Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Old Postcard Wednesday--Ferry Boat "Solano" - Point Costa to Benecia, Calif.

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.

This postcard was featured here at:



dmarks said...

Neat. There are not many ferry-boats around anymore.

A few years ago, someone tried to start one in a community near me, and there was strong opposition from the community.

Kim said...

Another great postcard! I can just picture leaving the port with that one and the excitement of the trip, however short.

francessa said...

Lydia, does this mean your grandfather used the Solano during his travels?

A very impressive ferry, that one!

I'm looking forward to the post about your grandfather's letters to your grandmother!

La Belette Rouge said...

What a synchronicity. My father's family is from KC, MO and my mother's family is in Benecia. This is wild.

Lydia said...

@dmarks- Opposition, really? In the Salem Oregon paper this morning there was an article about the two ferries that run over the Willamette River in summertime. I guess one of them will have its seasons of operation expanded. They don't take trains, just cars and bikes, and regular old people!

@Kim- It does look like it was an exciting thing. I enjoyed looking at the articles again tonight with my husband. It's an impressive part of Americana.

@Francessa- O, he undoubtedly did use the Solano. He toured up and down the coast and cross-country so many times. I think it fed his wanderlust. He moved the family from KC MO to British Columbia, then Berkeley, then New York, then Florida, then Santa Monica, then then then came the Depression with the family settling into the Trinity Alps in California to ride out the storm. He died soon afterward...while on a working trip, via train, in Phoenix.

@La Belette Rouge- This really is wild! I'd love for your father's family to check out my post on KC with a bit of a recording by my uncle when he was 85 looking back!
p.s. My mother was born in Berkeley...

Rhiannon said...

Wow...I lived in the countra costa county bay area in late 70's..first lived in Antioch, then moved to Concord (Pleasant hill small "older homes" part of the older Concord contra costa area there) when got remarried in 85. I loved contra Costa county and Pleasant Hill. But now it's so big and I haven't been back there in so long..but am very familiar with all the areas in the bay area you mentioned.

As you can see I've "been around" and lived in a lot of places..still not found my "roots" yet maybe one day.

You sure do bring back a lot of memories to me upon reading this post..thanks for the history lesson about where I lived for many years, Lydia.



Nancy said...

Wow, a ferry that transported a train? Amazing. I think it is so incredible what people were able to accomplish without all the modern-day tools that we have now. Can you imagine going from land to water and not getting off the train? Thanks for sharing this story.

Nancy said...

P.S. Love your Nevada stories! And Bruno is only a "fraud" by my familily's standards, having only arrived in the 1950's :-)

the watercats said...

wow... there's something hugely romantic about this post... I love the idea of ferry boats, all the stories that surround them, memories made on them... *sighs...

Lydia said...

@Rhi- I hope you find your "roots" some day, too. Maybe you are too free a spirit to be rooted though, Rhi. Look on it as a good thing and then maybe you can embrace your vagabond life.
I think Pleasant Hill may be somewhat near Lafayette? My aunt lived there all her life. The area grew so much in her lifetime...

@Nancy- Doesn't the idea of the Solano just set your mind to dreaming? I had no idea that such a thing ever was until seeing this postcard. You're right; it was ingenious engineering.
That's so funny your family's view of Bruno! I bought one of my all-time favorite books right there at his bar in Gerlach (waaay before Burning Man was even a piece of flint: The Black Rock Desert by Sessions Wheeler.

@the watercats- You said what I felt about this postcard perfectly. It really caught my fancy. So glad you enjoyed it.

John Folk-Williams said...

Hi, Lydia -

Thanks for pulling out that bit of history. I live in the Sacramento area, and that wonderful breeze the writer describes is the natural cooling system for this part of the central valley. It's call the Delta breeze, and when it flows in we can instantly feel that coolness and gentle wind as soon as it arrives. Without it, like today, we're up in the 100s.

A very beautiful post.

Thanks -- John

Lydia said...

@John- I so appreciate your appreciation of this post! Your own description of the Delta breeze (I didn't know that term) adds such a nice touch of the present to the words written back in 1890. I'm reminded of Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, specifically these lines:

. . . It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,. . .

Thank you for being a part of this old postcard Wednesday.

Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

Hello Lydia,
This is just to let you know that the FESTIVAL OF POSTCARDS issue containing your posts was published Sunday at this address:
There are actually links to 2 of your articles - this one and the other about Moses on the River Nile.
When you have a moment, I hope you will place the link address in the body of your post so that Festival readers can more easily navigate between the individual posts.
Your writing is an inspiration to geneabloggers and others - thank you!
Evelyn in Montreal



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