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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.

MacLean, a widow who lives in Tiburon now, came home to the Bay Area after 25 years of adventures, bringing with her dreams of a public benefit, nonprofit organization that would establish the first floating classical and jazz venue on the West Coast. It is a gift, she says, to San Francisco and the Bay Area.

FerryMusic held its inaugural concert in October with both a Brahms trio and a jazz performance, proving that the Santa Rosa provides a unique space, not unlike the parlor concerts of the Victorian era, for not only the entertainment of residents and tourists but as a musical classroom for young people.

Back-to-back concerts in April drew rave reviews from the dean of Bay Area music critics, Robert Commanday, who celebrated FerryMusic as a "burst of San Francisco optimism, fresh and buoyant. ...

It worked well, this first time off the dock. ... Even the slow rise, fall and swaying motion of the boat was gentle and pleasant ... the outgoing tide having encouraged the action toward the end of the Brahms. I found it comforting. So far

so good."

May and June concerts featured members of the San Francisco Symphony as well as jazz performers Clairdee and Ken French. There are two more summer concerts scheduled. On Saturday, San Francisco jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin (who is also a practicing psychiatrist) will perform his "Solo Voyage," and July 29 pianist Eric Zivian, violinist Melissa Kleinbart and cellist Tanya Tomkins will perform Debussy's Preludes and Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor. (Tickets are available at City Box Office.)

THE RECYCLING of old ferries is not a new idea. Sausalito artist Jean Varda and friends got a lot of press for their "Beat" lifestyle on the converted ferry Vallejo and other vessels; and the San Francisco waterfront is dotted with ferries converted to office space, especially for architects.

The Santa Rosa's tenure was shorter than most. The Golden Gate Bridge was, of course, a beginning for many things that changed the North Coast, from automobile tourism to roadside attractions to billboards and traffic jams. But it also was an end for train travel and the glory years of the ferry boats.

The ferries were astonishingly dependable, even when the seas ran high. A 1927 timetable indicates that there was a boat every 40 minutes from San Quentin to Richmond and every half-hour from Sausalito to San Francisco.

Daily commuters were rare but not unheard of. Readers may remember a column a couple of years back with the story of Oliver Clay Hopkins of Petaluma who became notable in the press for his commute from Petaluma to San Francisco by train and ferry, an odyssey that began in 1893 when he was a 20-year-old messenger and ended with his retirement from his prosperous insurance brokerage.

Every working day for 46 years, Hopkins (the grandfather of former Sonoma County legislator and alternative transit supporter Virginia Strom-Martin) caught the first "down" train at the Petaluma station at 7:15 a.m., rode to the ferry slip - first in Tiburon, later in Sausalito - and arrived at his Financial District office at or very near 9 a.m. At the end of his workday, he caught the 5:15 p.m. ferry, connecting to the last "up" train, and arrived home at or very near 7 p.m. He never learned to drive a car.

Some would say it was an unintended consequence of the bridges (or, more precisely, of the automobile) that such convenient "rapid transit" has come to an end.

In a 1998 video history for the Sonoma County Museum, Art Volkerts, editor of The Press Democrat for more than 30 years and a lifelong resident of Sonoma County, recalled the comfort, ease and relative speed of the late 1920s trips from his ranch home near Sebastopol to his grandmother's house in San Jose. It didn't take much longer, he said, than the trip would take today in heavy traffic.

"When I was a boy, about 8 years old, my mother would take me and my sister, Lorena, to visit her mother. ... My father took us to the Hessel station where we caught the P&SR (Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railway), the old Toonerville Trolley electric car with its old wicker seats. One man ran the whole thing. At the Petaluma station we took our bags and got on the NWP, which took us to the ferry slip in Sausalito for the trip to the Ferry Building, where we walked over to a Southern Pacific train, which took us to the San Jose station and another trolley that took us to within a block of my grandmother's house.

"We talk about rapid transit. We had it then. We've lost it. We let it get away."

IN THE SEATTLE area, where distance means that bridges are generally not an option, the auto ferries still prevail. While the old Santa Rosa is making music, her sisters, the former Mendocino and Redwood Empire, are still at work, despite some close calls.

The Mendocino, renamed the Nisqually, almost didn't make it to Seattle in 1940, coming desperately close to foundering in a winter storm. In 1962, she was rammed by a freighter in a Puget Sound fog. In 1987, Washington State Ferries rebuilt her, and she now serves as a relief boat on the San Juan Islands run.

The Redwood Empire became the Quinault and was rebuilt in the '80s. Despite running aground near the Keystone Terminal in 2002, she still is in service.

But neither of them sounds as good, it's fair to say, as the old Santa Rosa.