Alameda in History: The South Pacific Coast Railroad’s lost ferries

Alameda in History: The South Pacific Coast Railroad’s lost ferries

Dennis Evanosky

Last month we met Charles Minturn and A. A. Cohen and leaned the roles their ferry boats played in our history. In this month’s story, we’ll ride the South Pacific Coast Railroad’s ferry boats — Newark, Garden City, Bay City and Encinal. We’ll also learn the interesting fates of two of these ferries.

When James Fair and Alfred Davis, owners of the narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad, wanted steam-driven ferry boats to carry their passengers across the bay to San Francisco they turned to San Francisco boat builder William Edwin Collyer. Collyer — a Connecticut native whose family had long-established shipbuilding businesses in New York City — set to work at his Potrero Point shipyard near modern-day Pier 70. Collyer and his skilled workmen built the Newark, and later, the Bay City and Garden City, for Fair and Davis.

Collyer launched the Newark on April 18, 1877. The steamer first carried passengers from Dumbarton Point, near the eastern footing of the modern-day Dumbarton Bridge. Fair and Davis knew the hour-long trip aboard the Newark from Dumbarton Point to San Francisco would not suit their customers, and had already formed the Bay & Coast Railroad to lay tracks to Alameda.

By the time South Pacific Coast had completed its wharves on Alameda’s West End, in the summer of 1879, Collyer had launched the Bay City and the Garden City. The Bay City left Collyer’s shipways on May 18, 1878; the Garden City went into service a little more than a year later, on June 20, 1879.

The largest of South Pacific Coast’s three steamers — and the largest ferry on San Francisco Bay at the time — the Newark measured 268 feet in length and 42 feet in breadth. This ferry was so large that Collyer had to build a special shipway to accommodate its hull. In comparison, the Bay City was 230 feet long and 36.8 feet at its beam, while the Garden City was even smaller, at 208 feet long and 37 feet in breadth.

From 1878 to 1884, all three South Pacific Coast ferries picked up and discharged passengers and freight at the railroad’s wharves, which were located about where today’s Main Street swings west near Bay Ship and Yacht. The railroad built one wharf to handle passenger traffic and a second to handle freight. Collyer had outfitted the Garden City’s main deck with rails so locomotives could pull freight cars aboard. This allowed South Pacific Coast to transport freight directly to its San Francisco wharf, which was strategically located between Market and Mission streets. The new railroad found itself in direct competition with the established Central Pacific Railroad.

South Pacific Coast took another bold chance in October 1883 when the railroad began extending its Alameda pier two and three-quarter miles northwest to deeper water. This stone-based pier, called a mole, opened on March 15, 1884, and could accommodate both freight and passenger trains. The new wharf included a 310-foot-long depot.

According to South Pacific Coast’s architect, Howard Holmes, the pier rested on 10,000 piles that used six million feet of Oregon pine. Holmes designed the depot’s roof using galvanized corrugated iron, which he alternated with rows of heavy glass skylight consisting of 15,000 square feet of glass.

The day the new pier opened, the Alta California newspaper reported that the operation shaved 15 minutes off the time it took passengers from High Street in Alameda to reach San Francisco and 10 minutes off the trip from downtown Oakland to San Francisco. More importantly, the newspaper told its readers that the South Pacific ferries could now carry passenger across the bay “in several minutes quicker time than the Central Pacific.”

The newspaper also reported that “this expensive improvement ... is intended to be the terminus of a new overland line of narrow gauge road that will be built gradually, piece by piece, across the state in the near future to connect with the region of Salt Lake, to which there is already a narrow-gauge line from the East.”

None of this came to pass. A little more than a year after the South Pacific Coast impressed everyone with its new wharf, Southern Pacific Railroad flexed its muscles. On April 1, 1885, Southern Pacific took control of the venerable Central Pacific. Two years later it would also own South Pacific Coast.

On October 1, 1886, Fair and Davis’ railroad was complete. By then Davis only held the titular role of the South Pacific Coast’s president; he had sold his interest in the railroad to Fair. On May 23, 1887, Fair consolidated the seven railroad lines that made up the South Pacific Coast Railroad into one company, calling his new creation the South Pacific Coast Railway. Less than six weeks after that, he leased all rights to his railway to Southern Pacific for $6 million.

As one of its first moves, Southern Pacific transferred South Pacific Coast’s flagship, the Newark, to its Oakland pier for runs to San Francisco. The following year Southern Pacific built the ferry Encinal for service on the Alameda-San Francisco run. Like the Garden City, the Encinal had had narrow-gauge tracks on its main deck.

On November 20, 1902, a fire destroyed the Alameda mole. The conflagration also burned some 30 narrow-gauge rail cars and hastened Southern Pacific’s conversion of South Pacific Coast from the three-foot-wide narrow-gauge rails to the four-foot, eight-and-one-half-inch-wide broad-gauge rails. Southern Pacific replaced the burned-out mole with one in the classical style. The new mole survived until 1940, when the Navy dismantled it to make way for the runways at its air station.

The Newark stayed on the Oakland-San Francisco run until 1923, when Southern Pacific towed her to its Oakland shipyard and rebuilt her as the Sacramento, the largest all-passenger ferry on San Francisco Bay. The Sacramento went into service on Feb. 9, 1924. She could carry 4,000 passengers with seating for 1,900.

By 1939, the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge had opened and Southern Pacific had reduced passenger ferry service to a single daily run between San Francisco and Oakland. The Sacramento became the standby boat when the other ferries assigned to that route needed repairs; she remained in active service until a major mechanical failure on November 28, 1954.

Southern Pacific stripped the Sacramento of her machinery and sold her in 1955. Frank Hale, part owner and president of Redondo Sport Fishing, purchased her for $5,000. On New Year's Day, 1956, he had the aging ferry towed to Long Beach. Once the Sacramento cleared the Golden Gate, she met heavy seas and began to take on water. After an arduous three-day journey she reached Long Beach, where workers pumped her dry and modified her from a ferry to a fishing barge that could accommodate up to 500 fisherman. She sank during a 1968 storm, according to the California Wreck Divers website.

“Today, the wreck of the Sacramento remains relatively untouched, awaiting the fearless diver who seeks to explore her ornate wood carvings, beautiful stained glass and brass relics,” the site says.

The Bay City remained on the Alameda route under Southern Pacific ownership. She stayed in transbay service until Southern Pacific dismantled her for scrap in 1929. The Garden City, meanwhile, continued to ply the Creek Route, as locals called the passage from Oakland’s Broadway pier to San Francisco. All went well until the Garden City attempted to cross San Francisco Bay to Oakland during a full gale on Christmas morning in 1921.

After steaming into the wind for 90 minutes on what was normally an 18-minute trip, the ferry found its destination slip occupied by the ferry Edward T. Jeffery. The Jeffrey vacated the slip, but the Garden City was unable to maneuver in the wind. The ship’s rudder broke and she started drifting. A rescue tug arrived and took the ferry in tow, but the tow line broke, and the Garden City drifted into the Key System pier, seriously damaging the pier and drenching her passengers as they crawled to safety.

Southern Pacific retired the Garden City the following year. Traffic remained so heavy through the 1920s, however, that the railroad repeatedly pulled her out of retirement for temporary service when other ferries needed repair. After her last run in 1929, the Garden City found herself moored as a fishing resort in the town of Eckley on the Carquinez Strait. Eckley is gone, and the site is now part of Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline Park. The remains of the Garden City remain visible from the park's Eckley fishing pier.

Dennis Evanosky co-publishes the Alameda Sun with Eric J. Kos. He is the president of the Alameda Museum.