Robert Semple was a grand architect and founding father of Benicia. His was a metropolitan vision, including ferry service between Benicia, Martinez and Port Costa. Though the realization of this dream had humble roots, he may not have guessed that Benicia was destined to house the largest ferry ever built. Circa 1848, the ferry was said to sustain but 6 to 8 horses, and its passengers experienced up to two-day waits in line. Semple himself almost drowned after constructing a makeshift raft and attempting to cross from Martinez to Benicia when he could not attract the attention of his ferryman who was waiting on the other shore. As the transportation demand grew, so did the boats. By 1868, tracks had been laid around the bay and the great railroad companies had moved in, competing for the quickest route between Sacramento and Oakland. The original route was circuitous, passing through Stockton and over the Altamont Pass before swooping back north to Oakland. The Central Pacific set out to connect a line from Sacramento to Benicia through the Suisun Marsh, but had to fill beneath the tracks with tons of granite to counteract the “sinking marsh effect.”
Meanwhile, one Mr. Arthur Brown was rapidly constructing the railroad’s “piece de triumph,” the lynchpin of the new route, at an Oakland shipyard. The 420ft long (longer than a football field!) ferry was built to house a 24-car passenger train. Mr. Robert L. Harris, a civil engineer, described the voyage with reverence in 1890: “At about 30 miles from the terminus there is a stop of a minute, a start followed by a pause of about five minutes, when [the passenger] feels that in some way his motion has changed, and, going to the car platform, discovers that while he is still on the cars, the entire train is on a boat, which is crossing the Straits of Carquinez.”
Dubbed “The Solano,” the boat embarked on her maiden voyage on December 28, 1879, connecting Benicia to the Central Pacific Railroad. The journey from the bottom of First Street to the tracks in Port Costa took about 15 minutes. One passenger reflected, “I passed back and forth at this ferry several times; at each time the perfection of its operation challenged admiration.”
The Solano’s success was so complete that similar models were constructed for the crossing from Oakland to San Francisco, and in 1885 a sister ship, the Contra Costa, was added to her ranks. Together, these august vessels raised enough money over the next 40 years to put themselves out of business. In 1928 the Southern Pacific (which had consumed the Central Pacific) approved $12 million for the construction of the Benicia- Martinez Bridge, which was completed in 1930, and has remained in continuous operation since.
The Contra Costa was unceremoniously deconstructed and sold for scrap, while The Solano was laid to rest near Antioch, where bits of its skeleton are still visible above the water line.