San Francisco Bay Ferryboats - Yesterday

by Joe Thompson

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Introduction

San Francisco Bay is a huge waterway. Water travel was the best way to get around until long bridges started to appear in the 1920's and 1930's.

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The Classic Ferryboat

To be a classic ferry, a boat must have three features:

A. It must be double-ended
B. It must be propelled by side paddle wheels
C. The paddle wheels must be driven by a walking beam engine

Bay CityBay City at the Ferry Building, demonstrating the three features of a classic ferry.

The earliest ferries on the bay were single-ended boats, like the Clinton and the Petaluma of Saucelito. Double-ended boats, beginning with the Central Pacific's Alameda in 1867, allowed for faster turnaround because the boats did not have to turn around.

Paddle wheels are not the most efficient method of marine propulsion, but I like the noise they make. Most ferries built in the 1920's and later used propellers. Key System never operated a ferry with a paddle wheel until it purchased Santa Fe's San Pedro to carry passengers to the 1939 fair on Treasure Island.

A walking beam engine is a huge one-cylinder steam engine. An A-frame rises from the keel through the roof of the upper deck. The walking beam rocks on top of the A-frame. One end is linked to a huge cylinder. The other end is linked to a crank that drives the paddle wheels. Other boats used various types of steam engines, including some compounds. Later boats used turbo-electric and then diesel-electric drive.

The earliest ferries burned wood in their boilers. Most had converted to coal before 1900. Many converted to burn oil in the 1900's.

The typical classic ferry had three decks:

A. Main
B. Cabin
C. Hurricane

EurekaEureka on the bay, labelled with her three decks labelled.

The main deck was where freight and express were usually carried. Car ferries had tracks on the main deck for freight cars and auto ferries carried automobiles on their main decks. The main deck was usually divided down the middle by the fiddley, which housed the walking beam engine.

The cabin deck was where most of the passengers rode. Cabin decks were usually highly decorated. At the Ferry Building in San Francisco, passengers could debark from both the main and cabin decks.

The hurricane deck was off limits to passengers. The pilot houses, the walking beam, and the smoke stack were on the hurricane deck.

Boilers and sometime restaurants were located under the main deck.

Restrooms were often next to or over the paddle boxes.

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East Bay Services

Oakland (Creek Route)/San Francisco

Ferry service from San Francisco to the East Bay began in 1850, when Captain Thomas Gray began sailing the small steamer Kangaroo from San Francisco to San Antonio Creek, which is now the Oakland Estuary. This line was difficult because the mouth of the creek had a sand bar and heavy fogs made the channel difficult to find. This resulted in frequent beachings.

In 1852, Charles Minturn organized the Contra Costa Steam Navigation Company. His service avoided the Creek Route by landing in West Oakland. When the creek was dredged in 1853, he moved his terminal to the foot of Broadway, closer to downtown Oakland.

Oakland (SP Pier/Mole)/San Francisco

Oakland mole interiorInterior view of the Oakland Pier (also known as the Oakland Mole).

The San Francisco and Oakland Railroad built a 3/4 mile wharf in West Oakland, connected by a railroad to downtown Oakland in 1862.

In 1865, the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad purchased the San Francisco and Oakland. In 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad purchased the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad.

The first terminal of the still-building transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad was Sacramento. Passengers for San Francisco transferred to fast riverboats.

The Central Pacific expanded the San Francisco and Oakland's Oakland Pier and transcontinental trains began arriving in 1869. In 1881, they greatly expanded the mole facilities. Passenger trains and ferries met there until 1957. The mole buildings were torn down in 1966.

Central Pacific's original landing in San Francisco was at the foot of Davis Street. Later the ferries called at the foot of Market, at the Union Passenger Terminal.

Oakland mole slip Oakland Mole ferry slip, early 1900's. Source: [album: 16 volume: 5 number: 65], Frank B. Rodolph Photograph Collection, BANC PIC 1905.17146-17161--PIC, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Oakland Ferry Oakland was rebuilt from a single-ended riverboat in 1875. She burned in 1940. K. C. Jenkins photos, John Schmale collection. All rights reserved.

Santa Clara Ferry Santa Clara, launched in 1915, was known for her twin stacks. K. C. Jenkins photos, John Schmale collection. All rights reserved.

The Golden State Model Railroad Museum has a beautiful HO-scale model of the Oakland Pier.
Oakland Pier A model of the Oakland Pier, with Santa Fe ferry San Pedro in the slip. June, 2010.
Oakland Pier rear A model of the rear of the Oakland Pier. June, 2010.

