On the afternoon of December 4, 1925, the sternwheeler Imogene cast off from her berth in the Olympia harbor for her regularly scheduled route up Puget Sound. She was loaded to capacity with bricks and lumber, bound for the small logging town of Shelton where her cargo would be used to build a replacement for the old Timber Tavern on Railroad Avenue, which had burned to the foundations a week before.
The Imogene, 85 feet in length and weighing in at 100 tons, had been built in 1899 for the Seattle Transportation Company. She was part of the Mosquito Fleet, hundreds of boats of all descriptions which traveled the length and breadth of Puget Sound from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. During that period they transported cargo ranging from produce and passengers to timber and fuel. Toward the end they carried the automobiles that would help to make them obsolete.
Unlike the stately Alida and the North Pacific, which closely resembled steamboats that plied the Mississippi, the Imogene had a decidedly plain appearance and was sometimes derisively described as a ‘cracker box on a raft’. In addition to her awkward looks she also had a tendency toward instability unless carefully trimmed. Despite these shortcomings she was nevertheless in constant demand for two reasons: she was fast, and her shallow draft allowed her to slip through low water better than any other boat in the fleet. Her captain, Kurt Tollerud, took advantage of these characteristics, cutting corners and going into parts of the Sound that other craft would have to avoid. Tollerud was a picky and impatient man and the boat’s peculiarities suited him well. He also was extremely competitive. On one occasion he was said to have thrown part of his cargo – jugs of cooking oil – into her furnace in order to squeeze out a few more knots and beat a rival boat to the dock.
The weather was ugly when the Imogene departed Olympia on the afternoon of December 4th and it worsened steadily during the trip. By the time she rounded Arcadia Point and turned up Hammersly Inlet toward Shelton the fog had formed a thick grey wall, and a strong north wind was blowing rain sideways through the wheelhouse. By 4:30 darkness had begun to fall and visibility was down to less than one hundred feet. Despite these conditions Tollerud was determined to make schedule. He kept a full head of steam on as he approached Coffee Creek, where other members of the Tollerud clan had built a dock on the south side of the inlet to service their oyster operation. Directly across the inlet from the dock lay a shallow expanse of mudflat, fronting a farm. Lights from the farmhouse could usually be seen from the boat, and Tollerud had used them before as a beacon to help him stay in the middle of the channel, sufficiently removed from the shallow water.
Tollerud, like most of the captains in the Mosquito Fleet, had an almost photographic memory for his routes and so he was surprised to see the farmhouse lights suddenly appear out of the fog to starboard, much closer than he expected. He had just wrenched the wheel hard to port when he realized that the lights were not on the farmhouse porch but instead were hanging off the bow of an oyster raft, lying at anchor in the shallow water, waiting to be towed upriver. The Imogene was able to clear the raft, but by the time Tollerud spun her wheel back to starboard she had crossed to the other side of the narrow inlet and struck the dock at an angle, chewing through pilings and decking and out the other side, leaving a tangle of timber in her wake.
As soon as she cleared the wreckage Tollerud brought her out into mid-channel and throttled back the engines. Then he spent an anxious hour while her crew repositioned the cargo, which had shifted in the collision and was causing her to list dangerously to port. He made a final check for leakage below decks and, finding none, continued on to Shelton.
The dock was declared a total loss and never rebuilt.