By Jessica Placzek, KQED, Bay Curious podcast
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For years Martin Kunz has been looking down the hill from his office at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, out over the water, at one of the longest piers in California — the Berkeley pier.
“I see this every day from my office when I have lunch, and I was curious what the history behind this is,” he said. He submitted a question to Bay Curious, so off we went to find the answer.
Until the city closed the pier in 2015, the Berkeley pier had primarily been used as a fishing pier. But decades ago it had a very different purpose.
Berkeley’s population boom
Back in the early 20th century, Berkeley was growing fast. Its population went from 13,214 residents in 1900 to 56,036 in 1920. Thousands of refugees from San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake found homes in Berkeley, the University of California experienced rapid expansion and an electric train system connected Berkeley to other Bay Area cities, such as Oakland.
Berkeley was establishing itself as an urban center, yet many of its residents still worked jobs in San Francisco. To get there, workers commuted by train to Oakland and then by boat to San Francisco — an inconvenient journey that makes today’s commute look like a cakewalk. So, in 1926, the Golden Gate Ferry Co. began building a pier that would bring auto ferries to Berkeley.
When the construction was finished, the dock was 3½ miles long, making it one of the longest piers in the state. Why so long? Parts of San Francisco Bay are very shallow. Underneath the pier, the water is between 7 and 9 feet deep. The pier needed to reach parts of the bay where the water was deep enough for a ferry to travel.
“A longer dock also meant that the ferry company saved a lot of money. In other words, you had to drive all the way out to the end of the pier and use your gas instead of them using gas for the ferry,” says Chuck Wollenberg, professor of history at Berkeley City College.
Ferry service began at the pier in 1929. The three boats were named Golden Bear, Golden Poppy and Golden Shore.
The 1920s saw tremendous growth in the number of Americans driving personal automobiles. Ford’s assembly line made cars more affordable, and it wasn’t long before cars surpassed trains in popularity. After all, this was a time when Republicans claimed that Republican prosperity had brought “a chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard.”
As more cars hit the road, more cars relied on the ferries at the Berkeley pier, and lines could be long. Whenever Stanford played football against Cal at UC Berkeley, lines would stretch beyond the 3½ miles of pier.
“The mother of all traffic jams in the Bay Area occurred at the end of the Labor Day weekend,” says Wollenberg. “There was a four-hour wait. When people tried to cut in, people would take out revolvers and threaten people.”
But the same thing that created demand for the ferries also brought about the dock’s demise. With the rising popularity of cars, California legislators decided to create a bridge between Alameda County and San Francisco. The same year the ferries started running, engineers began laying plans for the Bay Bridge.
The Bay Bridge opened on Nov. 12, 1936. Former President Herbert Hoover watched as California Gov. Frank Merriam cut the ceremonial chain opening the bridge. The Golden Gate Ferry Co. would last only two more years, eventually calling it quits and giving the pier to the city of Berkeley. In total, the Berkeley auto ferries had run less than 10 years.
After the bridge
Berkeley officials used state and city funds to convert the pier into a recreation area. It opened in spring 1938 and in the first year attracted 50,000 people. The Berkeley Recreation Department charged an admission fee of 10 cents for pedestrians and 25 cents for automobiles.
Fishing became a popular pastime on the pier and kids were encouraged to learn. Civic leaders in the ’40s and ’50s even suggested that fishing on the pier could reduce juvenile delinquency in the area.
Soon, city officials found that maintaining miles of pier could be difficult and expensive. The corrosive effects of salt water took their toll on the dock, and over time sections of pier would be closed, repaired, reopened and then closed again.
The Berkeley Marina was also built out over the pier, cutting the pier down to about 2½ miles.
The farthest sections of the pier, which reach nearly to Treasure Island, have been abandoned for decades. Much of the wood has rotted away, so only the cement pilings are left. Sailors have blamed the decaying pier for sinking at least two ships, while fishermen have claimed it creates a fertile breeding ground for marine life.
Oakland resident Phillip Jwell is a longtime fisherman who has enjoyed the pier for years. Cast a line off the pier and you can pull in rays, perch, bass, halibut and even small sharks.
“Fishing is a good meditation. It clears your mind and actually helps you out better throughout the week,” says Jwell.
When the pier is open Jwell says, “It’s about 75 people out there fishing usually on a good average.”
The pier at present
Now the future of the pier is looking uncertain. In July of 2015, Berkeley officials closed the entire pier after finding considerable structural damage.
The city hasn’t been clear about when or if the Berkeley pier will open again. Repairs could be expensive and funding has been difficult in the past. The city hasn’t even allocated funds to determine how many millions it will cost to repair the pier. It could take years.
This story originally appeared on KQED News and has been reprinted with permission.