San Francisco Bay Ferryboats - Yesterday

by Joe Thompson

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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 (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.

Oakland (Key Pier)/San Francisco

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

Vallejo/San Francisco


Vallejo/Mare Island

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.

Donahue Landing/San Francisco

San Rafael/San Francisco

Tiburon/San Francisco


San Rafael/Richmond

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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.

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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.

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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Copyright 2001-2003 by Joe Thompson, All rights reserved
Last modified 31-Mar-2003