Read Bridging the Bay With Our Ferries an article by Superintendent Charles F. Heath from the March, 1921 Southern Pacific Bulletin, talks about the history of San Francisco Bay ferry operations and particularly Central/Southern Pacific operations.

Read How the Southern Pacific Maintains World's Cleanest Ferry Boats an article by the California State Board of Health from the March, 1921 Southern Pacific Bulletin, talks about how Southern Pacific kept its boats clean.

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 255.

Southern Pacific Ferry System.. Boats leave from the right of the main entrance of the Ferry building at twenty and thirty minute intervals throughout the day for Oakland and Alameda piers, where they connect with trains for Oakland, Melrose, Alameda, Berkeley and way stops, including Fruitvale, Stonehurst, Elmhurst, Fitchburg, Emeryville, Shellmound Park, Northbrae, Thousand Oaks, and Albany. This is the most extensive ferry and electric train system in the country, the boats connecting with 826 electric trains a day. The mechanical equipment, including steel cars throughout, is the finest to be found in such service.

Automobiles are taken only on the Oakland Harbor Ferry of the Southern Pacific, which runs half hourly from the foot of Mission street, south of the Ferry building, to the foot of Broadway, Oakland, from 6 a. m. to 9 p. m., week days, and up to 11 p. m., Sundays. After these hours, autos are admitted to the regular Oakland ferry.

Oakland (WP Mole)/San Francisco

In 1909, the Western Pacific was the last transcontinental railroad to reach San Francisco Bay. WP built a mole near the mouth of the Estuary and ran service to San Francisco using a single boat. Service started with Telephone, a single-ended, stern wheeled riverboat from Oregon. In 1913, they launched a steel-hulled, screw-driven boat, Edward T Jeffrey. Jeffery later became Feather River.

In 1933, WP sold its boat to Southern Pacific and began running its trains to the Oakland Pier. SP renamed Feather River as Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada was preserved in Ports of Call Village in San Pedro, CA, but she sank in a 1978 storm. Thanks to LB Bryce and Emiliano J Echeverria for the information.

Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada formerly preserved at Ports of Call Village in San Pedro, CA.

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 256.

Western Pacific. Four ferry boats a day leave the northernmost slip, Ferry building, and connect with the overland trains of this company.

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 257.

Monticello Steamship Company. Vallejo (en route to Mare Island) and connecting with San Francisco, Napa and Calistoga railway (electric) to Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga. Boats leave foot of Merchant street, north of Ferry building. (Ferry runs every hour from Vallejo to Mare Island Navy Yard.)

Oakland (Key Pier)/San Francisco

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 255-256.

Key System. Boats leave the Ferry building, foot of Market street, (left of main entrance) at fifteen or twenty minute intervals during the day, beginning on the even hour, and connect at the Key System pier with electric trains for Berkeley, Oakland, Piedmont, Claremont, Northbrae, Albany and Richmond.

Alameda/San Francisco

In 1864, the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad built a wharf at the foot of Pacific Avenue, and a railway through town and over to the mainland. They did not acquire a boat until 1865, when they began service to San Francisco.

The San Francisco and Alameda Railroad built the Alameda in 1866, the first double-ended ferry on the bay.

In 1865, the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad purchased the San Francisco and Oakland. In 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad purchased the San Francisco and Alameda Railroad.

Central Pacific trains from the building transcontinental line briefly terminated in Alameda in 1868 and 1869. Central Pacific abandoned Alameda service in 1873.

The South Pacific Coast, a narrow gauge that eventually ran from Alameda to Santa Cruz, first built a terminal near the present Todd Shipyard site. In 1884, SPC built a mole, which extended about 1.5 miles into the bay to a site just off the end of the recently closed Alameda Naval Air Station's runways. SPC built the mole using the San Francisco and Colorado River Railroad as a cover. Southern Pacific purchased the SPC in 1887. In 1902, the mole buildings burned in 1902, and were rebuilt. The mole continued to served the converted standard gauge lines, and then the electricified commuter operation. It was abandoned after the Bay Bridge opened and the commute trains ran directly to San Francisco.

Richmond/San Francisco

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 256.

Santa Fe Ferry. (Local service). Boats leave the Ferry building, foot of Market street, for Ferry Point, and there connect with trains for Richmond. There are eight boats a day.

