The Late-Night Ferry in Marin
By Robert L. Harrison
Late night ferry service between Marin County and San Francisco has been a long-running concern for county residents. Before the Golden Gate Bridge connected the two communities, the need for ferry service was a critical link for everything from daily commerce and commuting to emergency medical services. By 1941 — just four years after the bridge opened — all ferry service had disappeared.
Nearly 30 years passed before a daily Marin-San Francisco ferry returned to the Bay. In 1970, to relieve peak hour auto travel, the Golden Gate Bridge District inaugurated a commuter ferry to Sausalito. Since then several daytime water routes and a new terminal at Larkspur were added, but as yet there is no evening or late night scheduled service available. As of June 2022 the latest scheduled weekday boat to Marin departs from the city at 8:15 p.m.
The call for late night ferry service has been ongoing for over 100 years. In an April 17, 1897 article, long before there was a Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Call reported the North Pacific Coast (NPC) Railroad planned to operate the first late evening service from Marin to San Francisco. The plan called for trains direct from San Rafael and Mill Valley to Sausalito where the ferry would leave at 10:45 p.m. Rather than listing the route in its official printed schedule, the NPC simply posted a notice at stations announcing its availability. The railroad used this approach to enable the service to be promptly abandoned if it proved unprofitable.
The NPC’s less than regular night service led to ongoing public concern. A letter to the editor of the Sausalito News dated March 20, 1897 described the circulation of a petition requesting a daily boat leaving San Francisco at 9:45 p.m. and returning from Sausalito at 10:30 p.m. This boat was intended to serve Marin residents returning home in the evening early enough to allow retiring at a normal hour. The service would supplement the “Theater Boat” currently scheduled three nights a week that left San Francisco at 11:30 and arrived in Sausalito at midnight, too late for most patrons visiting the city just for dinner or shopping.
In 1899 the NPC finally responded and scheduled a boat leaving San Francisco at 9:00 p.m. three nights a week. By 1903 the railroad now named the North Shore (NS) had added Marin electric train service and scheduled a ferry from the city at 10:15 p.m. Two years later improvements to the rail service allowed all scheduled ferries and trains to operate seven days a week. Three ferry routes from San Francisco to Sausalito operated every day at 9:00 p.m., 10:15 p.m. and 11:35 p.m.
Marin’s other railroad the California Northwestern (CNW) also offered late-night ferry service connecting Tiburon with San Francisco. In 1903 a “Theatre Boat” operated seven days a week leaving the city at 11:30 p.m. In the early 1900s the Marin-San Francisco late night ferry connection was served by two railroads and four ferry crossings.
In 1907, Marin’s two railroads were merged into the Northwestern Pacific (NWP). Over the years the newly christened railroad made continuous changes in service. Some popular and many not so welcome. An example of the latter was the 1909 termination of direct ferry service from San Francisco to Tiburon. A shuttle boat replaced the direct connection and served both Tiburon and Belvedere on its way to the NWP trains and ferries in Sausalito. The NWP operated night ferry service direct to Sausalito leaving the City at 9:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m. and 12:45 a.m.
A popular ferry service change was reported in the May 4, 1928 Mill Valley Record: “New Night Boat; More Service.” The paper noted: “Commencing last Sunday, for those who wish to take in a show, or attend a party, a boat leaves the Ferry Building each morning at one o’clock with connecting trains [in Sausalito] to all suburban stations.” The service was added in response to numerous requests and continued through summer months but operated in the winter dependent on patronage.
In the years after the 1909 termination of direct San Francisco ferry many in Tiburon continued to fight for a nonstop connection. The need grew more apparent when the Sausalito ferry terminal was overloaded. A vivid example of the problem was described in the May 14, 1931 issue of the Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar under the headline: “Tiburon Ferry Fight Renewed After Heavy Jam of Traffic.”
The Tribune reported: “Renewed agitation for a direct automobile ferry service between Tiburon and San Francisco during the past week followed Sunday night’s traffic jam at Sausalito, declared to be one of the worst in the history of Marin County. For hours thousands of automobiles were forced to crawl along at a snail’s pace from the point of beginning of the jam, a distance of more than seven miles above Sausalito.” Reports indicated it took more than an hour to travel from Alto to Sausalito. With the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 and the end of all automobile ferry service a year later traffic jams at the Sausalito ferry terminal vanished.
In the early 20th century many were eager for the late night ferry service so that Marin County residents could enjoy the City after dark. With the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge Marin’s primary ongoing interest in the late night boat was to bring City residents to Marin in order to support evening businesses, particularly in Sausalito and Tiburon.
In 2001 the Blue and Gold ferry operator offered two Friday night ferry runs to and from Marin for a $30,000 ($48,000 in 2022 dollars) subsidy from local jurisdictions. The boats would have served ferry terminals at both Tiburon and Sausalito. Several jurisdictions including Tiburon, Sausalito, Belvedere and Marin County together approved a total of $18,500 to offset the cost of the Friday night ferries. There is little if any evidence that the service ever operated or how successful it may have been. In any event the proposed late night ferry clearly was a very short lived experiment.
As late as January 2022 the Town of Tiburon contracted for the Tiburon Transportation Program (TTP) operated by the Tideline Marine Group, Inc. to provide two years of late night ferry service Thursdays through Sundays. The agreement required three round trips between 5:30 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. with one departure from Tiburon no earlier than 10:00 p.m. The service is based on an on-call system and not on a regular schedule.
The maximum public subsidy was agreed to be no more than $298,000. Tiburon planned to offset this cost using funds available from the American Rescue Act of 2021. The service will be evaluated on a continuous basis over the contract period. Early public response has been limited.