The Richmond Ferry Before the Bridge


The EUREKA in action! The stately and venerable sidewheeler has met a train from the East at Oakland Pier. Passengers, baggage, express and mail ticketed for San Francisco completed their journey in style. After July 30, 1958 Greyhound buses will handle transbay chores, a move deemed “way cool” by SP cost accountants.  (SF Maritime Museum photo courtesy of Dave Givens)
The EUREKA in action! The stately and venerable sidewheeler has met a train from the East at Oakland Pier. Passengers, baggage, express and mail ticketed for San Francisco completed their journey in style. After July 30, 1958 Greyhound buses will handle transbay chores, a move deemed "way cool" by SP cost accountants. (SF Maritime Museum photo courtesy of Dave Givens)
Summer-1955- In the twilight of her 60 year career, the Berkeley is captured by the writer with his Brownie camera on a two hour cruise aboard Red and White’s Harbor Queen. Did he contemplate commuting on her out of Richmond 45 years later? (David Givens Photo)
Ferryboat Heaven! At Pt.Castro, Richmond, the Klamath takes the outboard today, her fires "banked" for a future run. Alongside, the ElPaso exchanges loads while their third sister, the Russian River, is calling on the Marin shore. The sign over the arch reads: "RESTAURANT ON UPPER DECK" (S.F. Maritime Museum Photo)

Following the golden age of bay ferries in the 1930’s and the exigencies of World War II, the winding down of it all had set in shortly after. a "fifties" kid like me had to succumb to the charms of an exotic remnant of ferryboats in a hurry. With the coming of the 1960’s meant more bridges, the throes of growing up, and enduring various national tumults. After July 30, 1958 the bay would be ferryless until the 1964 startup of the Tiburon commute by the Red and White Fleet. Worse yet, we in the East Bay would have to suffer the indignity of accessing San Francisco by rubber tire only. That was remedied in 1974 with the opening of BART’s transbay tube.

As late as 1937, the bay boasted a dozen ferry routes served by over 40 boats. By 1950 that number would be reduced to 4 routes and 13 boats. Interestingly enough, all the diesel powered vessels found new homes on San Diego Bay and north in Puget Sound. We were stuck with steamers, and that was fine with me.

Combing the bay from the north, there was the Army Transport Service shuttle between Fort Mason and Camp Stoneman near Pittsburgh. It was discontinued after the end of the Korean War in 1954. The former Key System SAN LEANDRO, built in 1923, joined the Southern Pacific’s rail passenger shuttle between the Ferry Building and Oakland Pier. The YERBA BUENA (1927) was scrapped.

Ferry service had been linking Martinez and Benicia since 1847, and it suffered a certain antiquity every since. By the 1950’s the line was chuffing along with two wooden sidewheelers, the CHARLES VAN DAMME (1916) and the CITY OF SAN RAFAEL (1924). By 1956 both had been condemned by the Coast Guard. For four months the only way between the two cities was via the Carquinez Bridge (then single-spanned!) – if you could get there. The "direct diesel" drive CARQUINEZ was hurried up by the pre-CalTrans Division of Highways. For six years this crossing was under state ownership and operation in anticipation of the 1962 opening of the new bridge. The CARQUINEZ was sold to Florida interests.

Still very popular in the north bay was the workhorse Richmond-San Rafael Ferry. Three of the fleet, 240 foot steel hulled sisters built in 1924 – EL PASO, KLAMATH and RUSSIAN RIVER (ex-NEW ORLEANS), were casualties of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. The older SIERRA NEVADA (1913) was added after the war. All boats boosted the auto carrying capacity greatly as post-war traffic soared. Nevertheless it seemed to be every family’s favorite outing. The 20 minute crossing featured a sit-down restaurant on the upper deck, where meals could be cooked to order…quickly! By 1956 a gloomy shadow was cast on us sightseers – a dreaded bridge nearing completion. On September 1, "old swayback" opened, linking the Contra Costa and Marin shores. The fleet was retired, their triple expansion engines "cold". Today only the KLAMATH is still afloat, owned by Duraflame for use as an office in the Stockton port.

It wasn’t over yet. Under the shadow of another bridge – the Bay Bridge – churned a trio of 300 foot Southern Pacific relics living on borrowed time under the exemption of a state law. Also joining Father Time was SP’s ornate Oakland Pier (the "mole), which opened in 1882 at the foot of 7th street. Today it’s the site of the Matson container terminal. In its heyday, the Mole was the terminus for all mainline and interurban electric rail passenger operations. Adjacent to that was the subsidiary SP-Golden Gate auto ferry. By 1940 autos and interurban trains would be diverted onto the bridge. But to the delight of many, the ferrying of mainline passengers, tons of express, baggage and mail to and from the City would carry on until 1958.

That this ferry operation was exempted from the "no-competing-within-ten-miles-of-a-state-owned-toll-bridge" law nostalgiacs showed up for a last ride). But during ordinary times, only arriving and departing bonafide train passengers were entitled to ride the ferry….legally!

