FERRYBOAT SAN DIEGO FALLS TO
WRECKING BALL AND KNACKER’S TORCH
By Joe Ditler
The ferryboat San Diego is seen here in 1968 with bridge construction going on in the background.
Photo courtesy Coronado Public Library.
VALLEJO – This is the final chapter of our expedition to document the last days of the ferryboat San Diego. The end did not come easy for her, or for anyone involved.
In fact, we began to liken it to an execution, as the clock ticked down only to have her fate postponed day by day due to unexpected litigation re hazardous material removal. Eventually we began to joke about what her “final request” might have been, or “final meal,” or that, “The Governor called at midnight and stayed the executioner’s hand … yet again.”
Rainstorms blew in and out of the region during this time, and the 81-year-old, 208-foot ferryboat just kept tugging at her chaufed mooring lines with the tide, as if restless to move once more, or perhaps just trying to escape the inevitable.
Every day I would call to see if the authoratative thumb pointed up or down. Flights were booked, and then cancelled again and again. Eventually the boat’s current owner, the California State Lands Commission, weeded through the paperwork and final demolition dates were secured.
It is a sad but dutiful story I bring you now in describing the ferryboat San Diego’s final chapter. Like a favorite aunt who was special to you in your youth, but had grown old and sickly towards the end of her life, maybe it’s better to remember her the way she was. No one will blame you if you don’t want to read this story.
Photo courtesy Coronado Public Library.
The old ferryboat San Diego had faithfully served on the Coronado-San Diego run from 1931-1969. She was part of a legacy of horse & buggy-carrying ferryboats (and later automobiles) that began in 1886. The ferryboats were massive then. Today they are small, and only carry pedestrians and bicyclists.
In Chapter One we described the wonderfully romantic history of the Coronado ferryboats in general, and each one’s slow demise over the years. In that story we told you of the ferryboat San Diego, and how she had been declared a hazard to navigation and was now scheduled for demolition. The link is below:
In Chapter Two we took you on board the old boat. Former Coronado resident, Bruce Muirhead, provided still photos and video of the adventure and we were all touched by his emotional exploration of the ferryboat San Diego as he looked for something, anything to remind him of his youth in Coronado, and on this very boat. That link follows:
Since then, Bruce and I arranged to rendezvous in the San Francisco Bay area to hopefully board the ferryboat San Diego one last time for a specific undertaking. That expedition was two-fold. First, we wanted to capture photos and film of the boat’s final days for eventual archiving in the Coronado Public Library (and use in their upcoming ferryboat exhibit).
Their consensus? "She ain't what she used to be."
The other part of our mission was to see what, if anything, could be removed from the ferryboat and brought back to Coronado. The City of Coronado is considering using these materials to enhance an existing tribute to the Ferryboat Era at Centennial Park, where the old ferryboat ticket booth now stands (the original Ferry Landing at the foot of Orange Avenue).
The expedition to document this story and recover artifacts was funded by Debbie Riddle and LEE MATHER CO., REALTORS, with assistance from the Bruce Muirhead family. I had a letter in hand from the Coronado City Manager introducing me to the old boat's current owners as the historian heading up the project, and expressing interest in retrieving historic artifacts such as the navigational poles and, “other artifacts significant to the community of Coronado.”
“It had been on fire, adrift,
abandoned, and now aground.”
Since publishing the first two parts of this saga, numerous people have written asking why we couldn’t just bring the ferryboat back to Coronado and, “Do something” with it.
Well, even if we had somewhere to put it, and a few million discretionary dollars to play with, that possibility evaporated a long time ago. The boat had been a liveaboard – a derelict - on the Sacramento River, nudged up against Decker Island for many years. It had been on fire, adrift, abandoned, and now aground.
However, the thought that we might have (had we known months earlier of the boat’s intended demise) retrieved the old stack and one of the pilothouses for restoration and use in a children’s playground (for example) was tempting.
