Alameda in History: Failed railroad led to thriving ferry service

Alameda in History: Failed railroad led to thriving ferry service

Dennis Evanosky

In December 1862, Timothy Dame, Peter Donahue and Charles McLaughlin formed the Western Pacific Railroad. These men were already busy building the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad, which began running between San Francisco and Menlo Park in October 1863; the line initiated service to San Jose in January 1864. Ten months later, the Central Pacific Railroad gave the Western Pacific the rights to build a railroad that connected Sacramento with San Jose.

If all went according to plan, the transcontinental railroad would run on Western Pacific's tracks south from Sacramento to Stockton over the Altamont Pass, through the canyon along Alameda Creek to Vallejo Mills (today’s Niles). Trains would then travel south to San Jose and finally north up the peninsula to San Francisco on San Francisco & San Jose's tracks.

But in 1866, the Western Pacific ran out of money after completing the first 20 miles of track. This forced the railroad to halt construction east of Vallejo Mills in the middle of the desolate canyon along Alameda Creek. The following year, the Central Pacific decided that the route from Sacramento though San Jose to San Francisco was too long. The railroad found it more expeditious to instead run trains to Oakland and then use ferry boats to carry passengers to San Francisco.

This 1867 decision enhanced the role ferries would play in shuttling commuters around the Bay Area.

Ferries began carrying passengers between “Contra Costa” — as most called today’s East Bay — and San Francisco in 1850, "when Captain Thomas Gray began sailing the small steamer Kangaroo from San Francisco to San Antonio Creek, which is now the Oakland Estuary,” Joe Thompson, the “Cable Guy,” tells us. Two years later, Charles Minturn organized the Contra Costa Steam Navigation Company, carrying passengers from San Francisco to West Oakland.

After dredging removed much of the silt from the estuary in 1853, Minturn moved his terminal to the foot of Broadway in Oakland. His ferries also stopped at James Hibbard’s wharf at the foot of Leviathan Street (today’s Grand Street) in the village of Encinal. Today’s Hibbard and Minturn streets in Alameda recall these two men.

In 1856, William Worthington Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh — the founders of the Town of Alameda — constructed the 350-foot-long Peralta Wharf into San Francisco Bay from the shoreline at what is today Central Avenue and Third Street. They hired Captain Lubbock to run his General Kearney to San Francisco’s Jackson Street Wharf. Those plans fell apart, though, when Chipman and Aughinbaugh learned that Minturn had hired Lubbock to run his ferry exclusively for the Contra Costa Steam Navigation Company.

Chipman later purchased and outfitted the Ellen Craig to sail from the Peralta Wharf; he fittingly renamed the vessel Peralta. Problems plagued the boat, though. Imelda Merlin tells us that Chipman blamed the Peralta’s mishaps—which included a hole in her boiler—on “soft English iron.”

Alfred A. Cohen arrived in Alameda in 1857; he acquired most of the land on today’s West End and laid out the town of Woodstock. By 1864, he had enough capital to build a railroad that would eventually connect Alameda with Hayward and, for about two months, serve as the terminus for the transcontinental railroad.

San Francisco & Alameda Railroad workers began laying track from today’s Pacific Avenue and Main Street to modern-day Marshall Way, and through the peninsula on Lincoln Avenue to what we now know as Tilden Way. The line used Alameda Avenue in Oakland to reach High Street. The railroad later connected Alameda to San Leandro and finally, to Hayward.

On August 25, 1864, the San Francisco & Alameda’s first train, with the locomotive E. B. Mastick in the lead, rolled through Alameda from its end station near today’s High Street and Coliseum Way in Oakland. Cohen wanted to carry passengers not just to Alameda, but to San Francisco as well. To accomplish this he built a 3,750-foot-long wharf from a spot near Pacific Avenue and Main Street into San Francisco Bay. The wharf ended about where the USS Hornet sits anchored at today’s Alameda Point. Cohen leased the river packet Sophie MacLane from Minturn’s Contra Costa Steam Navigation Company to take his passengers to the Davis Street Wharf in San Francisco.

“The elegant passenger boat Sophie MacLane will leave the corner of Vallejo and Davis streets at 9 a.m.," the Daily Alta California told its readers that Thursday morning. “The fare from Davis Street to High Street is 25 cents.”

The Sophie MacLane had been ferrying passengers and goods from San Francisco to Sacramento since 1858. The 148-foot-long side-wheeler proved too small for the task of carrying San Francisco & Alameda passengers to San Francisco and back to Alameda. In September 1864, Cohen hired the slightly larger Contra Costa from Minturn.

The decision to replace the Sophie MacLane proved a timely one: On October 26, 1864, her port boiler exploded while she was tied up at Suisun City, killing the packet’s captain and three crew members.

“The shell of the boiler gave way, and the boat was torn to pieces and rendered useless,” the San Francisco Call told its readers. The newspaper reported that an investigation showed that the explosion occurred from excessive pressure from the criminal negligence and mismanagement of Sophie MacLane’s engineer.

“He was of the oldest engineers on the coast and up to this time had borne an excellent reputation for attention to his duties. His license was revoked and he immediately left the country to save himself from prosecution,” the Call reported.

Business on the line continued to increase, and even the Contra Costa proved too small to handle the traffic. In 1865 Cohen took the bold step of building his own ferry boat, a double-ended affair he christened Alameda. Cohen launched his ferry in February 1866, and the Alameda waited at the foot of Cohen’s Wharf on September 6, 1869, to carry the transcontinental railroad’s first passengers to San Francisco.

Today Cohen’s creation lies at the bottom of San Leandro Bay just east of Encinal Avenue. In 1899, the Southern Pacific Railroad towed the 33-year-old vessel from West Oakland to a spot near the bridge that once carried South Pacific Coast Railroad trains to and from Alameda. Workers filled the Alameda’s aging carcass with mud and stone to better hold her on the bottom. “The Ferryboat Alameda Fills a Sinkhole,” the San Francisco Call told its readers on August 19, 1899.

Next time we’ll ride the South Pacific Coast Railroad’s ferry boats and learn about an Alameda boat builder that turned out ferries for the Southern Pacific Railroad. We’ll also learn the interesting fates of some of these ferries.

Did you know? Captain Thomas Gray, who offered the first ferry service from the East Bay to San Francisco in 1850, was dancer Isadora Duncan’s grandfather.

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