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Southern Pacific’s Oakland Mole was the gateway to San Francisco
San Franciscans bid farewell to the trans-bay ferry service is 1958.

Southern Pacific’s Oakland Mole was the gateway to San Francisco

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  • The Oakland Long Wharf, later known as the Oakland Pier or the SP Mole was a massive railroad wharf and ferry pier in Oakland, California located at the foot of Seventh Street.
  • Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific trains arrived and departed from the SP Mole in Oakland.
  • Passengers then went by ferry from the SP Mole to the Ferry Building in San Francisco.
Passengers have just arrived on mid-1950s morning aboard the City of San Francisco from Chicago after a 39 1/2 hour trip (the fastest thing on wheels) and are heading to the ferry for a quick cruise across the bay to the San Francisco Ferry Building.

Passengers have just arrived on mid-1950s morning aboard the City of San Francisco from Chicago after a 39 1/2 hour trip (the fastest thing on wheels) and are heading to the ferry for a quick cruise across the bay to the San Francisco Ferry Building.

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Afternoon commuters stream from SP ferry Sacramento at Oakland Pier in the early 1950s. At the peak of Service, SP’s Steamer Division handled over 26 million passengers a year.

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The Southern Pacific’s Shasta Daylight readies for its 8:15 a.m. departure for Portland in the mid-1950s. During the morning rush, nearly a dozen trains were arriving or leaving Oakland Pier (with ferry connection to San Francisco) including the SP’s Cascade, City of San Francisco, San Joaquin Daylight, Owl, Oakland Lark and the Western Pacific Zephyrette.

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The ferry approaches San Francisco in 1941. The recently completed San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is in the foreground. The ferry is carrying passengers who have just arrived from Chicago and New York. 

  • The pier began as a smaller landing called Gibbon’s Wharf extending from Gibbons Point, later renamed Oakland Point, westward into San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco travelers taking the train out of Oakland, the rail journey was highlighted by the 18-minute trip across the bay for adults and children alike.

San Francisco travelers are taking the train out of Oakland, the rail journey was highlighted by the 18-minute trip across the bay for adults and children alike.

Passengers arrive at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

Passengers arrive at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

  • In 1868 the Central Pacific Railroad acquired this pier which it renamed the Oakland Long Wharf and immediately began extending and improving.
  • The CPRR floated freight to San Francisco starting in 1871. Part of the wharf was filled in between 1879 and 1882, creating a mole.
CITY OF SAN FRANCISCO streamliner left Oakland Pier terminal in two sections on January 2, 1938, when the new ultra-modern 17-car train was inaugurated to supplant the original 11-car train which had been in operation since June 14, 1936, for the SP-UP-C&NW between San Francisco and Chicago. Both trains carried capacity loads of holiday travelers. The original streamliner was assigned to other service after this trip.

CITY OF SAN FRANCISCO streamliner left Oakland Pier terminal in two sections on January 2, 1938, when the new ultra-modern 17-car train was inaugurated to supplant the original 11-car train which had been in operation since June 14, 1936, for the SP-UP-C&NW between San Francisco and Chicago. Both trains carried capacity loads of holiday travelers. The original streamliner was assigned to other services after this trip.

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The City of San Francisco in the 1940s and 1950s. Two nights and one day between San Francisco and Chicago. All first class Pullman service. The fastest thing on wheels. 

  • Local commuter trains also used the pier, while trains of the Pacific Railroad (aka the “First Transcontinental Railroad”) used another wharf in nearby Alameda for about two months in 1869 (September 6 – November 7) after which the Oakland Long Wharf became the western terminus of the Pacific Railroad as well. From there, ferries carried both commuters and long distance passengers between the Long Wharf and San Francisco.

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The California Zephyr had just arrived from Chicago in 1950 and passengers are headed to the ferry that will take them across the bay to San Francisco. 

  • Intercity passenger trains continued to run to Oakland Pier until 1958 when Southern Pacific ferry service from the Ferry Building in San Francisco to Oakland Pier was discontinued, replaced by buses over the Bay Bridge from Oakland’s 16th Street Station.

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A local train has just arrived in the 1950s. The Oakland Pier and the SP ferries will soon be history.

  • Throughout the pier’s existence, progressively greater portions of the bay shore tidelands were filled in.

