When the works of humankind are abandoned by their makers, they pass into the natural world, becoming subject to the erosive agents of water, wind, weather and time. For that reason, I’m posting this story of my relationship with a derelict ferry boat, the Garden City, and its final resting place along a lonely stretch of the southern shoreline of California’s San Francisco Bay.
On a clear, cold Saturday morning in January of 1974, I was riding my Honda 350 motorcycle on a narrow winding one-lane road paralleling the shoreline of San Francisco Bay’s Carquinez Strait. I set out that morning to find a road I’d never been on before, and so when I happened onto Snake Road heading east out of Crockett I stopped a few times to photograph the unpopulated north shore opposite me across the strait. Amongst that day’s shots was this image of an old motor ferry boat anchored next to a disused wooden pier.
Thirty-eight years later, while going through prints from my pre-digital-camera days to find older photos to scan and include in my online galleries, I came across that long-forgotten January 1974 pic of the ferry boat sitting by the dock of the Bay (apologies to Otis Redding for stealing his lyrics). But where was the shot was taken? No idea! I uploaded the photo and left that question for another day. Later that year, while visiting relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent a day touring the historic vessels collection anchored at the Hyde Street Pier of the Maritime Museum in San Francisco. While strolling the decks of the old motor ferry Eureka, I was inspired to continue my research into the whereabouts and name of my own mystery boat.
I began by searching a satellite image of the Bay’s shoreline between Crockett and Port Costa known as the Carquinez Strait. At first, I couldn’t find even a trace of the old ferry or its wooden pier, so I went back to the picture itself to find a landmark in the photo that would still show up on a satellite image. Sure enough, the huge steel tower (located at Dillon Point on the Benicia side of the strait) that held aloft the high-tension power lines crossing the strait was still there!
Even though I was able to trace the tower’s power line’s wires to the Crockett side of the Bay, I still couldn’t find the ferry or its anchorage.
I finally got a big fat hint about its fate when I zoomed in at high magnification where the boat should have been on the satellite image: Staring back at me was the outline of the old pier, now just a line of rotted pilings, their stumps sticking out of the water. Nearby were the rusting remains of a ship’s boilers and drive train partially submerged in the muddy shallows.
The ferry was still there, but it was missing most of its wooden superstructure and all that remained was its various heavier mechanical bits. Surely there should have been more left than just this wreckage. I reasoned that if I could come up with a name and history for the boat that I would discover what had happened to my derelict ferry since 1974.
I tried online image searches for photographs and records of individual ferry boats that had served on the many San Francisco Bay runs prior to the late 1950’s when the last wooden-hull ferries operating in the SF Bay Area were retired. My first breakthrough was finding the Ferries of San Francisco Bay Wikipedia page: it included a comprehensive list (as well as a brief history) of all the wooden-hull ferry boats that had operated in the waters of the Bay Area from 1851 to 1958. I still had to connect a boat’s name with the wreckage. But how to do that?
While conducting random scatter-gun-style Boolean web searches using terms like “San Francisco ferry boats”, I blundered onto a photograph of the ferry boat’s wreckage on Russell Mondy’s Flickr website. All the landmarks I had been looking for in the satellite image were in the photo: the ferry’s rusting boilers and drive train, the old pier’s rotted pilings, and the C&H Sugar factory and Carquinez Bridge in the background. Tracking back into the local photographer’s gallery, I eventually found an image with a caption that named the ferry: The Garden City. But the icing on my cake was a comment by a well-informed visitor (Ian Forry) to the Flickr website:
“This rusting heap is the boilers and paddle-wheel hub of the old Southern Pacific Ferry Boat “Garden City”… it burned to the waterline in the fire of 1983.”
With the boat’s name in hand, I began another web search and immediately found several brief articles about the history of the Garden City and its days on the San Francisco ferry runs.
Built and launched by the Collyer Brothers Shipyard of New York on 20 June 1879, the 1,080-ton Garden City was 37 feet long, powered by a 625 HP steam engine driving twin paddle wheels, and manned by a crew of 19. It was originally owned by the South Pacific Coast Railroad, which was later bought by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Fitted with narrow-gauge track on her main deck (for transporting freight cars), she was also capable of carrying passengers. She served both functions on various ferry runs until 1929 when she was anchored permanently at the old Eckly Pier near the city of Crockett on the south shore of the San Francisco Bay’s Carquinez Strait. It served as a sport-fishing resort until it was eventually abandoned some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s. It was at that point in its history that I photographed the boat, outwardly in good condition and still sporting its all-white paint scheme. During a mysterious shore-side brush fire it was set alight and burned to the waterline. Its rusting drive train, boilers, and other mechanical equipment, as well as the remaining pilings from the pier to which it was moored, are all that remain to mark its last anchorage.
To read more about the history of the Garden City, visit the following websites:
- History of the Garden City included on the Ferries of San Francisco Bay Wikipedia web page.
- The photo (with text) entitled “Carquinez Bridge and 1879 Southern Pacific Ferry ‘Garden City’ Wreckage” in the Jafafa Hots Flickr photo gallery.
- Society for the Preservation of Carter Railroad Resources home page; covers the history of the South Pacific Coast Railroad that originally owned & operated the Garden City.
- Abandoned Rails website article: The South Pacific Coast Railroad (mentions the ferry runs in south San Francisco Bay in the 1880s).