The Berkeley Pier, jutting out into the Bay in various states of disrepair, is a remnant of bygone age—an artifact left over from another time.
By Captain Ray
Published: February, 2011
As the automobile age began, San Francisco Bay presented a formidable obstacle. The first and simplest solution, to just drive around it, required too much time, especially when you consider the nature of highways in the early 1920s. The first attempt at a better solution was to incorporate automobile ferries into an already extensive passenger ferry network.
In the mid-1920s, an affiliate of the Southern Pacific Railroad called the Golden Gate Ferry Company began ferry service between Berkeley and San Francisco. Because these ferries carried automobiles as well as passengers, they were heavier and required deeper water in which to operate safely. In order to reach this deeper water, the company constructed a three-mile-long pier at the foot of University Avenue. (In keeping with the rule of unintended consequences, this solution created some of the worst traffic jams in Berkeley’s history. On the day of the Big Game between Cal and Stanford, cars waiting to board the ferry were backed up not only the entire length of the pier but onto University Avenue.)
By the end of the 1920s, it became apparent that the automobile demanded a bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco. The Federal government allocated funds in 1929; the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened to traffic in 1936. It was a marvel of engineering, its Western span consisting of twin suspension bridges, its eastern span a combination of cantilever, trestle, and viaduct designs, all linked by one of the world’s largest diameter double-decked tunnels through Yerba Buena Island. It still stands today over 70 years later, like a giant Erector Set, a testament to 20th century engineering. (Because of seismic concerns, the eastern span is being replaced. When the replacement is completed in 2013, the old eastern span will be removed.)
In the early days, the upper deck of the Bay Bridge carried two-way passenger car traffic. The lower deck was for trucks, streetcars, and trolleys. The East Bay, at the time, was covered with streetcars and trolleys operated by several transit systems. In the years following World War II, ridership declined rapidly; one by one, they went out of business until only the Key System remained.
In 1946, 64 percent of Key System stock was acquired by a company called National City Lines, a holding company created to disguise its real owners: General Motors, Mack Trucks, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil of California. It comes as no surprise that these companies preferred a public transportation system that utilized internal combustion engines, fossil fuels and rubber tires. In 1958, the Key System was merged into a newly created public agency, the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit). Within two years, AC Transit ended the last transbay rail service and transformed the Transbay Terminal—currently being reduced to rubble to make room for a new terminal—into a bus station. The Bay Bridge was reconfigured into two one-way decks.
Now most of the Berkeley Pier sits abandoned. The first 3,000 feet have been restored, today serving as a public promenade and fishing pier. The remaining 2 ¼ miles, left to deteriorate, stand as a hazard to navigation and a monument to another era.
Ray Wichmann, is a US SAILING-certified Ocean Passagemaking Instructor, a US SAILING Instructor Trainer, and a member of US SAILING’s National Faculty. He holds a 100-Ton Master’s License, was a charter skipper in Hawai’i for 15 years, and has sailed on both coasts of the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Greece. He is presently employed as the Master Instructor at OCSC Sailing in the Berkeley Marina.