Ferryboats and Gridlock
By Charles Elkind
Among the many joys of an ex-San
Franciscan’s return visits are the always-exhilarating views.
Especially mesmerizing is the panorama seen while munching a
sandwich at The Ramp in China Basin.
On an idyllic day, sailboats
dimple the placid Bay waters conjuring up visions of yesteryear when
there were no bridges and the port bustled with lumber carriers from
the Pacific Northwest, cruisers outbound for Honolulu, and
foreign-flag freighters laden with commodities from around the
At that time, residents’
Depression gloom was pushed aside by three major civic events:
completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936, the Golden Gate Bridge a year
later, and the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island.
San Franciscans were supremely
proud of the new bridges. But the aesthetic price came high as they
made almost extinct everyone’s favorite: the squat ferryboats that
plied the Bay, connecting the Peninsula with communities in Marin
County and the East Bay.
A 5-cent coin was the fare for
transit to Oakland on the "Nickle Ferries." And on languid
summer Sundays, families relaxed on the funky vessels churning the
waters to Alameda’s Neptune Beach. The crossing took exactly 47
minutes, no more, no less. This immutable fact set a relaxed tempo
that prompted guitar strumming, card playing, and singing.
Soothed by the throbbing ship
motor, passengers enjoyed the décor: clean white paint trimmed with
narrow bands of gilt and brass fittings kept gleaming by proud crew
members. A favorite piece was the Seth Thomas clock with its
pendulum swinging to and fro in a precise cadence. In those
slower-paced days, clocks served as ornaments as much as timepieces.
Their transformation into deadline tyrants was triggered by World
War II’s relentless defense industry and military schedules.
Ironically, the bridges that
nearly flushed the ferryboats out of the Bay, in recent years caused
the resurrection of a number of the quaint vessels. This turnabout
is directly traceable to the area’s population explosion and its
ugly by-product: a maddening gridlock at the beginning and close of
each work day that clogs bridge approaches and reduces traffic to a
snail’s pace on the spans.
Exasperated commuters responded
eagerly to the resumption of Marin ferryboat service. Since then,
becalmed passengers pleasurably make the crossing with a crossword
puzzle, a cell phone, or a cup of latte. All the while, the
ferryboats chug merrily along relishing the reprieve from the nether
world of "has-beens."