Vallejo/San Francisco

Monticello Monticello Steamship Company logo (no thumbnail).

Monticello The Hatch Brothers' home town, Monticello, New York, gave steamer Monticello and the Monticello Steamship Companies their names. The drawing is by William A Coulter. From the 26-November-1895 San Francisco Call.

The Hatch Brothers' Monticello Steamship Company operated fast ferries between Vallejo and San Francisco, the longest run on the bay. Starting on 04-July-1905, the boats connected with the new electric trains of the Napa Valley Route.

The Hatch Brothers, Captain Zephaniah J and Captain Charles N, started out competing with Southern Pacific boats. Other companies tried to horn in as well.

Sunol Steamer Sunol engaged in a rate war with the Monticello company and the Southern Pacific in 1895. The drawing is probably by William A Coulter. From the 22-November-1895 San Francisco Call.

Sunol Southern Pacific steamer Herald engaged in a rate war with the Monticello company and the Sunol in 1895. The drawing is probably by William A Coulter. From the 22-November-1895 San Francisco Call.

Sunol Monticello company steamer Arrow, heading to Vallejo one morning in a heavy fog, rammed and nearly sank the California Transportation Company steamer Aurora. The painting may be by William A Coulter. From the 30-January-1906 San Francisco Call.

Hatch Brothers ad A Hatch Brothers ad from the 26-February-1905 San Francisco Call mentions the General Frisbie, the Monticello, and the Arrow.

Sehome postcard A postcard view of steamer Sehome, while she was still a sidewheeler.

The Monticello Steamship Company ferry Sehome had a complicated life. She was built in 1877 as Mountain Queen, a stern-wheeler. In 1889, she was rebuilt as a side-wheeler. Monticello purchased her in 1909. In 1914, she was rebuilt to use a propeller.

Sehome in Winehaven Sehome at the opening of Winehaven (in Point Richmond) in 1911.

Sehome in ad Sehome is featured in a Monticello Steamship Company ad from the 20-February-1910 San Francisco Call.

On 14-Dec-1918, fellow Monticello boat General Frisbie, rammed Sehome while proceeding through the fog near Point Pinole. No one was injured and Sehome's passengers were able to transfer to General Frisbie before Sehome went down. The Mare Island Navy Yard Marine Band played music to help calm the passengers.

General Frisbie in ad General Frisbie is featured in a Monticello Steamship Company ad from the 20-April-1909 San Francisco Call.

Steamer General Frisbie was named after John B Frisbie, founder of the city of Vallejo and son-in-law of General Mariano G Vallejo. She was built in New Whatcom, now Bellingham, Washington. She was sold in 1927.

General Frisbie in ad Take a Sunday excursion to Vallejo and Mare Island on the elegant steamer General Frisbie. Fare $0.75, meals $0.50. From the 15-March-1902 San Francisco Call.

General Frisbie General Frisbie when new. The drawing is by William A Coulter. From the 23-November-1900 San Francisco Call.

General Frisbie new General Frisbie soon before she went into service. The drawing is by William A Coulter. From the 11-May-1901 San Francisco Call.

General Frisbie full view General Frisbie in a full view showing her lines below the water. The drawing is by William A Coulter. From the 21-June-1901 San Francisco Call.

Hatch Brothers Ad A Hatch Brothers ad from the 26-February-1905 San Francisco Call mentions the General Frisbie and the Monticello.

General Frisbie towing Rainer General Frisbie towing boat Rainer after a bad storm hit the bay. The drawing is by William A Coulter. From the 27-December-1900 San Francisco Call.

Asbury Park Steamer Asbury Park when she sailed for the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

Asbury Park was a 20-knot steamer built for the Central Railroad of New Jersey. She carried passengers from the Jersey Shore to New York City.

Asbury Park A Jersey Central ad features steamer Asbury Park. From Asbury Park/Commercial Center of the North Jersey Coast, Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce, 1915.

Roberts Boiler An ad for the Roberts Water Tube Boiler touts the use of nine of them on steamer Asbury Park. From International Marine Engineering, December, 1907.

The Monticello Steamship Company purchased Asbury Park in 1918 and put her on the San Francisco to Vallejo run, rebuilt to carry autos on her main deck. In 1925, she was renamed City of Sacramento. In 1926, her graceful bow and stern were removed and replaced with ugly structures which allowed autos to be loaded and unloaded more efficiently.

