San Francisco Bay Ferryboats - Bridging the Bay With Our Ferries

Collected by Joe Thompson

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This article appeared in the March, 1921 Southern Pacific Bulletin, an employee publication. This edition was identified on the cover as the "Steamer Division Number."

Bridging The Bay With Our Ferries

The Development of the World's Largest Ferry System, which Transports with Comfort and Safety 27,000,000 Passengers Annually

By Superintendent Chas. F. Heath

Charles F Heath

LONG before the advent of the white man, Indians crossed San Francisco bay by means of rafts constructed of tules, bound roughly together. When tide and weather conditions were propitious, and not otherwise, the red-men were able to paddle their crude crafts across the marvelous body of water around which now live 900,000 people.

Today the Southern Pacific Company maintains the largest railroad operating ferry system in the world and every day in the year transports swiftly, safely and in comfort almost 75,000 people, a number sufficient to make a fair sized city by itself.

The gap which separates the ancient tule raft from the huge transfer steamer "Contra Costa," capable of handling in one trip two locomotives, 18 passenger coaches and 32 freight cars, was not closed except by patient, persistent thought and effort, backed by the enterprise and money of a great transportation concern.

Before undertaking to describe present day accomplishments it is desirable that at least a passing reference be made to some of the early day efforts which form the foundation of our present trans-bay ferry system.

Probably the first regular steam ferry service across San Francisco bay was established in 1850, when the "Kangaroo" labored between San Francisco and San Antonio, (now East Oakland) twice a week, weather permitting. The fares charged were: $1 for one person, $3 for one horse, $3 for one wagon, $5 for two horse wagon, $3 for cattle, per head, for each hundred weight of freight 50 cents, for each head of hogs $1.

In 1852, a small side-wheel steamer, the "Hector," appeared. Then the "Boston," which was destroyed by fire; the "Red Jacket," and the "Erastus Corning."

About December, 1853, a new boat, the "Clinton," was put in service, the announcement being that "the new splendid steamer will make three trips daily, and monthly commutation tickets would be sold for $20." This marked the advent of the "commuter."

Prior to March, 1857, the commutation fare was reduced to $15 per month, the regular one way ticket being 50 cents. In the same year the "Contra Costa," a new steamer, was placed in service, so arranged that horses and carriages could be driven on and off the boat. Commutation tickets were reduced to $10 per month.

Competition developed in 1858 and continued for several years. In 1863, the first rail-ferry line was placed in operation. The steamer Contra Costa carried passengers between a wharf constructed at Oakland Point beyond the estuary bar to a landing at Broadway and Davis streets, San Francisco. In 1864 the Alameda rail-ferry line was opened and five years later the wharf at Oakland Point was extended from a length of a half mile to a mile and three-tenths and the "Washoe" and the. "El Capitan" were added to the fleet.

Thus we see the establishment of the three ferry routes of today. First the Oakland Harbor Route; 2nd, the Oakland pier route, and 3rd, the Alameda pier route. The long wharf at West Oakland was completed January 16, 1871, replacing the old Oakland Point wharf and this remained the passenger terminal until the opening of the Oakland pier in 1882.

In 1872 a new passenger station and ferry slips were constructed at the foot of Market street in San Francisco and a few years later the ferry buildings were re-arranged, the present handsome structure being completed in 1896.

The present Creek Route service from the foot of Broadway street, Oakland, to San Francisco was inaugurated in 1876. The dredging in the Estuary by the Federal Government in 1874, 1875 and 1876 made possible the use of larger boats, and led to the establishment of the Creek Route.

In 1879 the car transfer "Solano" was placed in service on Carquinez Straits between Port Costa and Benicia, this being the largest ferry boat in the world. This steamer was built by the Southern Pacific Company at West Oakland. Ferry service between Vallejo Junction and Vallejo was inaugurated in 1880. In 1912 the keel for the car transfer "Contra Costa" was laid, the craft being launched in 1914. This steamer was also built at the Company's shipyard on the Estuary at a cost of almost one-half million dollars, and is used with the "Solanp," for ferrying trains across the straits.

