Eureka History


Eureka was built in 1890, at Tiburon, California, for the San Francisco and North Pacific Railway (and named Ukiah to commemorate SF&NPR's recent rail extension into that California city). A freight-car ferry, Ukiah was SF&NPR's "tracks across the Bay," ferrying trains from Sausalito to San Francisco.

After WWI, Ukiah needed extensive repair, and shipwrights at the Southern Pacific yard labored for two years - eventually replacing all of her structure above the waterline. This kind of reconstruction was called "jacking up the whistle and sliding a new boat underneath."
Re-christened Eureka, the vessel was launched from the Southern Pacific yard as a passenger and automobile ferry (her present form) in 1923.

Steam Ferryboats on San Francisco Bay

The Bay's first steam ferry (the tiny Sitka) arrived in 1847, stowed aboard a Russian cargo ship. But the ferry, Kangaroo, made the first regularly scheduled crossings in 1850.

After Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848 (and John Marshall discovered gold in the American River) the Bay Area's population exploded. It is said that San Francisco's Ferry Building was once second only to London's Charing Cross Railway Station as the busiest passenger terminal in the world.

At one time, Southern Pacific Railroad operated forty-two ferryboats on the Bay (they transported 50,000,000 passengers per year). Construction of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges (mid 1930s) signaled the end of the ferryboat era, however.

In 1941, Eureka had the dubious distinction of making the last Marin County run, and by the 1950s regular ferry service was limited to railroad connections.

Eureka kept working, but in 1957, when her crankpin snapped in mid-crossing, she was removed from service. Just one year later, the San Leandro made the last transbay ferryboat run

The Walking Beam Engine

Eureka's tall "walking beam" is the last working example of an engine-type once common on America's waterways. Manufactured by Fulton Iron Works of San Francisco, this engine remains unaltered to this day.

Oil was burned in boilers to produce the steam, which drove a huge, vertical piston. Perched atop the engine, the walking beam changed this up-and-down motion into rotary motion via a connecting rod linked directly to the paddlewheel shaft. The twin paddlewheels (each twenty-seven feet in diameter) made twenty-four revolutions per minute.


In February of 1994, Eureka exited San Francisco Drydock after a $2.7 million restoration project. The steamship had been in the shipyard since October, where a crew of 45 skilled craftsmen caulked 2.5 miles of planking seams, and hammered in over 9000 eight-inch spikes. They applied stockholm tar, laid Irish Felt, and then plated the hull with 12,000 square feet of shining copper (cut down from modern dimensions to traditional-sized pieces to maintain the historical facade).

The vessel had suffered from rot in the edges of her main deck, and the caulking between her four-inch thick hull planks had softened. The immense beams holding up her paddle wheels and paddle boxes had deteriorated, and were replaced with steel. The overhanging ends and sides of the ferry were also repaired. To prevent the recurrence of rot, borate rods have been installed in all the new timbers. This is cutting edge preservation technology, pioneered by the park to treat its other ships. Over time, rainwater intrusion (a primary cause of dry rot) causes the rods to dissolve, and the borate leaches out into the wood, preventing rot from taking hold.

October of 1999,
Eureka entered San Francisco Drydock for a $1 million restoration project focusing on the vessel’s superstructure -- the above-water portions of the vessel. A significant portion of that drydock was the replacement of the boat’s "kingposts" -- four large wooden structures which support the paddlewheels and upper decks.
A large, wooden ferryboat out of the water.
Ferryboat Eureka at the drydock, 1998-1999.

NPS Photo

Various dials and levers used to control a ferryboat engine.
The engineer's flat on Eureka.

NPS Photo

A man standing next to a large beam.
The very top of the walking beam steam engine.

NPS Photo

Last updated: January 27, 2016

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