SAN DIEGO Scrapped In Northern California


1931 – 2012

Scrapped in Northern California

By Shawn J. Dake

The San Diego & Coronado Ferry SAN DIEGO against the backdrop of her namesake city. The city was much smaller in those days. The bow of the sailing ship STAR OF INDIA is visible tied up along the Embarcadero. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.

A historic ferry that was a fixture in Southern California for many years is no more. The diesel-electric powered m.v. SAN DIEGO was scrapped in the Northern California city of Alameda, not far from where she was originally constructed in 1931 by the Moore Drydock Company in Oakland. The 81-year old ferry served on San Diego Bay from 1931 until 1969 shuttling vehicles and passengers between her namesake city and Coronado, frequently referred to as an island, although it technically is a peninsula connected to the mainland by the Silver Strand to the south. On August 3, 1969 the San Diego – Coronado Bridge opened to traffic instantly rendering the SAN DIEGO and her four fleet mates obsolete. That might have spelled the end of her sea-going career but a new life in waters far from the sunny southwest awaited her. The ferry was purchased by the Olympic Navigation Company for service between Port Townsend and Keystone Landing on Whidbey Island in the State of Washington. The SAN DIEGO retained her name and from 1970 until 1974 operated on the route for Olympic Ferries, Inc., until that company’s demise. When Washington State Ferries took over the route, the docking facilities were retained but the aging SAN DIEGO was not.

The m.v. SAN DIEGO during the early 1970's while in service for Olympic Ferries in Washington State, approaching Keystone Landing. Postcard from the collection of Shawn J. Dake.

Although she would never sail again with passengers, the story of the SAN DIEGO was far from over. Many colorful schemes and an equal number of disappointments would await her in the intervening 38 years before her end finally came. From Washington, the ship headed farther north to Vancouver, British Columbia where she languished for many years. The plan was to rebuild her into a paddle-wheel excursion vessel with the improbable name of “Klondike Queen.” A name board was affixed to her pilothouse but no other changes were made and she remained in her previous livery. The closest the ferry came to returning to service was in 1979 after the bridge over the Hood Canal sank in a storm. Washington State Ferries inspected her again, but determined that repairs to the old boat would be too costly and passed on her a second time.

The SAN DIEGO in 1978 during the long years of lay up at Vancouver, B.C. The name KLONDIKE QUEEN has been attached to her pilothouse. Photo by Steven J. Pickens,

As frequently happens with retired ships, preservationists and entrepreneurs come up with plans which the majority of the time do not work. In the case of the SAN DIEGO there was genuine interest in returning her to Coronado with the intention of converting the vessel into a floating dinner theater. In 1984, the topic became a heated political issue in the campaign for mayor with the side for preservation coming out on the losing end. Over the years there continued to be idealistic dreams of the ferry returning to her ancestral home to become a museum showcasing Coronado history.

The m.v. SAN DIEGO after her return to California. The image shows the vessel at Antioch, California circa 1994 when the plan was to convert her into Huckleberry's Restaurant on the water. The banner on the top deck reads "Antioch, Thanks For The Home!" From the collection of Shawn J. Dake.

Finally, in 1994, the SAN DIEGO did find her way home to California but in a much different location, towed up the Sacramento River to the city of Antioch. The plan was to convert her into Huckleberry’s Restaurant on the water. A banner attached to her railings on the top deck read “Antioch, Thanks For The Home!” It might have come to pass, but the conversion process was slow and in the late 1990’s, a fire gutted much of her passenger cabin. Eventually the welcome wore out and the ferry was towed away from Antioch to a slough called Horseshoe Bend on the southern tip of Decker Island farther up the Sacramento River. There she was abandoned and left to vandals and the elements. Beyond the broken windows, rust and chipping paint the exterior still retained the classic look of a notable pre-war ferry. The name SAN DIEGO remained on her side above the car deck while below the name of her original operator San Diego & Coronado Ferry Co. remained immortalized just above the hull.

