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article number 732
article date 08-23-2018
copyright 2018 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
San Francisco - Work Projects Administration History: Part 4, Cross Bay Transport and Drinking Water are Engineering Feats
by Work Projects Administration

From the 1940 Work Projects Administration book, San Francisco, The Bay and its Cities, with 1970’s updates.

This article is randomly decorated with pictures from the many sections of the [same] book.

* * *


The discovery of gold brought thousands clamoring to the muddy shores of the shallow indentation known as Yerba Buena Cove, which extended in an arc from the foot of Telegraph Hill to the present Montgomery Street and around to the foot of Rincon Hill.

One of the first acts of the newcomers as a corporate body was to begin grading away the sand hills along Market Street and dumping them into the mud flats of the cove. The project was many years in completion. Before it was finished, about 1873, they had already begun building a sea wall several blocks east of the shoreline so that ships could unload directly upon the wharves without the aid of a lighter.

The construction of the sea wall, a stupendous project for its time, took many decades to complete. A trench 60 feet wide was dredged along the line of the proposed water front, and tons of rock blasted from Telegraph Hill were dumped into it from lighters and scows.

The rocks were allowed to seek bed-rock of their own free weight; when settling ceased, a layer of concrete two feet thick and ten feet wide was laid on top of the resulting embankment.

While this work was going on, the reclamation of the mud-flats and shallows of the original cove was progressing. Some of the city’s lesser hills were dumped bodily into the area between the old water front and the new sea wall until the business and financial district of lower Market Street—everything east of Montgomery Street—arose from the sea.

Agitation for rail connections to link the Bay with the outside world had begun as early as 1849. By 1851, $100,000 worth of stock had been sold for a projected line between San Francisco and San Jose. Three Successive Companies achieved little; but the fourth not only reached Menlo Park, but extended its line down the Peninsula to San Jose and was completed January 16, 1864.

September of 1863 had seen completion of the San Francisco and Oakland Railroad Company’s line from downtown Oakland to the Oakland ferry wharf.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s “Big Four” were pushing their Central Pacific rails over the mountains to join the Union Pacific in Utah. The first transcontinental railroad, completed in May 1869, extended only as far west as Sacramento.

But the “Big Four,” [area financers] determined that San Francisco should be the focal point of a country-wide network of railroad lines, systematically acquired control over every means of entry to the Bay region from all directions.

Having bought a short railroad between Sacramento and San Jose, they built a branch to Oakland, purchased the two local roads connecting Oakland and Alameda with the East Bay water front; and taking over another line between Sacramento and Vallejo, they extended it to Benicia, where they inaugurated ferry service to carry their trains across Suisun Bay, installing the world’s largest ferryboat for the purpose.

Finally they bought the San Francisco and San Jose Line. The Bay was encompassed by the tracks of the “Big Four.”

“The railroad has furnished the backing for a great city,” reported the San Francisco ’Bulletin,’ “and the need now is for a thousand miles of local railroads in California.”

The four went about answering the need. They completed a line southward to Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley on September , 1876. Their monopoly of rail transportation was unchallenged until completion in 1898 of a competing line financed by popular subscription, which was sold in the same year to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad Company.

The Big Four,” meanwhile, were gradually extending the original San Francisco and San Jose line until in 1901 it stretched all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. On August 22, 1910 the Western Pacific line from Oakland through Niles Canyon, Stockton, Sacramento, and the Feather River Canyon to Salt Lake City was opened to traffic.

By Joint agreement in 1904 the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe a group of short lines in the northern coast counties—including the San Francisco and North Pacific from Tiburon to Sherwood and the North Shore from Sausalito to Cazadero—into one line extending from the tip of the Marin Peninsula northward to Trinidad, near Humboldt Bay, finally opened November 17, 1914.

Meanwhile a growing San Francisco had spread beyond the limits set for it in the imagination of its first settlers. Tycoons of mine, ship, and railroad began to build grotesque, grey wooden mansions, tired-looking beneath their burdens of architectural bric-a-brac, on the city’s highest elevations.

Cable Cars Ascending Greenwich Street, 1884.

They then were confronted with a new, and purely local, problem of transportation—that of devising a vehicle capable of surmounting hills too steep for horses.

The result was the invention, by local manufacturer Andrew S. Hallidie, of the cable car. The inaugural trip of the first car, over the newly laid line on Clay Street between Kearny and Jones Streets, was a civic event. On the morning of August 2, 1873, the unfinished car was sent down the hill and back.

That afternoon a public trial trip was made: many people climbed into and upon the car, which was intended to hold only 14, but in spite of the overload, it literally made the grade. Thirty days afterward the line was put into regular operation.