Simply, all you had todo was show up at the Berkeley station, and board any incoming train for the final five miles of the trip On weekday mornings, a diehard band of commuters could be found hoping and praying that one of the dwindling parade of mainline trains, such as a "local" from Sacramento, a mail train from Utah, or even the swift "City of San Francisco" streamliner from faraway Chicago, would be running on time. On weekends, we pleasure seekers, free from time constraints, would also show up at trackside. The charming Berkely station, with its "live" ticket selling you handwritten transportation, the PA announcing the train from Oakland 16th Street, Oakland Pier, with "ferry steamer" (an SP term) connection for San Francisco, was as good as it got.

By the 1950’s, the loneliness of the 20 minute crossing was a reminder of how, twenty years previously, four different routes rounded Yerba Buena Island at the same time. With boats coming and going, make that eight abreast. On a weekday in 1935, some 75,000 passengers and 9,500 autos disgorged at the Ferry Building. All 12 wingwall style slips were in constant use. Sadly, in 1955 the terminal’s lone occupant would only be needing one of them, thank you.

Ferry service had been maintained on a half-hourly schedule, but as train movements plummeted in the 1950’s, hourly service became the norm. As the end neared in 1958, the schedule was bunched into morning and evening shifts interrupted by a four hour "lunch break". There were virtually no train movements during that time except for a minor 3:00 arrival from Sacramento. It was a chilling omen that day when passengers were whisked onto an awaiting Greyhound bus for the final leg to the City. The ferry was "out to lunch" and the handwriting was on the wall. After all, SP opined in their press release, what could be better than modern buses affording you a view of the city skyline from the bridge?

Until 1954, all three SP boats had 19th century roots; these 300' double enders could swallow at least 2000 passengers in one bite. The BERKELEY spent her entire 60 year career plying the Oakland Mole crossing. When launched in 1898 she was a pioneer – a steel hull with a propeller drive. After retirement she spent an unremarked decade or so as a curio shop in Sausalito. Today she’s moored at San Diego’s Maritime Museum, lovingly restored.

Attracting as much attention was the legendary sidewheeler EUREKA. Following the close of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s railferry terminal in Sausalito on February 28, 1941, she was transferred to the Oakland run. Her superstructure was a 1922 rebuild but her hull and machinery dated back to 1890 when launched as the UKIAH. Her demise came just-like-that. At midnight in early 1957, after picking up "Shasta Daylight" arrivals at the Mole, the EUREKA’S crank pin snapped enroute to the City. Repairs could have been minimal, but that was beside the point. The front office retired her, sentiment notwithstanding, and donated her to the Hyde Street Pier.

Another "walking beam" vessel, the SACRAMENTO, was also a 1922 rebuild, but her hull and machinery were launched in 1877 as the NEWARK. In 1954 the SACRAMENTO was retired, stripped and towed south to Redondo Beach for use as a public fishing pier for a good stretch of years. Today she sits on the bottom of the ocean, splattered into a million pieces.

Not quite out of the ferry business, Southern Pacific acquired the trim turboelectric steam SAN LEANDRO as a replacement. Since 1923 her tours of duty included the rival Key System, wartime shipyard service, and Army Transport Service out of Fort Mason. Interestingly enough, when shopped, the SAN LEANDRO would be the last classic ferryboat available.

Sadly her tenure wa

s brief. On July 30, 1958, SP would not only exit the ferry business, but a century old bay tradition was brought down. On board ceremonies, included Arthur Fiedler conducting the San Francisco Municipal Band. Red and White Fleet’s HARBOR KING, still drawing occasional duty these days, served as an auxiliary press boat, anchoring port astern to accommodate press photographers. The SAN LEANDRO was maintained in "serviceable" condition for eleven years until September 8, 1919. That night an arsonist torched her at Pier 14, south of the Ferry Building.

These days I tip my hat to the cadre of volunteers over at the Hyde Street Pier who keep the EUREKA’s engines well oiled. It’s reassuring to know she could be fired up with a "head" of steam. (Fellow musicians note: her three chime whistle is a C Minor triad in the first inversion!)

Keeping this, the world’s largest wooden ship extant afloat, is the challenge. Her hull was recaulked and resheathed about five years ago. Shipwrights must now stay ahead of her dryrot problem slat by slat by slat.

It makes me cherish all the more that day in 1955 when the EUREKA was just your everyday "point A to B" (albeit outlandish) unit of transportation, calling on a dying Ferry Building still opened to a waiting public sheltered from inclement weather. That day we waited for the 3:00 ferry call for Oakland so we could connect to a train for Berkeley. As the redcap heaved open the screaming gate, we were greeted by this gleaming white anachronism. The EUREKA was ready for another crossing. The pulse of her walking beam engine drawing her huge side wheels will live with me forever.

And yes, we were riding legally. The fare to Berkeley: 55 cents !