San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam

I’ve spent the last few days relaxing at my friend Scott Constable’s rural retreat in Sebastapol. Scott and Ene are in Sheboygan working on their residency at Kohler and kindly invited us to chook-sit and enjoy their wonderful house and garden.

San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam

I’ve spent a chunk of my time reading San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam. Gilliam was a journalist with the SF Chronicle and published this fascinating piece of what would now be called Environmental Journalism in 1957 (the year of my birth). He has an illustrious career of journalism and authorship and the Bay Institute named their “Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting” in his honor.

Gilliam’s book is a incisive snapshot of Bayarea mid-last century. A potent mix of factual reporting and poetic writing with just a pinch of coldwar jingoism for flavor.

I was particularly drawn to his chapter on the age of ferries on the Bay.

“For more than three generations bay are residents by the tens of thousands sailed across the bay to work in San Francisco every morning and back again at night. But the ferry ride was far more than a means of getting to the job. It was a twice-daily social period, a convivial gathering, a respite in the day’s routine only remotely approximated by the modern coffee break or cocktail hour. In more than a figurative sense the passenger ferries were floating clubhouses. The regular commuters were members of well-defined in-groups with long established totems, taboos and folkways.

The Daily Voyage

Each scheduled sailing had its own clan of passengers who caught the same boat at the same time, observing the same rituals, every working day in the year… They rushed down the loading ramps a few minutes before sailing time and some habitually went into the dining room for breakfast or to the lunch counter for coffee, others to the main cabin of the boat. Each had his regular seat, reserved for him not by any legal right but by immemorial custom – a tradition violated by a newcomer only at the risk of ostracism. The supreme offense was to take a seat left vacant by a commuter who recently had made his last long journey into the fog.” 


“They ought to bring back the ferries” is an inevitable observation whenever the traffic congestion on the bridges is discussed… Officials claim that the return of the commuter ferries would be uneconomical. They assert that the demand to bring back the boats – like the fight to preserve San Francisco’s cable cars – is motivated more by sentiment than hard-headed analysis of the economics of transportation. In this respect they may be right. But it is understandable that sentiment plays a part in the attitude of bay area residents towards the  ferries. for the boats were a unique social institution. Admittedly they lacked speed and efficiency, but they also lacked some other elements of more modern transportation – the high-tension frenzy of rush-hour car commuting, the nerve-fraying lane-to-lane-infighting among drivers who know each other not as human beings but only by make and model…

The intimate experience of the boat ride, of the bay and its changing beauty created a mood of easygoing friendliness, geniality and camaraderie which undoubtedly helped mold the character of the community. Quite possibly San Francisco’s reputation as a city of serenity and vision is due inn some degree to the effect on three generations of that twice daily journey across the waters.”

This description of congested bridge traffic is from more than 50 YEARS AGO!!

All in all its a great read from front to cover. I recommend picking up a copy!

Thanks Scott. And thank you Mr. Gilliam.  91 this year!!

Harold Gilliam


  1. Hey Donald- So glad you found that book and enjoyed it so! I hope you took it along with you. It was wonderful to arrive home to a cozy fire and a pot full of Sandra’s famous Tom Kah Gai still warm on the stove! Thanks so much for tending the chickens, cats and bunny and keeping the home fires burning while we were in Sheboygan. Our journey home was challenging, with delayed flights and rough weather, but we were happy to reconnect with Miss Aili in San Francisco, pick up Luna at the kennel and arrive safely home. Look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks- Scott


    1. Scott.
      Welcome home and thanks for the update on Depcraft.
      It sounds like you had an inspiring time.
      And thanks once more for letting is in on your little slice of paradise.
      We are inspired and relaxed after a sweet weekend.


  2. Donald, It sounds like a neat book. I remember his writings in the Chronicle. I have taken my bike on the Sausalito ferry several times recently. What is neat about the bay is it is wild. Riding a ferry is still social. People are friendly on boats. You get big views. In a kayak, it is wilderness local to you. Paddling along the shore is also like taking the train down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. You see the decrepit industrial backside of SF. I am to soon start volunteering at the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. A way of teaching and learning a new form of high level making, with kids, on the bay, while encouraging environmental sensitivity. What’s not to like?


    1. Thanks John.
      Its ben ages since I’ve been kayaking. I used to rent out of CCK in Jack London square and head over to Yerba Buena Island through the Alameda estuary past all the behemoth container ships most weeks. You’re right, the ‘wilderness’ of the Bay is still just outside our door. You just gotta look. The ferries just mapped that wilderness experience on to the daily commute – a great thing. Where else can you see wild whales while commuting to your desk job?
      COngratulations on working with the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. That’s a great opportunity to meld your interests and expertise while inspiring a whole new generation of Bayareans! My hat is off to you! I must check them out.


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