This postcard was not one sent separately through the mail, but is among others in a "souvenir folder" titled The Shasta Route, Scenes Along the S.P.R.R. from San Francisco to Portland. It dates to pre-1913. I know this because the souvenir folder was mailed from my grandfather (who traveled in his insurance sales jobs) to my grandmother in Kansas City, Missouri, and they left that old family home in 1913. He wrote to her every evening while traveling on trains and from hotel rooms along the way. But that is another story to blog about someday.
Wikipedia reports that the Solano operated across the Carquinez Strait between Benicia and Port Costa in California. It was constructed and operated by the Central Pacific Railroad to ferry entire trains on the Central Pacific transcontinental line to and from the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Solano, named for the county in which Benicia sits, was built in 1878 in Oakland, California. It was 424 feet long and 116 feet wide (129 by 35 m) and was capable of carrying entire passenger trains or a 48-car freight train and locomotive. It was in service from 1879 to 1930.
Its sister ship, the Contra Costa, was built in 1914 and also ran until 1930. It was slightly larger than the Solano, and remains the largest rail ferryboat ever built. The Contra Costa was named for the county in which Port Costa is located.
By 1927, the two ferries reached their maximum capacity. On May 31, 1928 the Southern Pacific, successor to the Central Pacific in operations of the ferries, authorized construction of a railroad bridge from Benicia to Martinez just east of Port Costa. The railroad bridge opened in November 1930. It continues to serve the Union Pacific and Amtrak railroads.Following the opening of the railroad bridge, the Solano and Contra Costa were dismantled and sold for scrap. However, what remains of the Solano can still be seen where it was scuttled to create a breakwater near Antioch, California.
More thorough information can be read in an 1890 article reproduced at the Central Pacific Railroad website. There you can also see great old photos and additional postcards of the Solano, Port Costa waterfront history, and a full narrative describing the complicated process of bringing trains on and releasing them from the ferry. There are also plans drawn in 2008 of the completed working model of the ferry, which was some kind of project!
This is a small portion of the article published in April 1890 (noted above) in a legal volume by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The writing is dated, descriptive, delicious:
In order to appreciate fully the location where the ferry steamer "Solano" is used, it is necessary to see it; next to that, one should have charts; failing which, I will say that the summer traveler from the East, heated and tired by his six days' ride, is suddenly conscious, when 50 miles from San Francisco, of a delicious coolness, caused by the trade-wind from the Pacific Ocean. At about 30 miles from the terminus there is a stop of a minute, a start followed by a pause of about five minutes, when he feels that in some way his motion has changed, and, going to the car platform, discovers that while he is still on the cars, the entire train is on a boat, which is crossing the Straits of Carquinez. . .
. . . The traveler hears but little noise and feels but little jar, for although the engines are powerful the hull is very strong and stiff ; he sees no coal dust nor dirt, for the two or three firemen have but to tend petroleum and steam jets (a California friend who has just arrived corrects me; he says "one or two firemen in handsome business suits and white unsoiled shirts tending taps "). This mode of heating has proved so successful on the "Solano" that it is being introduced on the railroad ferry boats between the terminus at Oakland and the City of San Francisco, which ferriage is about 4 miles.
Before the traveler comprehends the neatness or has time to question the economy of the fuel, before he appreciates the boat or fully enjoys the scenery, he finds himself again rushed by the locomotive over the steel rails.