So tempting were these illusions of maritime treasure that every time I turned my back, Bruce Muirhead could be found trying to lift one of the 8-foot, 500-pound funnels from the top deck to add to our salvage wish list, or measuring the deck houses to see if they would fit in the trailer he had rented. We were like hungry kids in a candy shop. "Treasure" has that effect on you, especially maritime treasure.
Like a dark, film noir scene, rain pelted my car as I drove out to Mare Island to find the ferryboat and witness her execution. Mare Island was once a thriving shipyard. Now it’s like stepping onto a set from TV’s “Walking Dead.” These once-majestic buildings stand silent, dark and lifeless, with windows broken out or boarded over, and no sign of life except the occasional hungry seagull. This went on block after block as I made my way to Gate Jericho along the wharf. It was a ghost town of enormous proportions.
The old Mare Island Train stood idle under a lean-to on my right. The Mare Island Fire Department sat on my left. It had a small, hand-made sign in the window that read, “CLOSED.” It was spooky to the point that I consulted my GPS navigator three times to make sure I was in the right place.
But, there she was, the old ferryboat San Diego, hidden behind the fire station along the wharf. She looked forlorn, but recognizable from the distance, as Bruce described in Part Two, and you couldn’t mistake that boxy, yet familiar silhouette. As Bruce also noted, the closer you got, the worse she looked.
I got there ahead of the work crews and was able to take some photos, collecting my senses after the shock of seeing her this far gone. One of my first PR jobs was representing former ferryboat owner Roger Morgan in his attempt to make this boat into a floating dinner theatre in Glorietta Bay (circa 1984). But I had not seen her myself since 1969.
Bruce arrived with an old Coronado friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years – Dick “The Kingfish” Long. The three of us donned our hardhats and gloves and, when the tide moved the boat close enough, we jumped through the broken windows and on to the scattered piles of debris inside.
The ferryboat had an enormous car deck. On top of that was a passenger deck where people could sit and read the newspaper or play cards during their commute. Above that was the Captain’s Deck, where the public was never allowed.
During World War II, waterfront author and artist Jerry MacMullen would often ride on this very passenger deck, sketching people in his notepad – war brides, children, servicemen, commuters – as one of his favorite pastimes.
The car deck, as Bruce describes it so well, “looked like someone had demolished a 30,000-square-foot home … and just left the rubble lying there.” It was piled high. Cement had been poured over the once-lovely wooden car decks. Glass and poorly framed façades had been constructed all around the boat to keep out the weather. Windows were shattered and the glass pieces strewn atop the rubble.
“… the wrecking ball and knacker’s torch
were just a ceremonial, final gesture.
The reality was that our beloved
ferryboat was already dead.”
A couple of fires had, years earlier, swept through the passenger deck. We did find, however, that the wood had been so strong, and had so many coats of paint over it, that the carved support stanchions were still intact beneath their charred exteriors.
The Captain’s Deck had the smoke stack, four large ventilation funnels, two pilothouses and a general continuance of neglect and abandonment. Jutting from each of the ends were the navigational poles – 20-feet of wood that pilots used to make visual references on the far shore when transiting San Diego Bay.
Many imaginations were fueled when people heard this expedition was about to take place. As a waterfront reporter, exploring on old ships (and shipwrecks, which is what this was) is nothing new to me. But in the past, there is almost always something wonderful, some forgotten time machine or piece of history (treasure) to be discovered somewhere on board.
In the case of the ferryboat San Diego (now named Klondike Queen), all the iconic items you might imagine could be found, were long-since gone.
Gone were the ship’s large wooden wheels (helms). There no longer was an engine room telegraph. The name boards that once identified her at every compass point had been pilfered. The lifeboats and oars were gone, the bronze porthole covers, the brass whistles and whistle lanyards, the signage. Even the small brass engine room identification plates and christening plaques had been stolen.
While exploring this floating and much-disguised piece of Coronado history, Bruce and I captured a couple of film bytes we thought you might enjoy. Come with us as we take you aboard the ferryboat San Diego one last time:
The dress code for the day was boots, hardhats and gloves as we climbed through the piles of rubble and began our search for something, anything, representative of the Coronado to San Diego run.