In later years new ferry steamers have been built by the company at its own shipyard; excepting the steamer "Berkeley," until today we have a fleet of twelve boats, used exclusively in handling passengers and freight. This number does not include five stern wheel river steamers, one fire tug, one steam tug, two gasoline tugs, two dipper dredges, two pile drivers, one suction dredge and two gasoline launches, which floating work equipment is used continuously in dredging slips, repairing and building wharves and docks.

Extensive Organization

It would be well now to mention the organization of what I believe is the largest railroad operated ferry system in the world. While closely allied to the Western Division, and serving as the connecting link in many cases, the Steamer Division is a separate and distinct organization.

We have three steamers plying on the Oakland pier route, two steamers on the Alameda pier route, three steamers on the Oakland Harbor route, two steamers plying on San Pablo Bay, between Vallejo Junction, South Vallejo, Vallejo Wharf and Mare Island, two train ferries on Carquinez Straits between Port Costa and Benicia, and one car transfer between Oakland and Mission Bay, San Francisco. To man this fleet requires the services of six hundred employes, consisting of 36 Captains, 36 First Officers, 36 Second Officers, 231 Deckhands, 26 Cabinwatchmen, 10 Matrons, 17 Night Watchmen, 13 Chief Engineers, 23 Assistant Chief Engineers, 6 First Assistant Chief Engineers, 36 First Assistant Engineers and 130 Firemen.

The captains, first and second officers and engineers, whom we term the officers of the ship, are licensed by the U. S. Government in the various grades of service. You will notice in the cabins of the passengers ferries these documents displayed to the public, as required by law.

It is a fact, known only to a few of the many ferry patrons, that "Uncle Sam" exercises a strong hand in the operation of our steamers, both as to physical condition of the craft as well as to reliability of the officers. Through the Steamboat Inspection Service which is a branch of the Department of Commerce, our steamers are inspected annually, not a mere casual inspection of looking the boat over, but a case of taking the boat out of service, testing boilers, steam pipes, fire pumps, fire lines, fire hose, examination of hull, bilges, bulkheads, and a thorough inspection of all life preservers, buoys, life boats, davits, etc. This work is performed by United States inspectors, skilled in their particular line. When the inspection is done and all corrections have been made that might be recommended by the inspectors, a certificate is given over the signature of the local inspectors, which permits the company to operate the steamer usually for a year, but not longer. This certificate is framed and posted so that it may be seen by the public. Should a craft go into service without this certificate on board, or the coasting license, in the eyes of the law it would be a pirate ship.

The Government is not satisfied with an annual inspection, but sends an inspector out quarterly to make other inspections as to operation, such as life boat drills, fire drills, etc. Once in every five years it is necessary for officers to have licenses renewed, and pass satisfactory examinations to eye-sight, hearing and colors. Our officers are men who have grown up with the service, almost all of the masters starting at the beginning, as deckhands, the chief engineers starting in the fire room, and in time winning promotion to the higher and more responsible positions.

If space permitted we should like to enlighten our readers upon two subjects concerning which the public frequently wonders the significance of lights and whistle signals. Most people appreciate that green lights, when amidship, indicates the starboard or the right hand side, and the red light, the port or left hand side. Concerning whistles one blast means to port and two to starboard, but further than that the average layman is mystified. But this is a subject dealt with fully in the "Rules of the Road" prescribed by the Steamboat Inspection Service, and presents so many varied angles that it can hardly be explained satisfactorily here. Woe be unto the skipper or pilot who disregards these rules. He is liable to have his "ticket" suspended from one day to 99 years or pay a heavy fine.

On San Francisco Bay the Federal Government has set aside certain lanes or roads, called "fairways," designated these fairways as forbidden anchorage, therefore it is against the rules for vessels to cast anchor in such waters, this gives added protection to the numerous ferry craft traveling between these certain points.


  • The first known method of transportation across San Francisco bay was devised by Indians who bound tules together in the forms of rafts and paddled across when tide and weather were favorable.
  • The Southern Pacific present ferry system is the largest railroad operating ferry system in the world.
  • More people pass through the ferry station in 24 hours than in any other station in the United States and the figure is exceeded only by the Charing Cross Station, London.
  • In 1920 the Southern Pacific ferries transported almost 27 million passengers and over a half million passenger automobiles.
  • Safety has been developed to such a point that the only cause for "accidents" is found in high heel shoes, which occasionally cause feminine wearers to stumble on the stairs.

