In the mid-19th-century there were those who contended San Rafael should strive to be large and prosperous. Oakland frequently was held out as an example of the kind of suburb San Rafael could become. In 1860 there were 1,543 people living in Oakland, about twice as many as San Rafael could boast. In 1869 the Marin Journal cautioned: “San Rafael is going ahead, and Oakland must look out for her honors and railroad terminus fame.”
Oakland seemingly ignored the newspaper’s warning and ended up as the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. By 1880 the East Bay City was fifteen times the size of San Rafael. This disparity in growth, however, did not discourage the entrepreneurial attitude for many in San Rafael. In 1873 Peter Donahue, the man who brought the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad to San Rafael, told a meeting of businessmen that if they got improved trade and travel connections to the north and east along with a fast boat to San Francisco, then ”San Rafael will soon take her rightful place as the rival of Oakland.”
As described in the Journal in 1876: “San Rafael bids fair to become a serious rival to Oakland as a place of residence for city business men.” The Journal also said: “We make the bold assertion then, without fear of contradiction, that outside of San Francisco no city, town or village on this coast has so many advantages for a future healthy and permanent growth as San Rafael.”
Later, the Marin Journal mockingly reiterated a report in the Oakland Daily News complaining of dampness in Oakland homes: “…a majority of houses of this city are subject to dampness during the rainy season….We know of instances where it is impossible to keep any article of wearing apparel from mould[er]ing unless a fire is constantly kept burning. The bedding has a damp and unpleasant feeling, and, in fact, everything in the walls is constantly subjected to a vapor bath.”
The Journal went on to say that while “fog, winds and miasm[a] prevail in Oakland…..We have much less fog than any other place on the Bay….There is without doubt no village or town on the Pacific slope that possesses so many natural advantages for a large and prosperous place as San Rafael….The locality of the town and its surroundings have long since been conceded by statistics of medical and scientific men to be the healthiest in the State….The fabulous growth rate of Oakland is due, not to her superior attractions, but simply to the frequent trips and low fares of her ferries….With a better connection to the city much local travel to Oakland will be diverted here.”
San Rafael’s connection to San Francisco was indeed greatly enhanced in 1878 by two luxurious high speed ferries, the San Rafael and the Saucelito, built for the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC). They were constructed at Green Point, New York, dismantled, and shipped piece by piece via 120 rail cars on several trains across the continent to San Francisco where they were reconstructed.
The new boats were reported to surpass all existing ferries in speed and elegance and were regarded as the fastest passenger craft ever on San Francisco Bay. The builder in fact guaranteed a sustained speed of 22 miles per hour. Both were single ended side wheelers each with a capacity of over 2,500 passengers.
The new ferries became known as floating palaces. Examples of their opulence included: a grand stairway with a carved and polished walnut balustrade connecting the upper and lower cabins; two ornate crystal chandeliers along with bracket side lamps which lit the main cabin; seating cushioned in deep-red velvet; a smoking section separated from the rest of the main cabin by sliding glass doors; and, music occasionally provided by a string quartet.
In the summer of 1878 both ferries began service from San Quentin Point to San Francisco. In that year seven trips each way were made daily. Total travel time from the Ferry building in the big city to the B Street Station in San Rafael including the transfer from the ferry to the train was said to be 50 minutes. It was reported that this service would bring San Rafael closer to downtown San Francisco than San Francisco was to the Broadway Station in Oakland.
San Rafael did experience some growth -at least in part- as a result of the new high speed ferry service. The town grew at a robust pace of 12% annually for a full decade, from 1870 to 1880, but in the 10 years that followed, that rate dropped to 4%. All this meant that San Rafael, with a population of 3,290, lagged well behind Oakland which by 1890 had become a small city with nearly 50,000 residents.
Perhaps no single event epitomized the limited pace of local development better than the demise of the ferryboat Saucelito. On Sunday February 24, 1884 the Saucelito was totally consumed by an intense fire. An effort to contain the fire was of no use and the boat was eventually cut loose and pushed out into the Bay where it burned to the waterline. With the demise of the Saucelito the NPC did not have sufficient ferry capacity to support service to both the San Quentin and Sausalito terminals. The service to San Quentin was severely restricted and eventually terminated.
San Rafael was an established town by 1884 and had the essential institutions needed to serve a growing city, including two railroad lines. It was the County seat and boasted a new neo-classical court house. It had several hotels and boarding houses that served a wide range of guest from working class railroad employees to luxury vacationers. But with the reduced ferry service to San Quentin it no longer had the high speed connection to San Francisco.
During the 1890s, the town’s growth rate fell off severely to under 2% annually. Ultimately, by the late 19th century, it was clear that San Rafael was not destined to become another Oakland.