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The California Zephyr is ready for one of its last departures in 1958 from the Oakland Pier days before the SP Ferry service will end. 

  • It was demolished in the 1960s to make way for an expansion of the burgeoning Port of Oakland’s container ship facilities.
  • Today, the only thing that remains of the SP Mole is the pier’s switchman’s tower which was moved and restored as part of Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
The head house at the west end of Oakland Pier with its giant clock about 1950. By this time, with over seven decades of service, countless millions of travelers had passed this way between the trains and ferries.

The head house at the west end of Oakland Pier with its giant clock about 1950. By this time, with over seven decades of service, countless millions of travelers had passed this way between the trains and ferries.

A complete history of the OAKLAND PIER and the Ferry Service connecting with trains…

SOUTHERN PACIFIC’s OAKLAND PIER – The MOLE that moved the West!

By Ken Shattock (from www.trainorders.com)

On a foggy night in 1951, the SP Klamath under the platform lights of Oakland Pier will soon depart for Portland.

On a foggy night in 1951, the SP Klamath under the platform lights of Oakland Pier will soon depart for Portland.

The Western Division of the Southern Pacific Railroad, historically extending from Sacramento to Oakland and San Jose, and with lines to Fresno, the Napa Valley, and over Altamont Pass, was a crucible of California operations. Headquartered at the famous Oakland Pier (or Mole) and dispatching hundreds of passenger and freight trains daily in its heyday, this division was in many ways the vortex of SP in the West. With its ferry connection to San Francisco and train departures to all parts of the SP system, the Oakland Pier was at the center.

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Joan Crawford with Jack Palance have just arrived aboard the California Zephyr in the RKO thriller SUDDEN FEAR in the 1950s and are ready to head to San Francisco. 

Oakland Pier opened for passenger service to the general public on January 22, 1882, when most of the West was a vast wilderness and railroading was an adventure for the passenger and the train crew as well. Announcements were sent out far and wide; special trains were run from outlying points around the Division into Oakland. The Southern Pacific Commissary Department provided over one hundred roast turkeys and mountains upon mountains of fluffy white mashed potatoes, along with some side dishes. It was truly a meal for a Queen.

The City of Oakland was clearly becoming the western operational hub of the Central Pacific, and further improvement of the Oakland terminus was in order.

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Ferry passengers headed for San Francisco…

Construction work of the “Oakland Mole” commenced during June 1879. The fill, or “Mole,” was constructed to a point 1.26 miles westerly from the Oakland shoreline. Rock for the fill was hauled from Niles Canyon, a distance of more than 26 miles, and earth from East Oakland.

Southern Pacific’s “San Joaquin Daylight” awaits departure from Oakland’s East Bay Pier/Ferry Slip (also known as the “Mole”) during the early 1950s. The SP steam engine will carry the train southbound via the San Joaquin Valley via Fresno to Los Angeles.

Four tracks and a carriageway were provided for over the first 4,860 feet. Beyond this point, the Mole widened out to 280 feet, accommodating 12 tracks, ten of which were within a large train shed at the end. The greater portion of the embankment and rock protection wall was completed in time to allow construction work to start on the new passenger station, railroad offices, and train shed early in 1881. The building was designed by Arthur Brown, superintendent of bridges and buildings for the company. Both the wharf and station building was erected under his supervision.

San Francisco Ferry Building, Oakland Mole

San Francisco Ferry Building, Oakland Mole

On June 2, 1922, with 49 departures and arrivals, plus the suburban East Bay electrified trains, Oakland Pier was on the of busiest passenger terminals in the United States.

The Oakland Pier building was constructed with three main longitudinal divisions.

Screen shot 2014-08-11 at 1.02.44 PMThe center part was 120 feet wide, and 60 feet high and accommodated overland trains, and the divisions on either side were 60 feet wide and 40 feet high, being exclusively for suburban trains running to and from Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley connecting with the ferry steamers. Two commodious waiting rooms for passengers were at the west, or the main end of the central section. The upper, or main waiting room, 120 feet square, was connected by side aprons with the saloon deck of ferry steamers, and the lower waiting room, was connected by end aprons with the main deck of the ferries. In 1929, the official Southern Pacific “Sunset” logo, some ten feet in diameter and made entirely out of stained glass, was placed high up on the westerly end of the big train shed, overlooking Passenger Slip No.4. The pieces of stained glass were held together by strips of lead. When the Mole was demolished in the 1964-66 period, the logo was very carefully removed and stored for preservation. Today you can see this beautiful memento from the Oakland Mole at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. It is preserved and displayed in the original framework. The Mole also contained a restaurant and division offices.