The Ferry Building, made familiar by thousands of post cards and photographs, is one of the most interesting structures in the world, and has a very distinct relation to the steamer division.

It is said more people pass through the ferry station in twenty-four hours than through any one station in the United States, and in this respect it is exceeded only by the Charing Cross station in London. The ferry building, with its ten ferry slips, is owned and operated by the State of California, and is under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Harbor Commissioners. The tenants rent from the Commissioners from month to month. Our monthly rental for three ferry slips and waiting rooms and offices runs into six figures annually.

Shipyard Facilities

As our fleet of floating equipment increased in size it was found necessary to provide a shipyard, a place where these giant ferry boats could be given an overhauling, taken out of the water and their hulls cleaned of the barnacles, sea weed, etc. This yard is located on the Oakland Estuary a little southeast of the West Oakland shops. These yards are complete as to equipment, supplied with modern machinery, and a 4,000 ton marine railway, one of the largest in this vicinity, capable of handling every form of equipment, not excepting the huge "Solano" and "Contra Costa." Two hundred men are constantly employed in this work, many of these mechanics having learned their trades in this yard. The up-keep of these many power plants is quite a serious and important question, for we are not like the railroad line. When a locomotive breaks down, the dispatcher orders another one out to take its place, but we must keep the ferry boats going and in good condition, for spare boats represent a large investment and are scarce articles.

During the past year $737,800 was expended in repairs to the steamer fleet.

The ferry steamers Melrose, Thoroughfare, Alameda, Santa Clara, the stern wheel river steamers Navajo and Cherokee and the car transfer Contra Costa are products of the West Oakland Shipyard.

Every craft we have, excepting one the tug "Rival" and the gasoline boats, are fuel oil burners, the first boat being changed from coal to oil in 1901.

The Western Division M. of W. & S. Department are charged with the up-keep and building of wharves and docks, also the dredging of slips which, in itself is quite an important responsibility.

The fire tug "Ajax" stationed at Oakland pier, fully manned and under steam every minute of the day and night, is the only exclusive fire boat on San Francisco Bay at this time. This boat was built at Seattle, Wash., in 1908. She is 103 feet in length, 22 foot beam and 12 feet depth, 785 horse power, equipped with a rotary firepump capable of handling 3000 gallons of water per minute. Many times has the "Ajax" gone to the assistance of others when fire was threatening destruction of property.

Interesting Statistics

Here are some interesting figures: During the past year 26,946,439 passengers were handled on three ferry routes, Oakland pier, Alameda pier, and Oakland Harbor ferry, or 2,235,536 per month, averaging 73,825 per day. One day's passengers alone represent the population of a fair sized city. In addition to 2,504,322 passengers, the Oakland Harbor ferries transported 562,260 pleasure automobiles not including auto trucks, teams, motorcycles, during the year. On the two ferry boats plying between Vallejo Junction, Vallejo and Mare Island, 1,016,075 passengers traveled during the year.

Consider the year of 1850, when one ferry boat was serving the bay cities with semi-weekly trips, and consider how well the service has expanded in proportion to the growth of population.

On the Oakland pier route three steamers made an annual mileage of 141,400 miles during last year, or 40,400 single trips, an average of 111 single trips every twenty-four hours.

On Alameda pier route two steamers turned up a mileage of 86,423 miles during last year or 26,429 single trips, an average of 72 single trips per day of twenty-four hours. On the Oakland Harbor route three steamers made a mileage of 163,570 miles during last year or 25,759 single trips, an average of 70 single trips per day of twenty-four hours.

The distance between Oakland pier and San Francisco is 3.5 miles, between Alameda pier and San Francisco 3.26 miles, between Oakland Broadway wharf and San Francisco 6.35 miles.

The "Solano" and "Contra Costa" during the last year handled 89,082 freight cars 97,536 passenger cars and 27,356 locomotives across Carquinez Straits, making a total of 13,904 boat movements.

