A Brief History of Ferries on the Bay...
Waterfront Design Roundtable
So You Want to be a Travel Book Writer
Good News for Port Sonoma
Water Transit Agency Sets First Meeting Date
Bay Crossings Reader of the Month: Denis Ko, Harbor Bay stalwart
Thousands of Bay Area commuters to San Quentin? 
Bay Crossings Photo Contest
Our Ferries a' Buildin'
A Brief History of Ferries on the Bay…

Bay Area ferry services have played a long and historic role in the development of the region, at one time constituting the greatest water transit system in the world. From the Gold Rush until the completion of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, ferries provided the only transportation across the Bay.

The first recorded ferry system on the Bay was established in 1850, the year California entered the Union, when the Kangaroo entered service on a route between San Francisco and the Oakland Estuary. In 1852 Oakland granted the first Bay ferry franchise to a "reliable" maritime operator. By the late 1800s, 22 passenger cross-bay ferry companies were in operation, and another five companies carried only automobiles. The ferries served approximately 30 destinations, approximately half of them on the San Francisco—Oakland corridor.

Most ferry lines were established and operated by railroads seeking means to extend their service across the Bay. Consolidation took its toll and by the early 1930s only 10 passenger ferry operators remained. The Southern Pacific Company was by far the largest operator, with 22 vessels in full time service in 1935. The Key System and Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company held second and third place. In 1921, these three operators carried 27 million, 15 million, and 7 million passengers respectively.

Most vessels were large and stately. The Northwestern Pacific’s Eureka had seating for 2,300 and standing room for a further 1,000. All of Southern Pacific’s major vessels had seating capacity of greater than 1,000; the Golden Bear could seat 2,200.

By today’s standards, the ferries were slow. Vessels were powered by steam until the early 1920s when diesel engines began to appear. Even in the 1930s, the longest route between Vallejo and San Francisco, a 30-mile run, took 1 hour 45 minutes, at an average speed of 15 knots. On the more popular routes, however, service was frequent. The Richmond — San Rafael ferries ran 30 minutes apart when two boats were running, 20 minutes apart when three were in service.

"The trip on all ferry lines was of sufficient duration between Oakland, Alameda, Sausalito and San Francisco to permit consumption of a substantial meal. Service, by and large, was fast and courteous and the quality of the food exceptionally high, considering the handicap of space in which it was prepared."

(San Francisco Bay Ferryboats, George H. Harlan, 1967.)

Due to the longer travel times and slower pace of life, restaurant services on boats were the most patronized of on-board diversions. Many concessions were not under the management of the ferry company. The most famous of these were the eating facilities operated by the National Service Company on the Key Route boats, with chefs as well trained in the culinary arts as any in the area.

"In 1930, forty-three ferryboats, the largest number to have ever operated on the bay, carried a total of forty-seven million passengers and more than six million automobiles from shore to shore. Each day, fifty to sixty thousand people crossed the bay between San Francisco and Alameda; 25 percent of them rode in automobiles."

(Mel Scott as quoted in The Ferry Building, Nancy Olmsted, 1998.)

The great peak ferry transit years were 1935 and 1936, when 50 to 60 million people crossed the Bay annually on almost 50 ferries, and 250,000 passengers flowed through San Francisco’s Ferry Building each day. On the waterside, ferries made 340 arrivals and departures daily. On the landside, connecting streetcars left every 20 seconds.

Then came the great bridges. First the Golden Gate, followed by the Bay Bridge in 1937. The decline of ferry service was rapid, and by 1958 there were no more ferries. Moreover, any entrepreneurs who wanted to start a ferry system could not. To prevent competition, the Legislature had adopted several laws and resolutions prohibiting alternative forms of transportation within 10 miles of the Bay Bridge. There was to be one way and only one way over the Bay, and that way was over the bridge.