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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, to a true one of a kind in the waters of Puget Sound. The Kalakala is an historic Art Deco ferry. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, the vessel's trials and tribulations have become the stuff of legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK BALL FERRY LINE")

BING CROSBY & THE ANDREWS SISTERS: (Singing) On the Black Ball Ferry Line up in Seattle, where the sunshine seldom shines. Up in Seattle, all the whistles go...

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Launched in 1935, the Kalakala was a Seattle icon. It even rated a mention in a song by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters. You still see pictures of it: a steel bullet with round portholes, cruising past the Space Needle. A car ferry for Buck Rogers.

STEVE RODRIGUES: So beautiful. It was silver. And the sun made her glow in the light.

KASTE: Steve Rodrigues has spent eight years trying to restore the Kalakala; to call him an enthusiast would be an understatement.

RODRIGUES: Nothing exists like the Kalakala in the world. It is Art Deco. There is nothing that ever followed that anything looked like it again.

KASTE: But that futuristic beauty has faded. Today, the Kalakala is tied up in an industrial waterway near Tacoma, and under the leaden winter skies, what you notice most is the rust, despite the best efforts of Rodrigues and some volunteers.

RODRIGUES: We have kept her afloat. We have worked with the government and made proposals for waterfront moorage for the Kalakala and preserving it to her glory and sharing it with the community. But it failed.

KASTE: And Rodrigues isn't the first to fail. He bought the Kalakala at a bankruptcy auction from the previous group of would-be restorers. For the last decade, the Kalakala has become something of a sad joke around Puget Sound, evicted from one potential home port after another. Some say it's not even worth saving. It looked cool, they say, but it was hard to maneuver, and it kept running into things. Now, it's overstayed its welcome in Tacoma.

LIEUTENANT REGINA CAFFREY: It has to go.

KASTE: Regina Caffrey is a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, which has just declared the Kalakala a hazard to navigation.

CAFFREY: If the Kalakala sinks, it would block the entirety of the waterway, and it could impact up to $23 million worth of commerce in one month.

KASTE: Rodrigues denies the Kalakala is a hazard. He gets angry, accusing the media of conspiring with the government to smear the ferry's reputation. Right before a Coast Guard deadline last month, he announced that he'd sold the ferry for $1 to an anonymous billionaire. And he insists that the mysterious patron will spend the necessary millions for a proper restoration. Maybe. People in Seattle have learned to be skeptical, but there's still plenty of sentiment left here too.

CHERYL DEGROOT: I'm getting some pictures today because it's so special.

KASTE: Cheryl DeGroot grew up riding the Kalakala in the 1950s. And then after the ferry's retirement, she stumbled across it again in the '70s, in Kodiak, Alaska. It had been towed up there to house a fish cannery. And now, here it is again, near her current home in Tacoma.

DEGROOT: You know, it looks better than I thought it would, actually. It's not too bad. Still floating.

Given all that the Kalakala has been through, that's no small achievement. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK BALL FERRY LINE")

SISTERS: (Singing) ...take your pick of the ferries on the Black Ball Line. There's the Illahee and the Chippewa. And the Quillayute, the Kalakala. You'll find all these on the Black Ball Line. The Klahanie. Oh, and Nisqually...

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