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Port of Call: Aqaba, Jordan
Oakland Opens the Door to Its Waterfront
Marin County Supervisor Kinsey to Head Regional Transportation Agency
Bridges, Ferryboats and Gridlock
Oleta Adams to Star at PortFest 2003
Steve Kinsey on Congestion Management in Marin
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"Play Ball! Package" At San Francisco’s Harbor Court Hotel
Bay Crossings Cuisine: Barclays
90’ Brigantine Irving Johnson
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Hotel Housed in Historic 1909 Fisherman’s Wharf Warehouse to Open September 2003
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Sierra Grand Opening
Photo Unrealism

Bridges, 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 world.

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."