I can try to describe the inner sadness we all felt, but you have to understand that it wasn’t something we could verbalize right away. Once on board, the Kingfish wandered off by himself. Bruce did the same. We were all quiet. Again, there were no words … unless someone chose to utter Last Rites in the quiet of the carnage.
to help celebrate the memory of the Ferryboat Era.
I worked my way upwards through the rubble pretending it was some great archeological find, but in reality we were scouring through junk. Our ferryboat was no more.
The demolition at the hands of the wrecking ball and knacker’s torch was just a ceremonial, final gesture. The reality was that our beloved ferryboat was already dead.
I remember how pretty the ferryboats were in their prime – all white, with forest green trim on the windows and handrails. Suddenly I became obsessed with the idea that I just HAD to find some piece of green. This boat was so different than we remembered, that it became a challenge to locate a paint remnant on the boat, a piece of Emerald City Green.
After an hour or so of walking the decks, there it was. Nestled up in the charred ceiling of her once glorious passenger deck, was a little slice of green exposed from behind the fire damage.
Our hosts, Peter Pelkofer (Senior Council with California State Lands Commission) and Bryant Sturgess (Water Boundary Consultant) were eager to get on with the work at hand. They were overseeing preparation for towing as the San Diego had to move to another shipyard before her toxic wastes could be removed and demolition could begin. They are also the gentlemen who made it possible for us to go on board and to rescue what artifacts we could.
Bryant and I lingered behind as the others climbed off the boat. At the last minute I decided to take a flashlight and explore the dark engine room down below, despite difficult access and warnings not to go there. After ten minutes of winding through pitch-black corridors below decks I realized the only difference between the engine room and the rest of the ship was that the former was engulfed in darkness, pooled water and stench. It was claustrophobic and dangerous, so I reluctantly retreated back to the main deck.
Old friends Dick "The Kingfish" Long (left) and Joe Ditler were reunited aboard the ferryboat San Diego on Leap Day, 2012. Afterwards there was time for a laugh and the sharing of old Coronado memories.
We had to wait for wind and tide to push us closer to the dock before we could disembark, so I decided to have one final moment with the ferryboat San Diego. I climbed up the aft stairway, not knowing really where I was going or what I was going to do, when a memory struck me thoroughly right between the eyes.
I found myself in a flashback to the year 1965. My dad and I had driven on from the San Diego side, and before the car engine had shut off I was out the door and up those stairs.
This was a memory I hadn’t had in decades, but it was suddenly clear as a bell. Just like one might look south from the Hotel del Coronado and in their mind see not the discordant Coronado Shores, but instead, imagine the spacious Tent City, I no longer saw the charred wood, bare wires, heaps of trash and broken windows of this old ferryboat.
What I saw was a quiet area. A few old folks sitting on benches. I saw the shoreline of North Island passing by out the porthole, and I felt the rumble of the boat’s engines.
I know it sounds silly, but just as wood carvers conceptualize the finished product looking at a bare piece of wood, I somehow had every sound and sight running through my mind, as I’m sure many can relate to.
I could hear the engine telegraph ring for “Full Reverse,” and I could feel the engines shaking the entire boat and hear the water fighting the command. I could hear the pilings give under pressure from the ferryboat’s rub rails, with loud cracks and pops, as immovable objects did their best to stop the enormous, fully-laden ferryboat.
I could also hear the car engines starting one deck below and remember thinking “I’ve got about one minute more before they lower the chains and allow cars to drive off.” I can even remember thinking, “Dad’s gonna be pissed. But I just want this to last a few more seconds ...”.
And then it was over. Yet, that is still the way of the ferryboats ... "I just want this to last a few more seconds."
As I descended the stairway down into the rubble of the main deck Bryant yelled that we were close enough to climb off this floating trash heap I had the audacity to call "romantic." We legged it through the broken out window and up on to the wharf where the others were waiting.