The old SAN DIEGO sits abandoned at Decker Island along the Sacramento River surrounded by new wind technology. Photograph © Bruce Muirhead.
A photo taken on February 15, 2012 after the ferry had been towed to Mare Island clearly showing the fire damaged area on the upper deck. Photograph © 2012 by Frank Cleope, Jr.
The SAN DIEGO photographed against the backdrop of buildings on Mare Island, February 15, 2012. Photograph © 2012 by Frank Cleope, Jr.

By 2011, the California State Lands Commission became the final owner of the ferry and their goal was not preservation. Part of their mission is to clear the California Delta of derelict vessels and the SAN DIEGO certainly qualified as one. The interior was a mess with little of her original features remaining. All brass and anything else of value was gone. A hodgepodge of drywall from the various attempts at refurbishment blended in-harmoniously with what remained of her original woodwork. A shell of her former self, there was almost nothing left to save. The SAN DIEGO had died long ago; now it was only a matter of disposing of the corpse.

The wooden structure of the ferry below the pilothouse, during the last days while it was still intact. Photographed on February 21, 2012 by Frank Cleope, Jr.
One of the last photographs taken onboard the SAN DIEGO. Partially burned and completely desecrated. Photo © 2012 by Frank Cleope, Jr.
Old wood and newer walls and what remained of the passenger cabin on February 21, 2012. Photo © 2012 by Frank Cleope, Jr.

Early in 2012 she was towed downriver for the final time to Mare Island, where she remained for a couple weeks. After a short delay, on March 1st the vessel arrived without advance notice and no fanfare at the Bay Ship and Yacht Company in Alameda, where dismantling would take place. Work started on Friday March 9th and less than a week later nearly all of her wooden superstructure was gone. The final destruction of the steel hull will be completed in their dry dock once it is cut down enough to fit.

The SAN DIEGO being broken up on March 15, 2012. Photo © 2012 by Frank Cleope, Jr.

The SAN DIEGO is now history but before we leave her to the memories of the thousands of passengers who enjoyed a trip aboard, it is fitting to share for the last time, a few of the statistics that made the vessel what she was. Built in 1931, the SAN DIEGO was 191.4 feet long. Her beam was 43.6 feet and her draft 14.1 feet. Gross tonnage was 556 tons. Propeller driven, the diesel-electric vessel had three engines generating 350 Horse Power each.

Rolling in the deep. Why an open-sided bay ferry should not be on the open ocean. Taken aboard the SAN DIEGO on her delivery voyage from Oakland in 1931, courtesy of the Coronado Public Library

The SAN DIEGO was essentially an enlarged version of her near-sister the 178-foot long CORONADO of 1929, although they were frequently referred to as “the twins.” When the ferries stopped running in San Diego the CORONADO was eventually sold to foreign interests in Nicaragua, which in itself makes for another fascinating tale. That vessel ended her days wrecked and abandoned on the beach at Cosiguina. Both the SAN DIEGO and CORONADO were similar in design to the “Steel Electric” ferries built in 1927 that first worked on San Francisco Bay and later went north to Washington State. The major difference being the open-sided car deck worked well in the warmer climate of Southern California while the northern vessels had their lower deck enclosed with windows. The main passenger cabin was one deck above with staircases on both ends leading up from the vehicle deck. There was a single funnel midships with dual pilothouses on either end of the uppermost deck. There are of course still many ferries in the world ranging from small boats to huge ships. But the era of classic vessels like the SAN DIEGO from the 1920’s and 1930’s has almost completely vanished. There was a certain charm and a unique atmosphere aboard these vessels which had their own sights, sounds and even smells. It is hoped that stories like this will help those old enough to remember, and those too young to have experienced them to learn, what life was like on these vessels of the past. Goodbye m.v. SAN DIEGO.

The SAN DIEGO in home waters during her heyday. From the collection of Steven J. Pickens.

Thanks to Frank Cleope, Jr., Martin Cox and Steven J. Pickens.

For more information on the San Diego – Coronado ferries please visit:


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Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake

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