The Deadly Teredo

This salt water pest does more damage to decks and wharves than the T. N. T. The sly teredo works day and night and destroys constantly. For years and years we have always had a large amount of fresh water in Carquinez Straits so therefore it was not thought necessary to guard against the teredo in this water. However, in the last two years, scarcity of snow in the mountains and scarcity of rains have lowered the rivers to a point where the salt water of the bay has backed up into the straits. With the salt water came the teredo. In a short time the little sea worm played havoc with the slips at Benicia and Port Costa, the estimated damage being $1,325,000. Not only were the slips attacked but the big boats came in for a share of the destruction, as their hulls were not sheathed with copper. It was necessary to withdraw each of the steamers from service, sheath with copper, and renew a good portion of the hull which cost over $200,000 for the two boats. Teredoes will not attack treated piles or timbers unless the wood is broken and it is possible to start in the wood that is not impregnated with creosote.

Scientists and engineers are at the present time devoting much attention to this subject and it is hoped some solution will be found to give added protection and possible control or extermination of the borus.

High Class Equipment

It is a well known fact the Southern Pacific Company operates absolutely the largest ferry boats in the world. The "Alameda" and her sister ship the "Santa Clara," are the last word in ferry boat construction, also the specially built automobile boats, the "Melrose" and "Thoroughfare," and the specially built car transfers the "Solano" and "Contra Costa," capable of ferrying across Carquinez Straits 18 passenger cars and 32 freight cars and two locomotives.

The genial superintendent of the Western Division refers to them as "water trains" in his article last October. However, they are not water trains, but honest to goodness steamers.

In ferry boat construction the Southern Pacific Company have found the side paddle wheel type best adopted to this service, that is, with large ferry boats, therefore we have only one of the propeller type, it being the "Berkeley."

I might also state there are two kinds of paddle wheels, the "feathering type," which is made entirely of iron and which is designed so as to drop the blades and release the water as the blades come out of the water, in this manner it is claimed it lessens the work of the engines and the type which is constructed of rigid wooden paddles, of the two types we use the latter for this reason: very often the steamer encounters submerged floating piles, etc., which becomes entangled in the wheels breaking the paddles, with wooden paddles, they are very easily repaired without delay, while with the iron wheels should a pile become fouled in wheel it would do so much damage it would be necessary to remove the boat from the service to effect repairs.

All of our steamers are equipped with steam power steering gear, to throw one of the rudders hard over it is only necessary to move a small lever, unless some accident happens to the steering engine, then it would be necessary to use man power, and the wheel. The most economical type of engine for ferry boat service is the "walking beam" type with low pressure boilers, this type will conserve about one-half the fuel and lubricants, and the repairs are very nominal as compared with the boats equipped with vertical compound engines and high pressure boilers.

The greatest hazard of operation is fog combined with uncertain tides. During heavy fogs one boat on Oakland pier route and one on Oakland Harbour route are taken out of service, thereby reducing the hazard. Every known device is used to aid navigation especially in foggy weather. Just recently a powerful diaphone was installed at Oakland pier. This noise maker can be heard almost half way across the bay. The Government light house on Yerba Buena Island is equipped with a steam whistle which is very effective, and the slips at San Francisco are equipped with automatic fog bells of different tones. Just where the end of long wharf was an echo board has been erected with a revolving light. This, too, is a fog safeguard.

In this connection the Federal Government, through the light house service, installs and maintains a number of aids to navigation on San Francisco, San Pablo, Suisun bays, and on Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

The element of safety has been developed to such an extent that what few mishaps occuring to passengers aboard our ferry steamers come from the fashion in high heels, which occasionally cause feminine wearers to stumble on the stairs. During the last three years the ferries have handled 82 million passengers with no accidents of any consequence.

A story of San Francisco Bay ferries would be incomplete without mentioning the sea gulls, the most graceful of all birds. The real home and breeding place of the gull on this coast from Alaska to Mexico is the Faralone Islands, just outside the Golden Gate. The gull is by profession a scavenger, but he affords the children, very often the grownups, much amusement when being fed crumbs of bread from the decks of the ferry boats. The gulls have amazing digestive organs. It is necessary even to fasten the glass windows of the ferry building in with strips of metal, rather than putty, for the gulls show a tendency to feast on the last named commodity.

The ferries of San Francisco Bay have been and are one of the important factors in the development of the bay region. What the future will bring no one knows at this time, but when the need arises some plan, consistent with the demand of the day for more speed, will be worked out. No doubt the building of the naval base on the shores of Alameda will hasten this time. Who knows, in this age of development whether we will have air ferries, or a tube or a mammoth bridge?

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Last modified 30-Nov-2009