The historic fleet of San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park

Historic ferries and tugs, sails and schooners, all right in San Francisco.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

The Hyde Street Pier is the home to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and its many ships powered by wind and steam. 

Read moreSteel, steam and sails: exploring San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park.

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The ferry Eureka was built in 1890 and was originally called the Ukiah. It's the largest all-wood ferry and largest all-wood ship still floating.

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New tech

During its service life, the Eureka stared carrying horseless carriages, like this 1927 Nash.

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Countless runs

The Eureka originally carried rail cars on the lower deck, not motor cars, between Tiburon, on the north side of the bay, and San Francisco. 

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Roll on, roll off

Above the passenger deck she's nearly identical fore and aft. This saves time as the vehicles can just drive right off, and the ferry doesn't have to turn around for the return trip. 

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Wooden comfort

After its post-WWI update, the Eureka could carry up to 2,300 passengers.

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Bow or stern?

This wheelhouse was the end that faced San Francisco on the Eureka's journeys. There's an identical wheelhouse on the other end.

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From the wheelhouse you can see several of the museum's other boats as well as the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

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Side paddle

The Eureka's enormous paddle wheels were internal, basically behind where the windows stop.

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Still floating

To put the Eureka's age in perspective, she was in service for 68 years. She's been out of service for nearly that long. 

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Schooner or later

Next up: The 120-plus-year-old schooner, C.A. Thayer. 

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C.A. Thayer

The turn of the last century was an interesting time for ship building. Many ships, like the Eureka, were using steam. The C.A. Thayer still used wind even though it was built five years after the Eureka.

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Wood and wind

The Thayer was designed to carry lumber.

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Skeleton crew

The schooner's sail design allowed for a smaller crew: just six crewmen, a cook and the captain.

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As you'd expect for a ship of this age, it has been extensively and expertly restored multiple times. Her final commercial voyage, in 1950, made her the last commercial sailing ship on the West Coast.

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Steam tug

Moving right along, here's the ocean-going steam-powered tugboat Hercules.

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The Hercules was built in New Jersey in 1907, sailed through the Straits of Magellan towing her sister ship and then served in San Francisco, along the West Coast and beyond until 1962. 

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Notable tow

Coincidentally, in 1916 the Hercules towed the C.A. Thayer up to Washington.

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The towing machine automatically lets out slack in the line when the tension is too great, and then reels it back in when lessened. This way the line won't snap under adverse conditions. 

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A 1,000-horsepower triple-expansion steam engine provided power.

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3 cylinder

The steam enters the first cylinder, pushes it down, then flows to the next to do the same, and then again to the third. It's similar to the engine found in the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, which was built 35 years later. 

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The Hercules would have a crew of up to 15 on long journeys. 

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Officer's mess

Originally only the officers would eat in this relatively lavish mess, but for the latter half of its service, the whole crew could eat and relax here.

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Crew mess

By comparison, the stark crew mess. 

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Hot shoe, burnin' down the avenue

The Hercules even made it all the way to Panama, towing a caisson bound for what would become the Panama Canal.

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The bow of the Hercules offers a great look at the "aft" deck of the Eureka.

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And now for a couple of quick one-offs. The square-bowed and flat bottomed Alma was built in 1891, and still sails around the Bay between June and November

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Geordie tug

Then there's the rare English paddleboat tug, the Eppleton Hall. It's the only remaining and intact example of this kind of Newcastle-built, 100-plus-year-old tugboat. It was closed for maintenance during our visit.

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I'll end with what is probably the most impressive ship at the museum: the 301-foot (92-meter) Balclutha.

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Steel and sails

The steel-hulled Balclutha was built in 1886.

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General trader

The Balclutha was built as a general trade and cargo ship, and carried myriad cargoes over its lifetime in service.

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Many lives

In 1904 she was renamed the Star of Alaska and shipped men and materials to Alaska for fishing, returning to San Francisco with canned fish.

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Crew cabin

Most of the crew slept in cabins up on deck, since the space below was for cargo.

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In her original configuration she carried a crew of 26. As the Star of Alaska, she carried over 200 crew and passengers. 

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Break like the wind

Twenty-five sails are split between three masts, in a ship rig.

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Sold again in 1933 she entered her third life. Renamed the Pacific Queen she appeared in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable. 

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Lifestock pen

As in the days of old, small livestock was kept on board for fresh eggs and meat during long voyages.

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Back to Balclutha

In 1954 she was renamed Balclutha and given a much-needed restoration.

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In original form, this would have been open. During its time in the salmon trade the owners enclosed this area to give quarters for over 100 men. You can see these on the right hand side.

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Master's cabin

The posh cabin for the captain.

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En suite

The captain and his wife got their own bathroom, as you'd expect.

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Where the officers would dine.

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Below decks

Originally the Balclutha hauled grain, and then later timber and other goods. They've done a great job showing how it all fit.

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Compared to older sailing ships, the angle of the bow is quite severe.

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No space wasted on a cargo ship.

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The lower down the social rung of the era, the worse the accommodations got.

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The lower decks were being worked on during our visit. There wouldn't have been stairs when this was a cargo vessel. They'd have used ladders instead to save space.

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I'm imagining these filled with fish. Lots of fish.

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One of the captain's wives converted the charthouse to a sitting room.

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The Bay, looking north.

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The view

While the captain's wife enjoyed a sheltered view ahead, the helmsman did not, as you'll see next.

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The helmsman had a great view... aft

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Since they only really needed to see the compass, or the sails, helmsmen didn't need to see ahead. The charthouse blocked the view anyway, so it didn't matter that the wheel is facing the "wrong" way.   

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History in sails and steam

Here's one final look at the Balclutha.

For more about this tour and these ships, read more here: Steel, steam and sails: exploring San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park.

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