hard time giving up his father's business which he had grown up in, helped run and build.

    Derek J. Christensen

  3. My name is Paul Pinkerton I am your cousin Derek my mother was Marlene Pinkerton Christiansen my uncle is Darrel Christiansen my grandfather was Vernon Christiansen call me cousin 5304465263

  4. My name is Paul Pinkerton I am your cousin Derek my mother was Marlene Pinkerton Christiansen my uncle is Darrel Christiansen my grandfather was Vernon Christiansen call me cousin 5304465263