Marin County Genealogy

San Quentin, More memories from Jim Price - The Sun Broke Through

Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.

The Sun Broke Through ~ by Jim Price

Someone was flashing a bright light at me.  I tried to hide my head under the pillow but the light kept flashing.  Finally I realized it wasn’t a dream, it was the light of my alarm clock.  My grandmother had bought me a Westclock “Moonbeam” alarm clock with a light instead of a buzzer.  That way she and my grandfather, with whom I lived, wouldn’t be woken up every Sunday morning at 5:15 am.  A quick check out the window told me that I would need to double up on my pants and sweater. A cold damp tule fog had rolled westward from the Central Valley through the Suisuin Straits, down San Pablo Bay and had wrapped San Quentin Village in a thick gray blanket.

After a quick breakfast, I pulled my red “Radio Flyer” wagon out of the basement and rode it past the Victorian houses toward the ferry pier. I knelt in the wagon with my left knee, pushing it along with my right leg.  There was no time to waste, as I would have to catch the 6 o’clock boat. I pulled my Navy surplus watch cap down over my ears as I rode onto the quarter mile long pier and was almost out to the end before I could see the double-ended ferry Russian River approaching the pier.  She along with her sisters, the Klamath, and El Paso, and the older Sierra Nevada were the Richmond–San Rafael Ferries.  They were the last of the vast fleet of automobile ferries that once plied San Francisco Bay.  It was 1950 and in less than 6 years their whistles would be heard no more as cars would race over the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge.

As the boat came in, I could see the chain and gear turning on the headframe of the ferry slip as the pier attendant turned the big crank adjusting the automobile ramp to match the level of the tide.  Moaning sounds came from the pilings as the ferry scraped first on one side and then the other and finally came to a stop wedged tightly by the vee shaped slip. After the deck hands had placed the hawsers over the cleats and removed the chain from across the end of the deck, the attendant cranked down the apron, walked back, raised the gate and motioned the waiting line of cars forward.  The boat listed back and forth as cars and trucks drove on to the automobile deck.  They were loaded alternately on the port and starboard sides to balance the load.  I followed the last truck on board.  It was a load of live chickens from Petaluma.  The cargo clucking inside their screened coupes.

After parking my wagon, I climbed the stairs to the passenger deck and watched as we pulled away from the pier.  In less than a minute, it had disappeared into the fog and I headed for the warmth of the steam radiators in the passenger cabin.

In about 25 minutes the engines slowed, signaling our approach to the Richmond side of the bay.  I went back down to the car deck and pulled my wagon forward.  The deckhands were standing on the bow peering into the mist searching for the pier.  None of the ferries had radar and navigation depended on the skill of the captain.  I looked up at the pilothouse and saw he had the window open and was listening to the sound from the foghorn on the end of the pier.  Every 10 seconds we heard the horn.  First seemed to be ahead, then off to the right.  Finally one of the deckhands yelled and pointed toward a barely visible flashing light. The captain pulled the big wheel over and the boat slowly started to turn.  The light was on the end of the ferry slip, which was now looming out of the fog.  A shrill blast of our whistle signaled our approach.

I was first off the boat and quickly pulled my wagon to the waiting room.  I had to pick up my Sunday papers, get back on the boat and return to the San Quentin side.  This was my first real job, but at the age of 10, I was the lowest ranking newsboy.  An old man sold the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle.  An older boy sold the afternoon Call-Bulletin and News.  I could only sell the Oakland Tribune and it had less sales than even the San Rafael Independent.  My spirits were high though, as I had a head start earning money for a car and college.  I quickly loaded my wagon and placed 2 x 4 boards on top of the papers to hold them down in the wind.  I had learned my lesson after seeing half my papers blow into the bay one stormy morning. 

Returning to the boat, I parked the wagon and walked over to the center of the automobile deck where there were barred openings through which I could see some of the boat’s machinery.  Inside was a generator driven by a single cylinder steam engine.  Behind it was a panel of gauges, meters and knife switches that were fascinating and mysterious.  Next to the generator was something that went hiss hiss as it worked itself back and forth.  I heard bells ring out and the throb of the main engine as it began turning.  Straining on my tiptoes looking down past the ladders and catwalks, I could only get a glimpse of oily parts moving far below.

As we pulled away from the pier, one of the deck hands spotted me and said, “hey sonny how’d you like to take a look below”?  I couldn’t say “sure” fast enough.  “OK, follow me,” he said as he headed aft and down a ladder.  I followed him to crew’s compartment where the deck hands were drinking coffee and playing cards.  We then went aft to the steering gear.  There I saw the steering engine start and stop as it followed commands from the ship’s wheel in the pilothouse.  The compartment had the strong smell of oil and rope from the lines that were used to tie the boat up at night. 

Climbing back up on the main deck, we went forward and down the next ladder. I could feel the air rushing past me as it fed the fires in the boilers.  As we descended it got hotter and hotter and I heard the hissing of the steam in the pipes. Walking between the boilers I heard the roar of the oil fires and peeked in through the inspection holes. I quickly turned my eyes away from the intense brightness. It was as if there was some monster inside, trying to get out.    

Walking aft, I looked up and there it was–the main engine.  I just stood there with my mouth open.  It was a triple expansion steam engine that towered above me.  It was all open and moving. The connecting rods were going up and down, the crankshaft and eccentrics were going round and around. There were polished brass gages with pointers moving back and forth indicating various pressures and temperatures. I had never seen anything so big and powerful and all right in front of me. Too soon the bells rang and I saw the engine order telegraph move to “half”.  That was the signal that we were approaching the pier and that my tour was over.  I reluctantly followed the deckhand up the ladder to the coolness of the main deck.  Wow!  I didn’t know what to say. I just thanked him and handed him a newspaper.

That morning, as I sold my papers to people in the waiting cars, I kept thinking about the marvelous things I had just seen. Later on the fog thinned and the sun finally broke through. I knew it now. Someday I was going to work on engines, generators, pumps–big powerful things. I was going to be an engineer.

Jim Price @ 2002

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