San Francisco Ferry

There are thousands of people using ferries on the San Francisco Bay these days, so it’s hard to remember that ferry service died out for several decades after the construction of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge. Of course the long history of Bay Area mobility is a story of water travel. Whether moving hay into the City to feed the thousands of horses pulling wagons and omnibuses, or bringing the lumber in to build the wooden City, or taking big loads of grain or (by the early 20th century) canned fruit and vegetables to far-flung ports, everything came and went by ship for a long time. But it was also true that most people wanting to go from one part of the Bay Area to another would find ferry travel the most convenient and appropriate means to make their trip.

The Southern Pacific Company’s Bay City ferry plies the waters of San Francisco Bay sometime between 1870 and 1900.

Photo: California Historical Society, J1211

In 1850, just a year since the beginning of urbanization, the first ferry service was established between San Francisco and Oakland, running across sand bars to San Antonio Creek, better known now as the Oakland Estuary. Ferries were the main transportation choice for travelers between San Francisco and Sacramento, and points in between, and continued to be well into the 20th century. Back in 1862 the San Francisco and Oakland Railroad Company built a ¾ mile pier from West Oakland into the Bay. Thus begins a decades-long concentration of cross-bay ferry traffic between West Oakland and San Francisco’s Ferry Building. After the Civil War in 1868 real estate promoters laid out streets and docks in Sausalito and begin providing North Bay ferry service. When the first transcontinental railroads spanned the country, the original terminal was in Sacramento where passengers transferred to fast ferries to finish their trip to San Francisco and the coast. Before long the new railroad barons had acquired the local ferry services and by 1881 they extended the wharves well into the Bay on what became known as the Oakland Mole, where trains and ferries met in the Bay all the way to 1957. (The year I was born hehehe :))

“Ferries on the Bay, an Historical Essay,” by Chris Carlsson

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