Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Passenger Ferry / Ferries of San Francisco Bay

A San Francisco vacation or weekend trip is always fun and you just may want to add the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park to your trip planner. It's one of the best San Francisco places to visit. The photo at right is a historic west coast schooner moored at the maritime park.

The Era of the Steam Ferry

schooner in San Francisco
Tall Ship Balclutha at SF Maritime Hist. Park
There was a time in San Francisco's history before bridges. When many people today think of San Francisco they think of cable cars and of course the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge.

There was a time however that San Francisco ferries were the talk of the town. Steamboats were the big mode of transportation. Some people still remember a time when residents could walk down to the waterfront and board an overnight steamer to Sacramento.

The first steam ferries on San Francisco Bay carried teams and wagons. After that of course emerged the automobiles and the first steam boat built specifically for that purpose was the Melrose. The vessel was launched in 1909 with a lower deck intended for automobiles, and the upper deck reserved for passengers.The first of such boats ran the Creek Route which was the route going between San Francisco and Oakland. The Oakland ferry dock was located at where Jack London Square is now. Starting in 1922 the Golden Gate Ferry Company ran a route for cars and passengers between the Hyde Street pier in San Francisco and Sausalito in Marin County.

Exploring Historic Vessels

hyde street pier at fishermans wharf
San Francisco Maritime Nat. Historical Park
Today, we're fortunate to have a great place to visit at San Francisco's Fishermans Wharf. It's a place to see both steamboats and old sailing vessels from an earlier era.

The San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park is a very unique site and would be a good addition to your San Francisco vacation or weekend trip.

Aside from being located in what is perhaps one of the most picturesque part of the United States, the park consists of a fleet of historic vessels, a visitor center, a very interesting maritime museum as well as a library/research facility. The park is located nearby where Hyde Street ends at Fishermans Wharf. The cable car and electric streetcars make it very easy to get to.

The Ferry Eureka

Steamboat Eureka in San Francisco
One such early vessel permanently docked at the park is the sidewheeler "Eureka"  pictured at left .
Like many old steamboats it has a rich history. The Eureka was built in Tiburon in Marin County in 1890. The vessel was first named the "Ukiah" to showcase the San Francisco and North Pacific Railway's recent extension into the City of Ukiah on California's north Pacific coast.

The first route for the boat was between San Francisco and Tiburon. It's interesting to note that the Eureka was built with a double-end design. This means that cars and people could embark or disembark from either end of the vessel.

When you look at the Eureka, the front and back of the steamboat are identical. This new design may have been one of the most revolutionary of the time and certainly made the vessel more versatile. The vessel which was then name the Ukiah carried troops and rail cars filled with munitions in aiding the World War One effort. Her war service however came with a price. Carrying the extremely heavy rail cars stressed her hull and she had to be extensively repaired at government expense. During this era the Ukiah was the largest double ended designed vessel in the world. She could carry 2,300 passengers and about 120 cars.


After the war, the Eureka had a completely different job. From 1922 and 1941 she was on the San Francisco to Sausalito commuter run. Because of the Eureka's sheer size she was scheduled on the heavier "rush hour" runs between the city and Sausalito.

steamer eureka
Entrance to Eureka Ferry exhibit
These crowded trips averaged 2,200 passengers. The Sausalito ferry is one of the busiest routes. As you will see when you tour the vessel there were many comfortable amenities for the passengers including a magazine stand and a restaurant that served full meals. This was the heyday of steamboat commuting on San Francisco Bay.  

When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed during the Great Depression year of 1937, the entire system of commuting changed. The steamboat ferries felt the effect fast and runs were cut back to conform to lesser passenger demand and eventually by 1942 the Northwest Pacific pulled out of ferry operations entirely. The Eureka however stayed in service in other ways. Again, because of her large size and double end design she was used in the 1950's as a Southern Pacific Railroad connection between it's Oakland terminus and San Francisco. Today, the historic steamer Eureka is on display near San Francisco's Fishermans Wharf and is a terrific stop for the entire family.

Ferries on the Puget Sound

Steamboat paddle wheel
It's interesting to compare the old steamboat fleet on San Francisco Bay with the old "Mosquito Fleet" that operated during much the same time on Puget Sound in Washington State.

The similarities when they both began was simply an expanse of water with people basically residing on all sides. The ferry boats provided a much needed service in light of the lack of bridges.The difference with Puget Sound was that many of the ferry routes were much longer in length with some stretching to British Columbia.

In Puget Sound there were also some tragic shipwrecks that involved both steam boiler explosions and collisions. In comparison to Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay was a relatively safe body of water. Research indicates that perhaps the worst accident in the Bay involved the ferry "Peralta" in 1928. When she was approaching the Oakland docks many onboard noticed that the bow was unusually low. One reason for this is that many passengers crowded to the front of the boat to be first off. All of a sudden water five feet deep rushed onto the lower deck. About thirty passengers were washed away into the very cold bay water and as a result five of them later died.

Steamboat Disasters

On a historical perspective, probably the worst accident involving a steam ferry boat operating in a harbor area was the fire aboard the SS Slocum in New York on June 15, 1904. The vessel was on a charter run carrying members of a Lutheran church to a picnic site. There were 1,300 on board and over 1,000 died.

During the subsequent investigation it was learned that several safety precautions were violated. The most serious being that the hoses aboard the vessel were rotted and ineffective and that fire safety drills had not been conducted. Most passengers were women and children and as was the norm in this era most could not swim. The Slocum disaster was so high profile that plays and books were written about the vessel.

The worst steamboat disaster in American history occurred when the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis Tennessee in 1865. The vessel was transporting thousands of returning Union Civil War soldiers, many of whom were recently released POW's. It was estimated that about 1,800 or more perished.

the steamboat general slocum
SS General Slocum
San Francisco Bay is a very interesting body of water and the paddle wheel steamboat was a big part of it's history. During the Gold Rush era there were a myriad number of vessels entering her waters and it's believed that coastline is a graveyard for shipwrecks from even centuries past. During the Gold Rush there were many vessels literally abandoned by their crews while anchored. Some crews were much more interested in trying their luck in the Sierra Nevada foothills rather than at sea.

The vessels on display at the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park offer excellent  photo opportunities and a low cost addition to your San Francisco vacation itinerary.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos from author's private collection. SS Gen. Slocum image from the, public domain)

1 comment:

  1. The Sausalito ferry, manged by the Golden Gate Bridge District, is like Disneyland biggest race of the world, and is faster than driving or taking a bus from San Francisco. It is the best ride for travellers on the ferry in the world. Its a fantastic ferry ride!

    It was also created a space on board for 70 cycles. The bike space is used on weekends when people rent bikes in San Francisco trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and then take the ferry.

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