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Sunday, October 06, 2002

The Monticello Steamship Company

Jerry Bowen

[email protected]

Business thrived amid rivalry

Zephania Jefferson Hatch was born in 1846 near Monticello, N.Y., and grew up in a rural farming area. Being a restless young man wanting to improve his lot in life, he immigrated to Oregon and worked for a while for the famous Jim Hill, building the Great Northern Railroad.

Tiring of working for others, he became interested in maritime operations and decided to open his own cargo transport operation. He bought a small steamboat and began delivering supplies along the Columbia River out of Portland.

His first try at his own business was cut short when a load of cement he was delivering to an island on the river got wet during a heavy rain. The ship sank alongside the dock when the cement swelled up and burst the hull of the ship.

Not one to be stopped by the “minor” setback of losing his primary asset, he decided that perhaps transporting passengers might be more profitable than cargo. In 1892, he placed an order for a small passenger steamer and named it Monticello. Hatch assigned himself as captain of the 126-foot steamship and went into business. Demand didn’t meet his expectations in the Northwest, so in 1895 he sailed for San Francisco to try his luck there.

Misfortune dogged his wake again when the boilers in the Monticello failed outside of San Francisco Harbor and the ship had to be towed to port. The Pacific Mail Company placed a lien on the Monticello for the tow.

Overcoming his latest setback, he managed to pay off the lien and placed his fast little ship on a passenger run between Vallejo and San Francisco in competition with the Aden Brothers Ferry Company. His brother Charles N. Hatch joined the enterprise and they named their fledgling business the Hatch Brothers Steamship Company.

The faster Monticello competed well with the Aden Brothers’ ship, Sunol, and the Hatches began to prosper.

Flushed with success, the Hatch brothers ordered another speedy ship in 1900, the General Frisbie.

The Aden Brothers tried to compete by chartering the H. J. Corcoran, so the Hatch Brothers decided to acquire another vessel, the Arrow. Being a little short of capital, they took in a partner, R. R. Spencer, in order to obtain the new ship and incorporated under the name Monticello Steamship Company in 1904. The Arrow was put into service in 1905 and outran the Corcoran with ease.

The Aden brothers acquired the Grace Barton, but the Hatch ships still dominated the passenger service. Finally the Adens gave up and turned the business over to another brother, R. J. R. Aden, who had been running a wood and coal business in Vallejo.

R. J. R. ran the ferry company until 1913 but also failed to compete successfully with the Monticello Steamship Company and went out of business. The ships were sold; the Sunol went to the Leslie Salt Company and was renamed Pyramid. The Corcoran went to the C&H Sugar Company and was renamed Crockett.

Always looking for a way to improve their business, the Hatch brothers began coordinating their operations with the electric trains of the Vallejo, Benicia, and Napa Valley RR on July 4, 1905. The railroad was also known as the San Francisco, Napa Valley and Calistoga RR, or more commonly, the Napa Valley Line. Trains made connection with the General Frisbie at the Main Street Dock in Vallejo.

The Hatches considered merging with the railroad several times but in the end continued with just a working agreement.

In 1909 the Monticello Steamship Company added the Sehome to its fleet. With six daily round trips between San Francisco and Vallejo and four ships in service, business was good but profits were not up to expectations, so other means were used to increase their cash flow. The company added concessions aboard their ferries including bars, restaurants, barbershops and shoe shine stands.

Zephania Hatch died in 1913 leaving his brother, Charles, in charge. Zephaniah’s sons also were heavily involved with the business; William was a captain, Tremaine an engineer, and Ferry a lawyer. Zephania had in the past often remarked, “I had three troubles; captains, engineers and lawsuits.” You might say he had covered all the bases.

Increased Mare Island Navy Yard traffic necessitated the need for another vessel. The Asbury Park was purchased from the Central Railroad of New Jersey in 1918 and after a difficult trip to the west coast was greeted with great enthusiasm by loyal Vallejo customers.

Tragedy struck on Dec. 14, 1918, when the General Frisbie collided with the Sehome in heavy fog near Pinole. Luckily, while the vessels were stuck together, all passengers and crew were safely transferred from the Sehome to the General Frisbie. When the Frisbie backed away, the Sehome sank to the bottom of the bay.

After the collision, the necessity to put the Asbury Park in service became a high priority and after a quick refit, she was renamed Napa Valley and began operations on Oct. 31, 1919.

Additional ships were acquired over a period of time and some of them were converted to carry the new-fangled automobiles. After the Asbury Park was converted, it was renamed Calistoga in 1924.

With the coming of the automobile, talk of building bridges across the bay signaled change and the owners of the company realized the inevitable demise of ferryboats would be the result. So Zephania Jefferson Hatch’s sons, Tremaine and Ferry, who were the heads of the company decided to sell the business. They sold the Monticello Steamship Company to the Golden Gate Ferry Company in February 1929 for $2,000,000.

The golden empire of the Hatch brothers finally had come to an end. Zephania Jefferson Hatch started with very little, overcame setbacks and built a solid business that lasted for 32 years. They had earned the grateful support of the community they served and another era became history.

Today we have a new fleet of ferryboats serving the public, although they don’t carry vehicles. Plans are in the works to increase the number of ships and ports they operate from. Who knows? Maybe someday they will also carry automobiles. Historians say history repeats itself and it seems to be doing just that in this case.