October 15 marks the 85th anniversary of the inaugural opening day of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company Bridge connecting Benicia and Martinez, signaling the end of the railroad ferry era that began in 1879. The 5,620 foot structure that crosses the Suisun Bay is, according to the “Bridge Browser” link from the Historic Bridges website (yes, there is such an animal—who knew?) is ranked, on a scale of ten, as seven in terms of both local and national historic significance. I beg to differ with the website author’s numeric ranking of the bridge, and would put it right up there with the Golden Gate Bridge in terms of its importance to the local communities, effectively ending the Brigadoon existence of Benicia and placing the City squarely in the path of the modern American world of the time, literally closing a problematic transportation gap and connecting us over water and land to Oakland, San Francisco and beyond.
C.M. Kurtz was a construction engineer with the company that built the bridge, and his photograph shows engine #2442 of train #30 huffing and puffing as it travels west from Martinez to Benicia. Although I am as susceptible as the next person to the nostalgia of the old-fashioned look and sound of the trains of that bygone cowcatcher-and-smokestack locomotive age, I am sorry that the birth of the 1930 bridge signaled the end of the Solano Ferry, once the largest ferryboat in the world at a length of 424 feet and a beam (width) of 116 feet.
The Southern Pacific Solano Ferry’s rail deck accommodated no less than four parallel tracks that could carry two locomotives plus an additional 36 freight cars or 24 passenger cars. She transported an average of 30 trains per day between Benicia and Port Costa. Tragically, she was repurposed as a breakwater in Antioch. Am I the only one who thinks that this was cruel and unusual punishment for such a lovely and hardworking lady? I keep hoping that someone will come forward with a video of the Solano as she works her way back and forth with her precious cargo of trains, goods, and humanity—that would be something to see.
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