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Saturday, September 20, 2003

Success ultimately became ferries’ downfall

Nancy Dingler


Historically, to travel from Solano County to the Bay Area meant going by water.  Over time, bridges have been built spanning the marshes, rivers and waterways that cut through the terrain, creating a water barrier.

Dr. Robert Semple, who arrived in California in 1845, saw the need for a ferry and implemented the very first ferry service across the Carquinez Strait. In the 1920s, ferries began to accommodate automobiles.

Whole fleets of ferry boats plied the waters out of Vallejo and Benicia, ferrying cars back and forth to Oakland and San Francisco.

While this was all well and good for the people who had cars, the rest of the population traveled by train, which began servicing Solano County in 1868. A passenger could get on a train in Sacramento and by a very circuitous route through Stockton and Altamont Pass, arrive in Oakland many hours later. In the meantime, the Sacramento Northern electric railway constructed a line from Chico to Benicia, put their trolleys on a ferry and then went on to Oakland. It was a long trip, but shorter than the Central Pacific’s.

The transcontinental Central Pacific connected with the Union Pacific in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, and it wanted a direct route from Sacramento to the Bay Area. The Central Pacific started to build a line over the Suisun-Benicia marsh.

What they soon discovered was that the marsh would “swallow” anything with any kind of weight. It was determined to bring in enough Sierra granite to “fill” the marsh and create a footing on which to lay track and run trains.

It took tons and tons of granite to finally establish a stable base. To this day, this section of track has to be constantly monitored, because it continues to try to sink into the marshland.

Having conquered the marsh, there was still the problem of crossing Carquinez Strait in a timely manner. The current ferry system would not accommodate a steam train. The ideal was to allow the passengers to remain on the train the entire distance.

A bridge over the Carquinez Strait would be nice, but the amount of traffic just would not justify the expense of such a project in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, at their Oakland Point shipyard, a massive ferry was being constructed. Arthur Brown, who was the superintendent for bridges and buildings for the Central Pacific, designed the “boat.” He designed the hull much like a bridge, using trusses under the deck for strength.

The waters of the Carquinez are treacherous, with currents running fast to the open ocean. The ship would need a great deal of power and maneuverability to accommodate the circumstances. Power would come from two 2,000-horsepower steam “walking beam” engines, mounted on each side of the ship - in other words, side paddle wheelers.

Each engine had only one cylinder with a 5-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, that were 30 feet in diameter, operating independently of each other, the huge ferry would be able to maneuver the waters of the Carquinez.

The dimensions of this new ferry, christened The Solano, were impressive. The A-frame that supported the walking beams were approximately 40 feet tall. The wooden hull was 420.5 feet by 65 feet by 18.3 feet.

The Solano weighed in at an impressive 3,549 tons and her deck was outfitted with four sets of railroad tracks. She was capable of carrying two complete passenger trains or one freight train at a time, including road engines and switch engines.

The Central Pacific had established a railroad at Port Costa that routed into Oakland. This new route was shorter by approximately 50 miles and one hour in time.

On Dec. 28, 1879, the city of Benicia was linked to the transcontinental railroad. In a ceremony replete with some of California’s famous railroad persona, the Crockers and D. Huntington among the dignitaries, the Solano with new paint, flags flying and the gangplank pulled ashore at 9:50 a.m. in Oakland and began her maiden voyage.

But not without mishap. Once under way, the captain and crew carried out several system checks, including a test of the steering gear. In spite of her great size, the boat easily maneuvered through a series of short turns.

They sailed around Alcatraz, then headed for Benicia. Hundreds of boats of every size saluted the Solano’s passing with whistles and horns. The Solano returned their salutes.

Shortly after 2 p.m. they were met at the pier in Benicia by several hundred enthusiastic people welcoming the dignitaries. A detachment of army soldiers under the command of Lt. Lyons fired a 26-gun salute. Once docked, everyone was invited aboard and taken across the Carquinez to Port Costa.

The first landing attempt at Port Costa failed. The Solano struck the slip almost broadside, splintering the wooden pier and scattering astonished passengers about the deck. After a successful second attempt, the San Francisco-bound passengers were ushered ashore to an awaiting train.

The new ferry service was so successful and so time saving, that the passenger traffic grew at a phenomenal rate. In 1885, a sister ship, the Contra Costa, was put into service. The Contra Costa exceeded the Solano by 13 feet in length. By 1927 both ferries were carrying 98,262 passenger cars and 48,130 freight cars.

The ferries’ success condemned them. By 1928 the Southern Pacific, which had bought out the Central Pacific, approved $12 million for the construction of a bridge. Construction began May 1, 1929, and was completed 18 months later. The first train across the Southern Pacific Martinez-Benicia bridge took place on the morning of Oct. 15, 1930, with engine #30 given the honor.

The Contra Costa and Solano were built for a specific purpose to be used in a specific place. There was no other place for them. They were ignominiously allowed to sink into the mud and just rot away.

Special note: There has always been a great deal of interest in the railroad fan and model train groups about the Solano and Contra Costa train ferries, not just in California, but around the world. A group in Michigan has spent the last 15 years creating a working model of the Solano. They are hoping to bring their model and put it on display in Sacramento on Oct. 1. It would be wonderful if they succeed so that we might get a glimpse into a long-forgotten part of our history.