Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Ferries of San Francisco Bay

With so many towns and cities surrounding the San Francisco Bay, people naturally tended to use the water to get around, and ferry services on the bay sprang up early in the area's history - as early as 1850, by some accounts - and this rich tradition continues still today. The Archive recently acquired (in San Diego, of all places) several photos of ferries operating in the early 1930s. During that era, the boats were primarily side-wheel steamers, a specialized variant of the riverboat. To make operations more efficient, most were double-ended, so that the boats didn't have to turn around.


The Southern Pacific's Sacramento had a storied life - three lives, really. She was built for the South Pacific Coast Railroad as the Newark at the W. Collyer shipyard in San Francisco (anyone know if W. Collyer is related to the shipbuilding Collyer Brothers of New York?), and launched on April 18, 1877. The SPC was a narrow guage railroad that connected Santa Cruz with Oakland at Dunbarton Point, a landing where produce hauled on the railroad was transferred to ships; the line's locomotive shops were built at Newark (an enclave surrounded by the city of Fremont), hence the original name of the ferry. When the new ferry arrived in the bay in late 1877, she began connecting service from Dunbarton to San Francisco. With the arrival of sisters Bay City in 1878 and Garden City in 1879, service was shifted to the new ferry terminal at Alameda (at the end of a mole built 1 1/2 mile out into the bay) on March 20, 1878.

Ten years after Newark  entered service, the SPC was purchased by rival Southern Pacific, who merged it into their system and took over the ferry service. In 1903, the ferry was given a much-needed refit, which increased her gross tonnage from 1,783 to 2,197. On December 7, 1908, she was damaged in a collision with sister SP ferry Oakland, but after repairs continued soldiering on. In 1923, she was due another refit, and this time she was almost completely rebuilt, with very little of the old Newark remaining. Re-launched in January 1924, she was re-christened Sacramento. At the time, she was the largest all-passenger ferry on the bay, rated to carry up to 4,000 passengers (with actually seating for 1,900 of them).
According to the handwriting on the back of this small snapshot, the photo was taken on July 5, 1932.
After ferry service on the bay was curtailed to a single vessel in 1939, the Sacramento was the designated spare, running the SF-Oakland route when her newer sisters were down for maintenance. She continued plying the bay's waters through World War II and for almost a decade after, as one of only two remaining ferries. Steam, of course, was an anachronism by the time she suffered a major breakdown on November 28, 1954.

The Sacramento appeared to be destined for the scrapper when, after a year in limbo, she was purchased by Frank Hale and Gordon McRae who had formed the Redondo Beach Pleasure Fishing Corporation. The 78-year-old ferry was acquired for $5,000 and towed to the Sherman Boat Works in Long Beach, then stripped of all her propulsion machinery (except for the actual side-wheels). The main deck walls were also removed, and the ferry was towed to nearby Redondo Beach, where she was regularly moored off-shore and used as a fishing barge. The original plans called for the upper decks to house a nightclub, but this never came to fruition. During the summer months, the barge was open 24 hours a day, and just during the daytime during winter months.

On December 1, 1968, the Sacramento  was moored off of Rocky Point, Palos Verdes when an unusually fierce storm hit the coast. The crew evacuated, and during that night waves swamped the 91-year-old ferry, and she broke apart and sunk. Debris, including the pilot house, washed up along the shoreline. (A detailed article about her life as a fishing barge, including a photo of the pilothouse in the surf, can be found here.)


The Tamalpais was a side-wheel steam ferry built in 1901 and operated by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. At one point, she held the speed record from San Francisco to Tiburon. She served until bay ferry service was ended at the beginning of 1939, following the opening of the Bay Bridge. What happened to her after that is in dispute. One source says that she was tied up at Antioch for a while and used as a restaurant. Another source (citing Bray Dickerson's book Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods) says that she was sold the the US Navy in 1941 and converted into a floating barracks at Mare Island. But an article in the Sausalito News from November 6, 1947, says that NWP's parent company, Southern Pacific, kept her as a spare until 1943, when she was taken over by the Government (presumably the Navy) and operated as a ferry between military facilities around the bay. After the war, she was towed to the Suisun mud flats, and in 1947 was sold to the Moore Dry Dock Company, who cut the once-proud ferry up for scrap.

Golden State

The Golden State was one of seven Diesel-electric powered ferries purchased by Golden Gate Ferries in the 1920s. The company had got its start in 1920 when local demand for auto ferry service between SF and Sausilito was ignored by the then-dominant Northwest Pacific Ferry company. Golden Gate Ferry Company began operations in 1922 with three ex-Key System steam-powered ferries, and then started buying new Diesel-powered vessels. All of the line's ferries had names that started with Golden.

The wood-hulled Golden State was launched in 1926 at Alameda by the General Engineering & Drydock Company. Three Diesel engines drove generators that powered two electric motors shafted to propellers, making the Golden State and her sisters faster than the older side-wheel ferries. With business booming (keep in mind, the Golden Gate Bridge didn't open until May of 1937), the line opened a second route to Berkeley in 1927, competing directly with the Southern Pacific. SP has a rich tradition of not tolerating competition, and so in 1929 gained control of Golden Gate and its fleet. Now the SP's Southern Pacific-Golden State subsidiary, the Golden fleet continued in service until the two big bridges opened.

Golden State had a lot of life left in her, and in November 1937 headed north to Puget Sound, becoming the Kehloken (Chinook for swan). Operated by Black Ball Ferries, the refitted vessel entered service on January 7, 1938 on the Seattle-Suquamish-Indianola route, and later between Seattle and Winslow. With newer ferries in service, Kehloken made her final revenue trip between Edmonds and Kingston on Labor Day, 1972. After languishing for three years, in 1975 she was purchased for $25,000 and towed to Lake Washington for conversion into a floating restaurant and nightclub. That was a short-lived career, and in September 1979 a fire onboard burned her to the waterline. The remains were taken over by the Department of Natural Resources, cleaned of anything toxic and then deliberately sunk off of Whidbey Island's Possession Point to serve as an artificial reef. She is, today, a popular spot for scuba diving. (Photos of the Kehloken, including the fire, can be seen here. A good dive report can be read here.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Alan Great article Carole Matthews