City of Sacramento Steamer City of Sacramento after being renamed but before being rebuilt for end-loading of automobiles. Note that the 1918 rebuilding had removed one of her smokestacks.

After she left service on San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound Navigation operated the single-ended steamer on the Bremerton run until after World War II. They renamed her Kahloke, rebuilt her as a diesel-electric and transferred her to Black Ball Lines Canada. BC Ferries later renamed her Langdale Queen. She was retired in 1976 and at last report sits abandoned on the Vancouver waterfront.

Calistoga Steamer Calistoga arriving at the Ferry Building after a run from Vallejo.

Golden Gate Ferries took over the Monticello Steamship Company in 1927. In 1929 Southern Pacific-Golden Gate Ferries combined the auto ferry operations of Southern Pacific and Golden Gate. Southern Pacific-Golden Gate abandoned the Vallejo run in 1937.

Monticello ad A Monticello Steamship Company ad. From Our Navy, April, 1914.

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 257.

Monticello Steamship Company. Vallejo (en route to Mare Island) and connecting with San Francisco, Napa and Calistoga railway (electric) to Napa, St. Helena and Calistoga. Boats leave foot of Merchant street, north of Ferry building. (Ferry runs every hour from Vallejo to Mare Island Navy Yard.)


Martinez/Benicia

Vallejo/Mare Island

Sehome postcard Ferry Vallejo operated from about 1899 to 1919 between her namesake city and the Naval shipyard at Mare Island. She survives as a houseboat in Sausalito.


South Vallejo/Vallejo Junction

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North Bay Services

Sausalito/San Francisco

Sausalito from a boat Sausalito, seen from a ferryboat.

Ferry service from San Francisco to Marin County began in 1860.

Sausalito from a boat In the 1920's, ferry commuters built a garage in Sausalito so they would have a place to park their cars. It is now a shopping mall.

From The Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce under the direction of the Publicity Committee, 1913. Page 256.

Northwestern Pacific Ferry. (Sausalito): Boats leave the Ferry building, foot of Market street (toward north end of building) at 30-minute intervals during the morning and afternoon, and hourly during the middle of the day, and connect at Sausalito with trains for Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Ukiah, Willits, Longvale and Sherwood; and, by branch lines, for Guerneville, Sebastopol and Sonoma Valley points.

San Rafael, San Anselmo, Larkspur, Ross, Mill Valley and Fairfax are reached by this route. Look for the name of your destination on the train boards at Sausalito.

From Sausalito there is an hourly ferry to Tiburon and Belvedere. From Tiburon trains leave for Hilarita, Reed, San Clemente, Green Brae, Schuetzen Park and San Rafael. For Sausalito there are eight boats every week day and ten on Sundays.

Mt. Tamalpais and the Muir Woods are reached from Mill Valley via the Sausalito ferry, by three trains a day.

Stage conection for the State prison at San Quentin is made twice daily at Greenbrae.


Donahue Landing/San Francisco

San Rafael/San Francisco

Tiburon/San Francisco

Sausalito/Belvedere/Tiburon

San Rafael/Richmond

Eureka Eureka sailed from San Francisco to Sausalito until the Northwestern Pacific cancelled ferry service in 1941. Southern Pacific used her for many years on the San Francisco/Oakland route. K. C. Jenkins photos, John Schmale collection. All rights reserved.

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Other Services

Services that had many of the features of ferries ran between cities such as

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The Ferry Building

Ferry Building tower The Ferry Building under reconstruction. July 2001. Photo by Joe Thompson.

The Ferry Building, or Union Ferry Depot, sits at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco.

Ferry Building north end The north end of the Ferry Building under reconstruction. July 2001. Photo by Joe Thompson.

Ferry Building dedication This marker is on a column at the front of the Ferry Building. October 2013. Photo by Joe Thompson.

Ferry Building engineering landmark This plaque marks the Ferry Building as an engineering landmark. It is a "Pioneering structure in the use of reinforced concrete." October 2013. Photo by Joe Thompson.

crate label This 1930s vegetable crate label from the Merrill Packing Company of Salinas, shows the San Francisco Ferry Building.

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Car Ferries and Floats

SolanoSouthern Pacific's car ferry Solano carrying a passenger train across the Carquinez Straits.

Some people confuse car ferries, which carry railroad cars, with auto ferries, which carry automobiles. San Francisco had both.

SolanoA broadside view of Solano carrying a freight train. Solano was the largest ferry on the bay.

