The Ferry Building, a Grand Gathering Place

Many of us who have lived in the Bay Area for a few decades remember the Ferry Building when it was a forlorn, forgotten building on a declining waterfront, hidden by a double-decker freeway.

Many of us who have lived in the Bay Area for a few decades remember the Ferry Building when it was a forlorn, forgotten building on a declining waterfront, hidden by a double-decker freeway. It wasn’t until the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and much political wrangling that the freeway came down in 1992 and the building was restored to its former glory.

What a lot of people don’t realize is just how critical the building was as an entryway to the city before the opening of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. Commuters including U.S. presidents arrived through the Ferry Building.

The city’s geographic position, with water on three sides and San Mateo County to the south, meant that in the era of transcontinental train travel, journeys began or ended across the Bay in Oakland, and passengers departed or arrived in San Francisco by ferryboat from the Ferry Building. Once they arrived, they needed to get to other areas of the city. Horse-drawn streetcars first appeared in 1851, and then were replaced by steam, cable, electric, and in later years, motor buses and trolley coaches.

Ferryboats went from every major Bay port to San Francisco, and to places in between. The ride from the Ferry Building to Vallejo, 30 miles, was the longest, and the fast Monticello Line ferryboats could make the trip in an hour and 45 minutes. Oakland to the Ferry Building took 18 minutes. The aptly named “Six-Minute Ferry” was the shortest ride, traveling from Morrow Cove in Vallejo to Crockett, across the Carquinez Straits.

After taking a ferry from San Francisco, a traveler could catch a train in Oakland to faraway places, or a commuter might board an electric train in Alameda or Sausalito to get home. In the early 1930s, 50 million commuters and visitors passed through the Ferry Building annually. Riding the ferry was a way of life, an efficient, relaxed, and congenial way to pass the time. Compare that to automobile commuters today, frustrated when trying to get home, and stuck in their cars on a bridge onramp in rush-hour traffic.

Over the years, in addition to the thousand of daily commuters going in and out of the Ferry Building via the second floor (the the ground floor was used for luggage), there have been gatherings in the building and parades that started at the Ferry Building and proceeded up Market Street. These gatherings celebrated holidays, victorious sports teams, and returning soldiers, and protested wars and controversial labor practices.

Architect A. Page Brown designed the 660-ft. long, 48-ft. wide Grand Nave, which ran the full length of the building, to be a great public gathering space. The Grand Nave was used for many exhibits and banquets. In 1901, San Franciscans turned out by the thousands to welcome President William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, to San Francisco. In the nave, the President stood on an elevated stand decorated with white carnations from 8 to 11 p.m., while well-wishers filed by waving small American flags. “Every person attending the reception is requested to come prepared for this unique compliment to the Nation’s chief. . .Myriads of little red, white and blue electric globes will brighten the long tesslated hall,” said an article in the May 14, 1901, San Francisco Call.

In April 1919, San Francisco rejoiced when members of the 363rd and 347th Divisions, “San Francisco’s own,” came home from World War I. The soldiers crossed the pedestrian footbridge from the Ferry Building, having passed through the nave with its welcome banner. The day of their arrival was declared a holiday, and the city turned out to welcome them. The military authorities agreed to allow the people of San Francisco to greet the regiments on their arrival. During their parade on Market Street, massive crowds cheering the troops stopped the parade. Major-General John F. Morrison, commanding the Western Department of the Army said, “I shall make no objections to wreaths of laurel, to ribbons, or flowers, or anything else, and I am sure the commanding officers of the detachments will make no objections either.” (San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 1919)

Today, the Ferry Building is enjoying its new role. Tourists and locals throng to the food stalls and Farmers’ Market. Ridership is booming on the ferries. Commuters have rediscovered what ferry riders enjoyed in the heyday of ferries: it’s a pleasant way to travel. The dark days of the Embarcadero Freeway and a declining waterfront seem long gone. The jewel of the waterfront is here to stay.

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