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Sunday, February 10, 2002

The railroad ferry ‘Solano’ still lives

Jerry Bowen

Historic artifact lies scuttled in Antioch

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about the first run of the railroad ferryboat, Solano. From that article I received a fair amount of e-mail and queries about the ferry. One of the most interesting was from a Thomas Rubarth in Arizona who had done considerable research on the Solano.

Yes, I said he was in Arizona and he has never lived in this area.

About 10 years ago his brother and a friend in Michigan decided to build an accurate HO gauge model of the Solano and a portion of Port Costa. Since then, the model has progressed considerably and Tom and I have been exchanging information on the ship.

As a result of this association with Rubarth, some discrepancies in the history of these magnificent ships has come to light.

The Solano was built in 1879 and when it was launched it was the largest ferry of its kind in the world, a record that would hold until 1914 when she was joined by her sister ferry, the Contra Costa, which was only 13 feet longer.

Arthur Brown, who was the superintendent of bridges and buildings for Central Pacific Railroad, designed the Solano. He designed the hull much like a bridge, using trusses under the deck for strength.

Currents in the Carquinez Straits run very fast and the ship needed a great deal of power and maneuverability to accomplish its work. The power came from two 2,000-horsepower steam “walking beam” engines. Each engine had only one cylinder with a five-foot bore and a stroke of 11 feet. The piston of each engine was attached to one end of the “beam” driving it up and down. The other end was attached to a paddle wheel that drove the ship through the water. With two paddle wheels operating independently of each other, the Solano had the maneuverability it needed. To give you an idea of the size of the walking beams, the A-frame that supported them was approximately 40 feet tall.

The Solano had two bridges (control rooms), one at each end so there was no need to turn the vessel around for return trips. In addition, she was equipped with a gang of four rudders at each end of the ship.

At Benicia, the ferry slips were at the end of First Street, extending several hundred feet into the strait terminating in a three-fingered shape. The slips could accommodate two ferries at the same time. Arriving trains were broken down into four sections and loaded onto the ferry’s four sets of rails.

Total elapsed time to break down and load a passenger train, cross the straits and reassemble took about 30 minutes. It was quite an operation. Freight trains usually took much longer.

Solano’s fuel initially was oil, but after the Julia blew up and burned at Vallejo Junction, the blame was placed on that type of fuel. Several oil- burning ferries including the Solano, and other vessels were quickly converted to coal that was available at the Contra Costa mines.

Historians have long credited the Solano with operating for 51 years with virtually an unblemished safety record. A closer look at the facts show she did rack up an enviable safety record, considering she had no radar, gyrocompass or other “modern” navigation gear and taking into consideration that it was a 24-hour-a-day operation for 51 years. But it did have a few accidents.

On its first day, Dec. 1, 1879, the first landing attempt at Port Costa failed. She struck the slip almost broadside, splintering the wooden pier and scattering astonished passengers about the deck.

Passenger traffic was delayed on Jan. 1, 1910, when a baggage car containing 84 cans of cream was backed off the end of the ferry at Port Costa. The switching engine had pushed the car too fast and when the air brakes were set the air hose broke, sending the car through the safety chains and dangling over the end of the ferry. It took several hours to bring a crane from Oakland to retrieve the wayward car.

Twenty days later, the strap holding the main crank pin on the port engine broke, wrecking the massive cylinder and steam chest. It was about a month before the Solano was able to resume operations.

On Jan. 31, 1913, the Solano became lost in the heavy fog and crashed into the pilings at the end of the slip at Port Costa. It broke up the pilings like they were mere straws and one of the strings of train cars almost went overboard. It took almost two hours to get the Solano into the slip properly and operations were stopped until the fog lifted.

The inevitable happened on Oct. 5, 1923, when Engine No. 54 took a cold plunge into the bay at Port Costa. Another locomotive was acquired, the Solano moved into the adjacent slip and operations resumed while the wreck was recovered.

One of the more serious accidents occurred in 1928 when the Solano collided with the oil tanker Kern in heavy fog. The pilot and the tanker’s master were injured in the collision.

For 51 years the Solano was a fixture in Benicia and Port Costa and today few residents even know it existed.

In my last article I wrote, “As for the fate of the Solano, I believe she was dismantled and the hull left to slowly decay and sink into the silt of Morrow Cove near the bridge,” using information from various books on the subject.

But the Solano still exists. Well . . . sort of. At the end of Fulton Shipyard Road in Antioch lie the mangled remains of a shipwreck. Ask most people around the area and they have no idea where it came from. It is the Solano.

Joe Cesa, a resident of Antioch, bought the Solano in 1931, towed her to the present location and sank her to serve as a breakwater.

The Solano remained more or less intact until the 1980s when a fireworks display on her decks went awry and the majority of the superstructure burned to the waterline. Today a lone A-frame from one of the engine’s walking beams still rises amid the wreckage to mark the passing of the Solano.

Perhaps one day the city of Benicia might consider obtaining the A-Frame and setting it up next to the newly restored train depot located at the end of First Street. It would be an appropriate setting and a fitting tribute to one of Solano County’s most interesting historical artifacts.