Besides the Oakland Mole for passengers, the Central Pacific opened the Long Wharf in Oakland as a terminal for freight trains in 1871. Two car ferries, Thoroughfare (I) and Transit hauled freight cars to various points on the bay. Thoroughfare (I) was retired in 1909; Transit lasted until 1934.

When the Central Pacific acquired the California Pacific and rerouted its transcontinental line to Benicia, it needed a way to get its trains across the narrow but deep Carquinez Straits to Port Costa. In 1879, it built the giant car ferry Solano, which could carry an entire freight train or two passenger trains. Solano carried on alone until 1914, when the Southern Pacific built the Contra Costa (II). Both boats carried on until 1930, when a railroad bridge from Benicia to Martinez opened.

Solano model Jim Turner, Bill Rubarth, and Thomas Rubarth's accurate and beautiful model of Solano, completed in 2003. Photo by Thomas Rubarth, all rights reserved.

Thomas Rubarth, who has done much research on Solano, reports that remains of the A-frames from her walking beam engines remain near Antioch.

A team of three men, Thomas Rubarth, his brother Bill, and Jim Turner, spent five years creating a detailed and accurate model of Solano. This project was remarkable in many ways, because Bill and Jim live in Michigan, while Thomas lives in Arizona.

In October, 2004, Thomas and Bill Rubarth brought the model from Michigan to the Bay Area. Jim Turner, who is up in age, couldn't make the trip. They displayed the model at the Benicia Public Library, the Old Port Costa Schoolhouse, the Hyde Street Pier, and the Golden State Model Railroad Museum in Point Richmond.

I caught up with them at the Hyde Street Pier, on the main deck of Eureka. The HO-scale model itself is a fine piece of work. The tiny planks and beams were all cut from larger pieces of wood and laid in place in the same way as the original. Bill said how many spikes hold down the rails on the deck and I'm sorry I didn't write down the number.

Jim Turner built the boat model and the working landing. Bill Rubarth is the railroad modeler. Thomas Rubarth did most of the research, checked the work of the modelers for accuracy at every step, and put together the interpretive display and the flier handed out at the exhibit. Bill told me that no two of them could have done the project; it required the complementary skills of all three.

Thomas remarked that some people had a hard time understanding what they were trying to do. "Boat people thought it was a railroad thing and railroad people thought it was a boat thing". I thought it was a nice combination of both.

The model took a bit of a beating on the trip from Michigan, but no damage ws visible, except for a line that slipped off its pulley on the operating ramp. Unfortunately, because of road vibrations or something, the trains only operate on the landing, not on the boat. A little boy was very disappointed. Thomas remarked that Bill was able to get the trains running for the Point Richmond display.

Thomas and Bill said the long-term plan is that it will go back to Jim Turner's basement in Michigan, where he will add the town of Port Costa and further details to the boat. His hope is that when he is too old to continue, that the model will find a good home in the Bay Area. People from the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park were very interested. They called the model "museum quality" and praised the way it shows the boat in context. They said they would be happy to have it.

My thanks to Jim, Bill, and Thomas for devoting all this time and effort to helping people understand an important part of our history.

SausalitoThe North Pacific Coast built Sausalito with two tracks on her main deck.

The North Pacific Coast Railroad used the ferryboat Sausalito, with two tracks on its main deck, to transfer cars from Sausalito to San Francisco. The Belt Railroad had dual track sections to handle the narrow gauge cars. I still remember seeing traces of them. Later, the North Pacific Coast built the ugly sternwheeler Lagunitas as a dedicated car ferry. It was underpowered.

The San Francisco and North Pacific used the Ukiah to haul passengers and railway cars from Tiburon to San Francisco.

The Northwestern Pacific inherited Sausalito, Lagunitas, and Ukiah. The railroad later switched to using barges for car transfers. It transferred freight cars to and from Tiburon by barge until 25-Sep-1967. For a time, the barge connection was the only way to get cars to San Rafael after a fire closed the Puerto Suelo tunnel.

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W. A. Coulter Ferry Drawings

William A Coulter was a San Francisco Call staff artist in the 1890s and early 1900s who specialized in marine subjects. He was also a painter, but many of his works got burned up in 1906.

I've been putting one of his drawings on my blog each month.

Ferry Oakland runs down a launch, 23-January-1899.

Ferry Tiburon encounters three whales, 30-June-1896.

Here are all the Coulter drawings/articles I have posted so far on my blog.

More Coulter drawings appear in the article on the Monticello Steamship Company.

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