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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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