The principle of cable traction was not new. The crowning engineering achievement lay in adapting it to street transportation—in solving the problem of how to make a moving cable follow the contour of the street and how to devise a grip which could not tear the cable apart by too sudden a jerk.

The cars promised in their day to become the prevailing type of public conveyance in all of America’s larger cities. They still survive in the city of their birth, an antique touch in a streamlined world.

Before introduction of the cable car, horse cars and omnibuses had been the prevailing means of street transportation. The first such line, starting in 1852, had been the Yellow Line, a half-hourly omnibus service which carried 18 passengers at a fare of 50¢ apiece from Clay and Kearny Streets out the Mission Street plank toll road to Mission Dolores.

In 1862 the first street railroad on the Pacific Coast had begun providing service from North Beach to South Park.

A steam railway began operation on Market Street in 1863, but sand and rain repeatedly filled the cuts, and omnibuses constantly obstructed the tracks and in 1867 horse cars were substituted.

Even after cable car tracks were installed on Market Street (hence the name South of the Slot for the district south of Market) a horse car line paralleled them until 1906.

An electric line was in operation on Eddy Street as early as 1900. In 1902 began the unification of all the city’s lines, except the California Street cable, into one system, which became the Market Street Railway Company.

The opening of the Municipal Railway—first city-owned street railway system in the United States and second in the world—in 1912 began an era of competition which lasted until 1944, when the two systems were merged into a single municipally owned and operated network.

Geary Street Cable Cars, 1890’s.

On September 22, 1853, the consciously progressive city by the Golden Gate had made another—and very different—stride toward conquering the distances that lay between the communities of men.

On that date was opened for use the first electric telegraph on the Pacific slope, connecting the San Francisco Merchants’ Exchange with six-mile-distant Point Lobos. It was built to announce the arrival of vessels at the Gate (previously signalled to the town by the arms of the giant semaphore atop Telegraph Hill).

Two days later, James Gamble started out from San Francisco with a party of six men to put up wire for the California State Telegraph Company, which had obtained a franchise from the Legislature for a telegraph from San Francisco to Marysville by way of San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento.

On September 25th the wire was in place. On October 24, 1861, the first direct messages between New York and San Francisco passed over the wires of the first transcontinental telegraph line.

One year after Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone, in 1876, Frederick Marriott, Sr., publisher of the San Francisco ’NewsLetter,’ had a wire installed between his office and his home. In February 1878 the American Speaking Telephone Company began regular service with 18 subscribers.

Soon afterwards the National Bell Telephone Company offered competition. The early switchboard consisted of two boards affixed to the wall, each with a row of brass clips into which holes were drilled to receive the plugs making the connections.

In the National Bell Telephone Company’s office, bells above these boards notified the operator of a call. Since the bells sounded exactly alike, however, a string had to be attached to each bell tapper and a cork to each string; the antics of the cork called the attention of the operator to the line that demanded attention.

How to utilize a steep hill. Lombard Street during construction of escalating road, 1922.
Lombard Street today.

On January 25, 1915, the first transcontinental telephone line was opened. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell in New York spoke to his former employee, Thomas Watson, in San Francisco, repeating his sentence of an even more memorable occasion: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you I” The occasion marked the culmination of the city’s sixtyfive-year history of demanding—and getting—direct communication with the centers of the East.

A still greater stride in communication was made on December 13, 1902, when the shore end of the first transpacific cable was laid in San Francisco by the Commercial Pacific Cable Company (organized in 1883 by Comstock king John W. Mackay).

A more homely problem—a vexatious one for San Francisco since 1849—was that of its water supply. In early years water had been brought from Mann County on rafts and retailed at a dollar a bucket.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, local sources of supply were exploited by private companies. When these failed to keep pace with the requirements of the rapidly growing metropolis, the City and County of San Francisco began in 1914, after a long and bitter struggle with monopolistic interests, the construction of the Hetch-Hetchy system.

Heart of the system is O’Shaughnessy Dam, towering 430 feet high across the granite-walled course of the Tuolomne River, high in the Sierra Nevada in Yosemite National Park. The mountain waters impounded are piped to San Francisco by gravity through tunnels and steel pipes over 163 miles of mountains and valleys.

Besides the main dam and reservoir at Hetch-Hetchy, the system includes a number of subsidiary storage reservoirs and power stations with a combined capacity of more than 150,000 horsepower.

The dam was completed in 1923, the aqueduct in 1934.

The East Bay, too, had been faced with a similar situation regarding its water. From several wells in the vicinity and the surface run-off of San Pablo and San Leandro Creeks the region long had drawn a water supply whose quality was impaired by the inflow of salt water from the Bay and whose quantity was estimated at about one-sixth of that soon to be required.

