Echos of Streetcars In An Historic Venue

If you were to stand on the corner of Shattuck and University Avenue in Berkeley and needed to get to the San Francisco Ferry Building, how long would it take to travel those 12.3 miles? If you had a car, it would take about 25 minutes. Well… without traffic, that is. If you were leaving at any time other than 4am in the morning. it would take closer to 40 minutes. If you hopped on a passing AC Transit bus, you’re looking at 50 minutes. If you walked down to Bart, about 25 minutes, pretty reliably. 

An early map of the Key System routes

An early map of the Key System routes

Now imagine it’s 1903…  before Bart, before AC Transit, before the Bay Bridge was even a dream. Now how long do you think it would take to get to the SF Ferry building? An hour? Two hours?

The answer: 35 minutes.

The Key System Mole and Ferry Terminal

The Key System Mole and Ferry Terminal

In 35 minutes you could hop onto a streetcar run by the Key System that would follow a rail south on Shattuck onto Ashby and then make a left under where the Nimitz interchange currently stands. It would continue east past the shore and onto a wharf that extended deep into the San Francisco Bay, almost two thirds of the way to Yerba Buena island. There you would transfer onto a ferry that would go straight to the SF Ferry Building. Because the Key System used such a long pier, more of the trip was on rail as opposed to the slower ferries, making the trip minutes faster than the competing line from Southern Pacific.

For 50 years, the Key System was the way to get around the East Bay. In 1893, Borax king Francis Marion Smith started purchasing and consolidating railroads and streetcar lines throughout the rapidly expanding East Bay. By 1903, service began on a network of ferryboats and electric trains, connecting the patchwork of neighborhoods and providing a fast route to San Francisco. The Key System Mole (aka Pier) and Ferry Terminal was a crucial juncture, located just where the Bay Bridge is anchored today (in fact, the Bay Bridge was built on top of landfill originally built for the Key System Mole).

In 1933 two fires (one of suspicious origin) broke out on the Mole, consuming the slips and a chunk of the fleet, ultimately causing over 1.25 million dollars in damage. A few years later, the Bay Bridge was completed and in 1939 ferry service was replaced by streetcars running across the lower deck of the new bridge.

IERBYS aka The Bridge Yard

IERBYS aka The Bridge Yard

It’s around this time when a new facility was built at the base of the bridge. Called the Inter-urban Electric Rail Bridge Yard Shop (or IERBYS for short) the facility was dedicated to storing, repairing, and inspecting the rolling stock that was constantly crossing the bay, carrying 36.4 million passengers each year. But the days of the streetcar were numbered.

In 1946, a company called National City Lines purchased a 64% share of the company. Around this time, service started deteriorating, trains were crowded, and tracks fell into disrepair. Streetcars were retired and replaced by busses. A year later, National City Lines was exposed as a front for General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Phillips Petroleum, all integral parts of the automotive industry, and was ultimately convicted of conspiracy to monopolize public transit. But the damage was done. By 1960 the streetcars on the Bay Bridge were shut down and replaced with more lanes for auto traffic. The remaining busses in the Key System were sold to AC Transit.

For the past 60 years the Bridge Yard building at the base of the Bay Bridge, once home to a fleet of bustling streetcars sat idle. But in 2017, Caltrans and the East Bay Regional Park District started plans to reimagine this historic building as the hub for the new Gateway Park. With sweeping views of the bay and both San Francisco and Oakland, the space has won accolades and awards for its site specific renovation, with nods to its streetcar history as well as reclaimed artifacts from the construction of the new Bay Bridge.

West Edge Opera is thrilled to be amongst the first companies to use this singular space. With our experience with the challenges and rewards of presenting opera in strikingly non-traditional performance venues, we’re looking forward to sharing this experience with audiences this summer.

Brian Rosen