The train shed, 1050 feet in length, covered an area of over four acres and was constructed mainly of wood and iron. As originally built, the corrugated iron roof was divided into large sections of glass which gave abundant light during the day.

At night the building was illuminated with electric lights.

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A terminal of importance, such as Oakland Pier was becoming, required support facilities in the form of freight and coach yards, shops and engine terminals. Central Pacific established its yards and shops west of Peralta Street, from 7th Street to the water’s edge leading to the Mole.

Over a 24-hour period in 1920, Oakland Pier handled an average of 763 mainline and suburban passenger trains and 56,000 passengers with connecting ferry service operating between San Francisco and Oakland Pier. The delightful eighteen-minute trip across the bay, with its invigorating ocean breeze, was also a welcome climax to a cross-continent journey. All this, combined with the tremendous flow of baggage, mail, and express, qualified Oakland Pier as one of the busiest terminals in the United States.

During the period of Federal control (United States Railroad Administration) which lasted from August 18, 1918, through December 5, 1920, the passenger trains of both the Western Pacific and the Santa Fe were operated in and out of Oakland Pier.

The Santa Fe trains operated from Santa Fe Junction near Richmond, a distance of 10.6 miles, and their equipment, both cars, and locomotives were taken care of in SP’s West Oakland yard. This arrangement placed quite an additional burden on Oakland Pier terminal as well as the West Oakland roundhouse and passenger yards.

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To the Western Division fell the duty of providing terminal accommodations at Oakland Pier for the long trains that descended on the Bay Area from every section of the United States. Also, an exceptionally heavy summer vacation and tourist movement, particularly during the period June 19 to July 10, 1920, reaching a climax during the holiday period over July Fourth. This was combined with the Mystic Shrine Convention and Rose Festival at Portland, and the National Democratic Convention at San Francisco placed considerable strain on the system. Under the most favorable conditions such a concentration of travel would have presented its difficulties from an operating standpoint, but at this time the Southern Pacific faced a shortage of equipment due to lingering effects of the period of government control (USRA).

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Mail is being loaded aboard an SP train.

Between the hours of 5 AM June 26 and 4 AM June 27, 1920, 393 passenger cars moved out of Oakland Pier and 533 others entered the Pier. It was also found necessary to double some yard crews at Oakland to handle the influx of cars at Oakland Pier, switching them into the yards for cleaning and overhauling as required and the subsequent readying for other movements.

In one twenty-four hour period on June 26, 1920, some 1,320 trucks of baggage, mail and express were ferried between Oakland Pier and San Francisco, most of it concentrated at rush hours. During this period of heavy traffic, each day some 35,000 pieces of linen were used in stocking the dining cars for a start at West Oakland. And the following supplies, among others, were issued from the West Oakland Commissary: 2000 pounds of butter, 1500 dozen eggs, 1650 loaves of bread, and two and one-half tons of fresh meat. Incredibly, even with this rush of traffic, the record number of cars handled at West Oakland terminal, some 53,000 freight, and 24,000 passenger cars occurred later, during August 1920.

Over an average twenty-four hour period in 1920, Oakland Pier Terminal was handling 763 mainline and suburban passenger trains, and 56,000 passengers.

Also, 3500 pieces of baggage, 7000 bags of mail and 100,000 pieces of express matter passed through the terminal every day. The ferry service between San Francisco and Oakland Pier at eighteen to twenty-minute intervals was also an important feature of the vast suburban traffic that moved between the East and West Bay districts. The record number of passengers carried over this route in a twenty-four hour period at the time was 195,000.

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The early 1960s. The trains are gone, and the Oakland pier and mole will soon be demolished. 

