Before the the proliferation of the motor car created a demand for bridges, ferries were the big news, as witnessed by the crowd of newsreel cameramen and press photographers on hand to record the launching of the ferry Santa Rosa in 1927.
The 251-foot, steel-hulled, diesel-electric-powered auto ferry was the first of three ordered that year by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad to keep up with the traffic demand for crossing San Francisco Bay. The Mendocino and the Redwood Empire would be completed in the months to come.
The launch was a gala event. Several hundred of Santa Rosa's residents took a special train to Sausalito, where the steamer Tamalpais, with a 15-piece band playing on deck, took them to the Alameda boatyard where the Santa Rosa stood ready.
Mayor John Overton and Frank Doyle, perennial president of the Chamber of Commerce, spoke to the crowd, and 12-year-old Jean Ayers, chosen as Miss Santa Rosa for the occasion, broke the ceremonial bottle across the giant bow and sent the boat down its way into history. (It should be noted that the bottle contained not champagne but grape juice, since 1927 was eight years into the nation's ill-fated experiment in morality known as Prohibition.)
It was understandable that a new ferry could create more than a ripple on the pond. Every trip to San Francisco or the East Bay was a boat ride. The Southern Pacific ferries between Oakland and San Francisco carried as many as 5,000 passengers per trip.
But their days were numbered. The Santa Rosa and her sister ships worked the bay for just 11 years. In 1938, the year after the Golden Gate Bridge was opened (and two years after the Bay Bridge), the railroad, which had waged all-out war against the Golden Gate Bridge project, admitted defeat, discontinued its ferry service and, in 1940, sold its three newest boats to the Puget Sound Navigation Co. of Seattle, where the Santa Rosa became the Enetai.
The Enetai stayed on the Seattle-Bremerton run for three decades. In 1968, Washington State Ferries sold the boat, and she returned to San Francisco Bay with her original name restored. She is owned by Hornblower Yachts, anchored at Pier 3 on the Embarcadero, and has recently embarked on quite a different sort of trip - a musical voyage in uncharted seas.
AS HER 80th birthday approaches, the Santa Rosa has become a concert hall. Or, at least, one end of her has. The offshore bow of the ferry - with 16 tall windows enclosing the auto deck and overlooking the bay - provides a 160-seat space for chamber music and jazz performances. What was once the queen of the fleet that plied a bay without bridges in the 1920s and '30s is the venue for the first concerts of a nonprofit called FerryMusic.
The Santa Rosa's current musical interlude is San Francisco's answer to New York's Bargemusic, impresario Olga Bloom's highly successful floating concert venue at the Fulton Ferry landing near the Brooklyn Bridge.
FerryMusic's founder is Jane MacLean, a most interesting woman who is a pianist, teacher, novelist and playwright. She has lived in both Paris and London, was project director of the American-Soviet Youth Symphony in the 1980s and worked at the United Nations in New York, where she experienced Bloom's floating concerts.