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By F. Weston Starratt

Retro Vallejo Ferry the "General Frisbie" Photo courtesy Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum. 

The importance of Vallejo’s location was apparent even before the city’s founding. General Mariano Vallejo, the last Mexican Governor of California, realized that the little settlement was a natural transportation hub where land meets water at the gateway to the Bay Area from the great central valley. He was so enthusiastic about the area that he offered some of his own land and even succeeded in making Vallejo the capital of the State of California, at least for one year. To General Vallejo, Vallejo was the "true center of the state."

The United States Navy established the Mare Island Navy Yard in 1856, with regularly scheduled connections established to Vallejo soon thereafter. A few years later, railroad barons also grasped the vision of the settlement as a center of commerce. They found that Vallejo was the closest location to San Francisco on the west side of the Sacramento River and the true "Gateway to the Bay Area." So, bBy 1869, the California Pacific Railroad established a ferry terminal in South Vallejo connecting to railroad lines leading all the way to Sacramento. Later, competition set in, and the Central Pacific developed a land-based route from Sacramento along the south shore of the river, with ferry connections to Vallejo at Crockett. The result was that direct ferry service from Vallejo to San Francisco ended by 1883 … but not for long.

Others continued to see Vallejo as a prime transportation hub, and direct ferry service to San Francisco was re-established in 1890, connecting to railroads serving Benicia, Napa Valley, and Calistoga. One firm even had a ship that could make the 26 nautical mile run to San Francisco in only two hours. In 1900, a new vessel, the General Frisbie (named for General Vallejo’s son in law), was built and put in service. In 1908, a new electric railway line connecting ferries to San Francisco with the City of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga in the Napa Valley opened for business.

Old Vallejo

During World War I, additional vessels were put in service to transport workers to the booming Mare Island Navy Yard. By 1922, these vessels were being converted to handle a new type of cargo, automobiles. The Southern Pacific Golden Gate Ferries entered the picture about that time, bought out the older steamship lines, and continued regular passenger and automobile service from Vallejo to San Francisco until 1936 1937 when the direct highway access over the new Bay Bridge bridges eliminated the need. diverted most patronage to highways. Ferry service between Vallejo and San Francisco was discontinued in 1937. This also led to the demise of electric train service between Vallejo and the Napa Valley.For a period of almost 50 years, from 1936 to 1986, Vallejo and most of the Bay Area, were without regular ferry service

A New Beginning, Sparked by Waterfront Redevelopment

(For much of the rest of our story, we are grateful to information provided by Alvaro da Silva, Director of Community Development for the City of Vallejo, and Pamela J. Belchamber, Transportation Superintendent for the city and the driving force behind the creation of Vallejo’s Baylink ferry system.)

The heyday of Vallejo’s waterfront occurred during World War II when the Mare Island Naval Shipyard was in full operation and sailors roamed the streets 24 hours per day. After the war, the waterfront sank into a decaying undeveloped area with makeshift docks, and boat repair yards, cafes, bars, and more. That scene changed dramatically with a mMassive urban renewal program in the late 1950s and early 1960s that transformed the waterfront, into a vibrant area with new boat ramps, open space and esplanades, and that focusedfocusing on a splendid new city hall and library. civic center complex.