The ninety steam passenger trains using the terminal comprised of six hundred and fifty cars. Nine passenger trains left Oakland Mole in the space of an hour and a half in the morning, and thirteen arrived in the space of two hours in the evening. The average number of switching movements made in Oakland Pier Tower was 1,900 and under emergency conditions would run as high as 2,100. From seventy-nine to eighty-three switching movements an hour, or over one a minute, qualified Oakland Pier as one of the busiest terminals in the United States.

The old Oakland Long Wharf had been abandoned for all business in February 1919 and the new Southern Pacific Wharf, designed to accommodate 24 deep-water vessels at one time, was also located at Oakland Pier and handled an enormous tonnage of a diversified character. These freight slips were located on the south side of the Mole consisting of three wharves driven at an angle with the bulkhead line 875 feet long. Fifty vessels a month were being unloaded at these wharves, carrying from 75,000 to 500,000 board feet of lumber. Tracks were so arranged on the lumber wharves that transfer could be made directly from boat to car. An average of 2000 carloads a month, including all classes of freight, was being received or shipped over these wharves. The wharves were fully protected by the fire tug “Ajax” and by a high-duty saltwater system. More on this saltwater fire protection system in a moment.

The terminal yard consisted of five double-track main lines. Also, there were thirty other tracks in the Oakland Pier terminal layout used for incoming and outgoing main line and suburban trains, storage of cars for both classes of service, an outlet track for incoming locomotives, industry tracks, and one assigned for traffic between the freight slip and West Oakland Yard.

Tracks 1 and 2 and 7 and 8 constituted the two arteries through which the major portion of the tremendous traffic handled by this terminal passed.

Oakland Pier Interlocking plant was equipped with a 155-lever Union Switch and Signal Company electric, pneumatic machine, in charge of a supervising Bowerman, two chief townsman, and six levermen. Three men were on duty from 6 AM to 10 PM and two men from 10 PM to 6 AM. On August 26, 1920, a total of 2,177 switching movements were made by this plant, a record equaled by a few similarly located layouts in the United States. Traffic was so intense, special instructions provided that when a siren sounded on Oakland Pier Tower, all engines and trains within the district controlled by the tower were to stop and await a proper signal.

San Franciscans bid farewell to the trans-bay ferry service in 1958.

Five double-track main lines extended from the throat of the train sheds to the mainland. Facing east, from left, the first pair accommodated steam traffic via Oakland Sixteenth Street; the second pair, Berkeley electrified suburban lines;

the third, the electrified suburban lines via Seventh Street, Oakland; the fourth, steam trains via the Niles and Newark lines, while the fifth was used for yard engine movements between the Pier and West Oakland yard.

For San Francisco travelers taking the train into or out of Oakland via SP, the rail journey was mixed briefly with brisk sea air and the call of seagulls. Anticipation would build as the ferry maneuvered into its berth at Oakland Pier. Various old-timers reported that every time a ferry bumped against the wharf, the entire structure would shake and upstairs, in the dispatcher’s office, “the cockroaches would jump out of the spittoons and look around.”

Retired ferry boats are mothballed awaiting new services.

Deep within the cavernous train shed at Oakland Pier. The traveler was enveloped in the sights, sounds, and smells of railroading…Southern Pacific style.

Passengers could buy their tickets at a small ticket office within the great sheds, but most travelers passed through Oakland Pier on either the first leg or last lap, of longer journeys.

Day after day, a steady parade of trains departed Oakland Pier for destinations north, east and south of the city. Not only was Oakland Pier a focus of Southern Pacific passenger operations on the Shasta, Overland, and San Joaquin routes, but it was also the nerve center of the Western Division itself. In the offices at the head of the pier, and elsewhere in the complex, where the train dispatchers, crew dispatchers, division engineering and division officers, including train-masters and the superintendent.

Action in Oakland Pier terminal yard in the 1950s was intense. The near-constant hustle and bustle of terminal switch engines–be they steam or diesel–was punctuated by the arrival or departure of a passenger train from Portland, a commuter train from Sacramento, or a mail and express train from Ogden.

All good things have to come to an end, and the great Oakland Pier terminal was not immune to various services being closed down. The last ferryboat to San Francisco, the “San Leandro,” operated on July 29, 1958. The last trains to use the Mole were # 19 and # 20, the “Klamath,” Shasta Route mail trains, in 1960.

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About Michael L. Grace