In the same year the O’Shaughnessy Dam was completed to impound waters for thirsty San Franciscans, the East Bay Municipal Utility District was organized. Eight years later it had completed the 358-foot-high Pardee Dam on the Mokelumne River in the Sierra foothills, a 98-mile aqueduct, two subsidiary aqueducts, and auxiliary storage reservoirs.

City Hall and St. Ignatius School after the fire, 1906.

Long before the waters of the Sierra Nevada were generating power to light the homes of the Bay region—on the evening of July 4, 1876—Reverend Father Joseph M. Neri presented electricity to San Franciscans, operating on the roof of St. Ignatius College three large French arc searchlights with an old generator that had seen service during the siege of Paris in 1871.

This was an occasion surpassing even the lighting of the city’s first gas lamps on February 11, 1854—illumination provided by gas manufactured from Australian coal by the San Francisco Gas Company (first of its kind on the Pacific Coast).

George H. Roe, a local money broker whose interest in electricity had been aroused when he found himself owner of a dynamo taken as security for a loan, organized in 1879 the California Electric Light Company and erected a generating station on a small lot near the corner of Fourth and Market Streets.

Early consumers paid $10 a week for 2,000 candlepower of light—which was turned off promptly at midnight. By 1900 a number of other companies had been organized.

Through a merger of two of the largest, in 1905, was incorporated the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which now operates two steam-electric generating stations in San Francisco and six across the Bay. One of the latter, near Pittsburg, generates over 600,000 kws. of power, quite enough to supply two cities the size of San Francisco.

By 1958 the company—already one of the largest public utility companies in the world, had thirteen steam-generating plants and 62 hydroelectric plants scattered from the Kern River in the south to the Pitt River in the north, with a total installed capacity exceeding three-and-one-half million horsepower.

And to meet the growing needs of the 89,000 square miles it serves today, the company is exploring the use of atomic energy for additional generating plants.

In the meantime, San Francisco’s hills again had proven to be—and this time literally—stumbling blocks to the city’s progress; for, as they halted further expansion, the town became cramped for space.

Answer to the new problem was the construction of a series of five railway tunnels known as the Bay Shore Cutoff; completed in 1907, they brought the Peninsula towns within commuting distance of “the city” and opened up a large new residential area.

In 1914 the city’s North Beach section was made more easily accessible by a tunnel driven through Nob Hill on Stockton Street.

Two years later the completion of the 24-mile Twin Peaks Tunnel provided a short-cut to the district west of Twin Peaks, doubled the city’s potential residential area, and brought a rich financial return to property owners, business men, and real estate promoters.

Looking south from the summit of Twin Peaks, circa 1940’s.

Another tunnel was bored to carry streetcars under Buena Vista Heights.

By the third decade of the twentieth century the fast-growing East Bay communities were confronted, as San Francisco had been, by the need of making similar improvements on nature.

In 1928 a $4.5 million automobile and pedestrian tube was laid beneath the Oakland Estuary to connect Oakland with the island city, Alameda.

The Posey Tube (named for its designer and engineer) is unusual in that it is constructed of twelve prefabricated tubular sections, 37 feet in outer diameter, which were “corked,” towed across the Bay, and sunk into a great trench dredged on the bottom of the estuary. The center one of the tube’s three horizontal sections accommodates traffic; the lowest is a fresh air duct; the uppermost, an outlet for foul air.

More than 1,000 men toiled three years to build the impressive Broadway Tunnel connecting East Bay cities with Contra Costa County, which cost $4.5 million before its completion in 1937. This twin-bore automobile tunnel was expanded recently to accommodate traffic on the newly-constructed freeway system linking the many suburban communities east of the Berkeley Hills to one another and to the vast Complex of the metropolitan Bay Area—a project not yet complete but already one of the most ambitious in urban America.

But when engineers had created a city where mud flats had been, had surmounted the hills of that city and the hills and valleys of the region beyond, had learned to talk over miles of wires and harnessed mountain streams to provide drinking water and electricity for a people, they had still to span the great body of water on whose shores the people lived.

View across City and Bay from Lookout Point.

Not until 1927 was the Bay first bridged when the narrowest width at its extreme southern end was crossed by the Dumbarton Drawbridge, connecting San Mateo and Alameda Counties.

Carquinez Strait, the narrow entrance from San Pablo Bay to Suisun Bay, was next to be spanned.

Carquinez Bridge is a tribute to the imagination and determination of two business men—Avon Hanford and Oscar Klatt. In 1923 their company secured a toll bridge franchise and—despite the admonitions of engineer and layman that the water was too deep and swift to permit a bridge at the site—construction was begun.

In 1927 the $8 million structure was opened to traffic. The great double pier rests on sandstone and blue clay at a depth of 135 feet below mean water level, over which the steel construction towers, for four-fifths of a mile, 314 feet above the strait.

