In the second half of the 19th century Captain Patrick Henry Tiernan was a prolific builder of ferryboats in the San Francisco Bay area. In the 34 years from 1856 to 1890 Capt. Tiernan built over 40 vessels including 31 ferryboats. He was a key figure in the construction of four of the ten ferries that, in the late 1800s, connected Marin with San Francisco.
The railroads serving Marin County in the late 1800s were the North Pacific Coast (NPC), and the San Francisco and North Pacific (SF&NP). The ferry connection from Sausalito, Tiburon or San Quentin to San Francisco was considered part of each railroad’s service. The ferries were owned by the rail companies and some boats displayed the name and logo of the railroad.
Capt. Tiernan, a native of Ireland, was born in 1827. He was raised in upstate New York near the St. Lawrence River. As he grew to manhood he became fascinated with ship building, particularly the accomplishments of the American Navy. Tiernan worked first as a shipbuilding apprentice in New York State and then as journeyman in a Chicago shipyard. In 1850 he built his first larger vessel intended for sail on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. He was involved in the construction of two more steamers, both intended to be used on the Fox River system for trade in the Green Bay area. In 1852 Tiernan had made a personal decision to head to California, arriving in San Francisco on January 2nd 1853.
By 1856 Capt. Tiernan had established himself as a competent San Francisco boat builder and began a career producing ships for the Bay and northern California river system. The first important steamship constructed by Tiernan in San Francisco was the Paul Pry. Paul Pry was a name borrowed from a character in a popular English play portrayed on the ship as a wooden figurehead in tailcoat, striped pants and top hat. The eye-catching steamer was launched with steam up and ready to go. With engines and gear working perfectly, the Paul Pry moved directly under its own power to the Pacific Street wharf.
The Petaluma was the first ferry built by Tiernan to be employed by a Marin County railroad. Launched in 1857 as the Petaluma of Sausalito, she was bought by the NPC Railroad in 1885 and re-christened Tamalpais. For over a decade she served the NPC connecting Sausalito to San Francisco. The Tamalpais was scrapped on Oakland Creek in 1900.
In 1869 Tiernan built the side-wheel steamer Amador intended for the run to Stockton. The Amador was acquired by the NPC and rebuilt in 1878. For many years she was used to add capacity for weekend traffic to Sausalito. In the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition she was altered to look like a battleship and blown up to demonstrate the power of the Navy.
Tiernan was hired in 1884 by Peter Donahue, President of the SF&NP, to design and model the ferry Tiburon. The Tiburon was the first double-ended ferry used in the Marin service. This design eliminated the need to turn the boat around for the return trip, thus enabling a faster crossing. She was large boat, 240 feet in length, with a capacity of over 1,000 passengers. An unusual feature of the boat was its engine. Originally built in 1860 by Donahue’s Union Iron Works, the engine had been in storage for 24 years before installation on the Tiburon. After World War I the Tiburon was established as the railroad’s first auto ferry. She served for 40 years and was retired in 1925.
Capt. Tiernan’s last work on a Marin ferry came in the 1890s when, employed by Mervyn Donahue, Peter’s son, he designed, modeled and supervised construction of the Ukiah. The Ukiah, the largest vessel of its kind on San Francisco Bay, was built and launched at Tiburon. She was 291 feet long, about the length of a football field, with two tracks on her main deck to carry up to 12 railcars. With a full load of railcars the Ukiah had capacity for over 1,000 passengers. With no railcars on board she could haul over 3,000 passengers.
In 1922 the overworked Ukiah was rebuilt and rechristened Eureka. The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 ultimately doomed the North Bay ferry system but the Eureka continued to serve Marin until 1941. In WW II she was used to transport troops to the Port of Embarkation pier in San Francisco. In the years following the war she served Southern Pacific’s cross-country trains linking them from Oakland to San Francisco. This assignment continued until 1957 when a crank shaft pin snapped in her walking beam engine.
The Eureka was retired in 1958. She can be visited today at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco along with several other vessels. A model of the Ukiah, depicted at her Tiburon port in 1909, can be seen at the Tiburon Railroad and Ferry Depot Museum.
Capt. Tiernan’s greatest boat building achievement was the Solano, perhaps the most significant boat built on the west coast up to the time of its construction in 1879. This boat would not serve Marin. Rather it would provide a rail crossing of the Carquinez Strait. The Straits had prevented the Southern Pacific Railroad from the most direct route into San Francisco. The transport of entire trains, including the locomotive, across the rapid current of these waters was considered a major maritime challenge. Tiernan’s Solano was a huge side-wheel double-ended ferry and car float. She was 424 feet in length, with two engines, four rudders on each end and four tracks for rail cars. She could handle up to 48 freight cars and entire passenger trains. All of the crack limited trains between San Francisco and the east were carried across the Straits on the Solano. She served unfailingly until 1930 when a railroad bridge was constructed from Martinez to Benicia.
Capt. Tiernan retired to his home on Guerrero Street not far from the shipyards where he built so many vessels. He died in 1910, perhaps the greatest of San Francisco’s 19th century boat builders.