The day was February 29, 2012 … Leap Day. And Bruce captured the following, final interview with me on board, struggling to find words to put to this pathetic sight we were experiencing. This particular video’s sound is slightly interrupted by the wind, but you can read a description at the bottom of the YouTube page:
On February 29, 2012, Leap Day, Bruce Muirhead, Dick "The Kingfish" Long and I visited the ferryboat San Diego for a final time. It was nostalgic, sad, heart wrenching and yet a necessary visit to allow us to bring closure to the Ferryboat Era in Coronado (1886-1969) in our minds, and to say good-bye to an old friend. We had all ridden her decks many times in our youth, and despite a little wind in the microphone, you get an idea re our emotions that final day on board the ferryboat San Diego, and a video glimpse at what a wreck the once-glorious old ferryboat had become. For me it was personal. I rode the ferryboat San Diego to Coronado on my first visit here in 1965. I rode her in August 1969 on her last voyage across San Diego Bay. And I had many late-night "cheap" dates on her as my girlfriend and I rode all night for a quarter. The old boat represents a time long gone by. A time pre-Bridge. A time when things were just slower ...
As we drove away I know I wasn’t the only one looking in the rearview mirror for one last look at the ferryboat San Diego.
The next day three towboats latched on to tow the old gal from Death Row to the execution berthing. Once there, Hazmat workers climbed all over her, removing asbestos from her ceiling and engine room.
Within a few days a wrecking ball and large claw finished off her upper decks. Everything above the waterline yielded to the powerful machinery, as it battered and ripped away her once-famous figure.
Hazmat workers removing hazardous materials just prior to demolition of the ferryboat.
As an empty canoe, the boat was towed a final time to an area where welders went at her barren hull to strip away what little pride was left in the ferryboat San Diego.
For our efforts (thanks to the generous subsidizing provided by Debbie Riddle and LEE MATHER CO., REALTORS and the Bruce Muirhead family) we were able to secure the following items:
• Two 20-foot Navigational poles
• Two lifeboat davit blocks
• Three shaped support columns from inside the passenger deck
• Two railing posts from the outer passenger deck area
• Two eight-foot ventilation funnels
• One mooring cleat from the main deck bow
• And, one door latch from the aft pilothouse
The recovered materials will be stored in the Bay Area until transportation can be arranged to truck them to Coronado, where they will undergo restoration for possible display. Smaller items can be seen at the ferryboat exhibit in the Coronado Public Library.
rescued from the doomed ferryboat San Diego.
As the story of the ferryboat San Diego comes to a close, more information has surfaced from readers with updates about the fate of one of the other final five ferryboats.
Shawn Dake, of Cypress, California, writes that the ferryboat Coronado was sold in 1973 to a ferryboat company in Nicaragua. At some point she became wrecked on the shore and was abandoned. Her sad remains can still be seen on Cosiguina Beach. Thank you Shawn, for sharing that. I had previously written she met her end on a beach in Argentina.
And EvergreenFleet.com has a wonderful (and accurate) website devoted to the San Diego-Coronado ferryboats. It’s filled with terrific information and exciting photos, including one of the old Coronado rotting away on the beach in Cosiguina. Check it out at:
Bruce Muirhead captured this brief video of a rainy effort to tow the ferryboat San Diego from Decker Island to Mare Island on January 18th. It too, is worth a look:
The following "death and destruction" photos were taken on March 15, 2012 at the Bay Ship and Yacht Company in Alameda, by photographer Frank Cleope, Jr.:
"PARTING SHOT ..."
Photos courtesy of Joe Ditler, Bruce Muirhead, Peter Pelkofer, Frank Cleope, Jr., and the Coronado Public Library. Our gratitude to Christian Esquevin, director of the Coronado Public Library, to Debbie Riddle of Lee Mather Co., Realtors, the Bruce Muirhead Family, and the City of Coronado for making this documentation of the final days of the ferryboat San Diego possible.
The 3-part saga of the
"Final Days of the Ferryboat San Diego"
is dedicated to the friendship and memory of