March 3, 1929, saw completion of what was then the longest highway bridge in the world—the twelve-mile San Mateo Toil Bridge, crossing seven miles of water a few miles north of the Dumbarton Bridge. A new, freeway-speed enlargement of the bridge was opened for traffic in 1968, significantly expanding its capacity and sharply reducing travel time between the shores of the southern Bay.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was opened in November, 1936. It has six lanes for westbound traffic on its upper deck and six lanes for eastbound traffic on its lower deck. Its length, including all approaches, is more than eight miles. Clearance above water at the central pier is 216 feet, sufficient to clear the mast of the largest ships.

The west crossing—between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island—consisting of two suspension bridges anchored in the center to a concrete pier, is unique in bridge construction; it is so built that the roadway forms a single smooth arc.

Connecting the east and west crossings is the largest diameter tunnel in the world, blasted through Yerba Buena Island’s 140 acres of rock. It is 76 feet wide and 58 feet high; through it an upright four-story building could be towed.

Three pioneer tunnels were bored through the rock and then broken out until they became one horseshoe-shaped excavation. A viaduct 540 feet long was constructed 20 feet from the floor of the tunnel to carry the wide roadbed of the bridge’s upper deck.

The extraordinary depth of the bedrock to which concrete supports for the towers had to be sunk through water and clay presented bridge builders with an exceptional problem. To solve the problem, engineers devised a new system of lowering the domed caissons, controlled by compressed air.

In the case of the east tower pier of the east crossing, bedrock lay at such a depth that it could not be reached. The foundations were laid at a depth greater than any ever before attained in bridge building.

In 1965 the State Department of Public Works engaged in reconstruction that further increased the usefulness of the bridge.

The Skyline from Alcatraz.

Six months after the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, San Francisco was linked to the northern Bay shore by the world’s longest single span, the Golden Gate Bridge. It measures 4,200 feet between the two towers and 8,940 feet in all. Its towers rise 746 feet above high tide; its center span, 220 feet above high water.

The tops of the towers rise above the waters of the Golden Gate to the height of a 65-story building.

Most spectacular feat in the bridge’s construction was the building of the south tower’s foundation. Because of the swift tidal flow at this point, spanning the Golden Gate had long been considered impossible. Working on barges tossed continually by swells as high as 15 feet, seasick workmen built from bedrock a huge concrete fender completely enclosing the site. Inside this fender, which later became part of the structure, caissons were sunk.

When the two towers were finished, workmen clambering along catwalks strung between them spun the giant cables from tower to tower. Into the spinning of each of the cables (which measure 36 1/2 inches in diameter) went 27,572 strands of wire no thicker than a lead pencil.

To support them, each tower has to carry a vertical load of 210 million pounds from each cable and each shore anchorage block to withstand a pull of 63 million pounds. From these cables the bridge was suspended by traveler derricks invented to perform jobs of this kind.

Close-Up emphasizing unfinished bridge from previous photo, "View of United States naval vessels leaving San Francisco Bay, 1935."

At about the time the two bridges were being woven into the Bay region’s design of living, Treasure Island was rising from the rocky shoals just north of Yerba Buena Island. An outline of the island-to-be was drawn in tons of quarried rock. Inside it were dumped 20 million cubic feet of sand and mud dredged from the bottom of the Bay.

When the job was completed a 400-acre island was ready for the $50 million Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. Shortly after the Exposition closed, the island was taken over by the United States Navy as a training and embarkation center, which function it serves today.

Postwar development saw the rise of the metropolitan Bay Area’s expansive freeway system which today laces all of the region’s counties in a high-speed network of communication. Nor have only functional needs been considered. Oakland’s graceful MacArthur Freeway was recently declared the most beautiful freeway in the United States.

An even more dramatic chapter in the history of Bay Area engineering has been the development of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a billion-dollar, 75-mile public transport system planned to link all the major Cities of San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties. A 3.3-mile twin bore tunnel through the Berkeley Hills and a four-mile tube beneath the Bay, are of themselves astounding engineering feats.

A new era in transportation opened when airplanes took over the passenger business of the railroads and motor trucks preempted their freight. A great international port developed at San Francisco, handling more than 700,000 passengers a year.

Commuter flights connected the Oakland and San Mateo-Sunnyvale airports with San Francisco and helicopters served intermediate needs. The multiplication of executive planes added substantially to the extent of air fields, and warehouses went up to store cargo.

New technical devices were applied. Air communication and transportation were ready for the 21st century.

Ruins of two churches on California Street after the fire 1906.
The Observatory, Pleasure Resort, 1883. Burned July 25, 1903.
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