San Francisco’s original serrated shoreline of sandy coves and rocky promontories hindered the construction of deep-water piers. To accommodate the ever-increasing flow of shipping, engineers planned a great seawall which would neatly round out the city’s northeast waterfront.
Construction took 46 years, from 1878 to 1924, and required massive amounts of fill material. Folklore has it that the city used anything available — including rubbish, horse manure, and even dead cats! The result was the Embarcadero, a 12,000-foot-long bulkhead that added 800 acres to the city and eighteen miles of usable docking space.
At the center of the Embarcadero, the Ferry Building, with its conspicuous high clock tower modeled after the Seville Tower in Spain, became the landmark that was the symbol of San Francisco. “Constructed in 1898, this harbor gateway was the hub of the Bay Area’s transportation system and ushered in as many as 50 million passengers a year — more than any other transit terminal in the nation,” writes Bacon.
Surrounded on three sides by water (21 miles of shoreline), San Francisco residents relied on ferries to connect them to points north or east (the bridges weren’t built until the 1930s). Independent ferry companies crisscrossed the Bay from the earliest pioneer days. During the last half of the 19th century, as many as 50 ferries at a time shuttled citizens into and out of the city in constant stream. When the automobile was introduced, ferries carried those as well. The 1890-built Eureka, the largest auto and passenger ferry in the world in her day, carried 3,000 people per trip across San Francisco Bay during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Before the bridges were built, the Eureka also served as the final leg of the railroad journey to San Francisco. It was nicknamed the “tracks across the Bay” and afforded many riders their first glimpse of San Francisco. The Eureka is also now open for the public to explore at Hyde Street Pier on Fisherman’s Wharf.
After World War II, shipping traffic at the San Francisco port gradually shifted across the Bay to Oakland, whose port offered better access to inland cities. In the 1960s this trend accelerated when the Port of Oakland built container shipping facilities. San Francisco shifted what shipping remained to Hunter’s Point where container accommodations were constructed. The once great Embarcadero piers, partially overshadowed by a double-decker freeway, were relegated to storage or abandoned to rot in the Bay.
Now San Francisco’s northeast waterfront has been reborn as a palm tree-lined promenade complete with light rail transport and a user-friendly series of historical markers. The wide sidewalk, christened Herb Caen Way on June 17, 1996, offers plenty of room for walkers, runners, bicyclists, and rollerbladers to share. A series of 14-foot-high metal pylons erected along the boulevard display photographs, stories and quotes, commemorating sailors’ heroics, Barbary Coast shenanigans, as well as some of the engineering feats that enabled the city to become such an important trade center that it was dubbed the “Emporium of the West.”
Map The Embarcadero & Ferry Building
San Francisco Sightseeing & Attractions Overview
Learn about the top S.F. sightseeing and attractions in our article: San Francisco — sightseeing & attractions