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by Robert L. Harrison
For more than 100 years ferry service to Marin was privately operated and financed. Beginning with John Reed’s little sailboat in the 1820s until 1941, when the last of the Northwestern Pacific (NWP) Railroad’s massive car and passenger ferryboats terminated all north bay service, ferries were a private business. The 1932 proposal to provide a municipal ferry service was clearly outside this historic norm. A new publicly sponsored ferry was especially unexpected because the Golden Gate Bridge was scheduled to open just five years later.
The story of Marin ferries begins with John Reed, the first European to operate a ferry service on San Francisco Bay. Shortly after his 1826 arrival he operated a tiny sailboat that made frequent but irregular trips across the Bay to San Francisco. His venture was short lived as it was soon realized the local natives paddling their canoes were faster and more reliable.
Public notice of ferry operations in Marin first appeared in 1855 when Charles Minturn planned routes from San Francisco to San Quentin and San Rafael. In the same year as Minturn’s first San Rafael ferry, the Sausalito Water Company’s steamer Hercules offered Sausalito passengers one round-trip per day. By 1868 the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company laid out waterfront lots and then scheduled four round-trips daily from San Francisco on the ferryboat Princess to promote their real estate development.
Ultimately the railroads became the largest ferry operators in Marin County. In the 1880s both the North Pacific Coast and the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroads were offering service to their terminals at Sausalito and Tiburon respectively. In total they operated over 17 boats in the period between 1875 and 1941. When the last ferry departed Sausalito on February 28, 1941 it marked the end of water transit to and from Marin for the next 29 years.
With the Golden Gate Bridge soon to be a reality, it would seem obvious that the drive or bus ride to San Francisco would be quicker than the ferry. The 1932 proposal to launch a new ferry service just as the Bridge project began construction appeared impractical at best. The scheme was further complicated by the nature of its proposed organization, a municipal ferry corporation.
The difficulties of implementing the proposed municipal ferry did not deter its proponents. The Marin Municipal Ferries, a California corporation was organized on January 6, 1932. According to the Mill Valley Record on January 8, 1932, “Objects of the formation of the company are to provide service in harmony with the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, to hold down commutation rates, to provide full service to compare with that given by the former Golden Gate Company and it is hoped to serve Tiburon.”
Harry E. Speas was appointed the General Manager of the new enterprise. Speas was well known in Marin as a founder of the Golden Gate Ferry Company that in 1922 began operating automobile ferries from Sausalito. Despite some skepticism, Speas led the new company to compete successfully with the well-established NWP ferries. He was forced to resign in 1929 when the company was taken over by the Southern Pacific (SP) Railroad. The Mill Valley Record supported Speas in a January 31, 1936 editorial, “….had it not been for Speas, Marin would not have had [the Golden Gate Ferry Company] at all.”
Speas did not accept the position as General Manager of the Municipal Ferry until a thorough traffic study had been completed. The study, prepared by the Golden Gate Bridge traffic engineer and other experts, concluded that the need for Marin to San Francisco ferry service would continue even after the Bridge opened to traffic. The Sausalito News on January 8, 1932 quoted Speas, “I entertain no doubts that the enterprise will be profitable….In the development that is to come for Marin county and San Francisco there will be plenty of business for two or more ferry lines as well as for the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Marin Municipal Ferries secured a site for the Marin terminal in Belvedere in late January 1932. The terminal would be on the Belvedere’s west shore opposite Cone Rock and near the cod fish drying and curing station. Development of the terminal was to include an access road to the Tiburon-Alto state highway, today’s Tiburon Boulevard. The site was further described in the Mill Valley Record on January 29, 1932, “Harry E. Speas, vice president and manager says that parking space for 3,000 machines can be easily constructed.”
In February 1932 the State Harbor Commission assigned space for the Marin Municipal Ferries San Francisco terminal at Pier 45. With terminals in Marin and San Francisco secured, the Marin Municipal Ferries appeared ready to complete the docking facilities, acquire ferryboats and begin operations.
However, a more detailed explanation of the municipal ferry financing at the April 13, 1932 Mill Valley City Council meeting raised doubts. Walter H. Robinson, Attorney for the ferry company, explained the term “municipal” was a name only and did not indicate public ownership. Private parties would carry the risks, develop the infrastructure and turn the operation of the system over to a Utilities District in the same manner as was done with the Marin Municipal Water District.
As the opposition grew, Speas explained further, “Marin Municipal Ferries, a California corporation, will enter into a contract with the directors of the Utility District to operate the system….[to] receive the profits, after actual operating costs have been taken from the revenues, and our studies convince us that it will make a good profit from the beginning.” ( Mill Valley Record, May 6, 1932.) He said a Utilities District was necessary in order to ensure a new ferry service would be guaranteed and that such a public agency should be approved by a referendum. Speas proposed the formation of the District be placed on the August 30, 1932 primary election ballot. There was no Utility District proposal on the August ballot. The Marin Municipal Ferries had seemingly vanished that summer.
Some had doubts early-on over Speas motives for this so-called municipal ferry. His resignation from the Golden Gate Ferry Company had been forced by the take-over of that enterprise by the Southern Pacific (SP). While the SP led the litigation to block construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Speas was in strong support of its construction. As reported by the Mill Valley Record on January 29, 1932, there was a belief in some quarters. “…. that the establishment of the Marin Municipal Ferries was in the nature of a retaliatory measure, designed to force the [SP] withdrawal of the pending litigation involving the bridge project.” The linkage between the Municipal Ferry proposal and the SP anti-bridge litigation gained considerable credibility as both were withdrawn in the summer 1932.
Whatever actually prompted and caused the collapse of the Marin Municipal Ferries proposal, no publicly owned and operated ferry service existed in Marin County until the Golden Gate Bridge District inaugurated the Golden Gate Ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito in 1970.
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