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The Key System Ferryboat "Peralta"

By Fred Boland, Machinist 1928-1980
Bayshore Shops, Southern Pacific Railroad

In 1923 the Los Angeles Shipbuilding Company built the Hayward and San Leandro. Their propelling machinery was of a new type, different from the steam machinery of other ferryboats. Called "Turbo Electric", steam turned a turbine which drove an electric generator. Propellers in turn were powered by electric motors. They were very successful, so in 1926 the Moore Drydock Co., located where Schnitzer scrapyards are now, built the Peralta and the Yerba Buena.

We McClymonds High future machinists were invited down to the launching of the Peralta, the first one finished. We stood near the slipway, close to being under the lower, or water end of the boat. Ferry boats generally are double ended, so have no bow or stern. After the speeches at the platform up at the "land" end of the boat, she started inching away. The lady doing the christening smacked the bottle over the end of the boat. It didn't break. She grabbed the bottle a second time. It still didn't break. A man grabbed it on it's rebound and threw it hard after the departing boat. This time it smashed. The boat went about twenty five feet and stuck hard and fast on the ways. The shipyard employees emptied several barrels of a reddish-yellow grease that smelled like banana oil on the ways. They knocked out more cribbing, and slowly it started moving again, this time nearly going to the other side of the Estuary.

There is a superstition that a boat is jinxed if the bottle doesn't break, or it sticks on the ways. I never heard of one "turning turtle" but considering the hard luck to come, it is a wonder it didn't fall on us, so close to the water end.

Sure enough, a few weeks after going into service, the engineer reversed the engines on a signal from the pilot house.The fuses blew and the boat made kindling out of a lot of piles and was laid up for a while for repairs.

But the big jinx was to come. Sometime in early 1928, she was making the heavy commute run from San Francisco. As they rounded the lighthouse point on Goat Island (later named Yerba Buena), the passengers walked forward to disembark when the boat landed. Why the pilot and crew didn't see it coming, I will never know, but gradually the nose of the boat got lower in the water. As the water came over the deck, the nose really went under, some estimates being six feet. When the boat finally stopped, the tons of water over the deck of course washed 30 people over the side. Eight drownings were recorded.

The girl living next door to us was there. She grabbed a post and held on. She then grabbed a man by the hair and kept him from going over the side.

The investigation by the Coast Guard showed that they had been using trimming tanks to balance the load, using thousands of gallons of water. In the morning the water was pumped to the east side of the boat, and in the evening to the west side. Someone forgot to shift the water on the evening trip. The Coast Guard recommended abandoning the tanks and it was so done.

On May 6, 1933, the Key System pier burned down. You guessed it. The Peralta, caught without steam up also burned, a twisted and blackened hulk. The hulk was sold to the Puget Sound Steamship Co., which had a number of ferry routes around Puget Sound. It was rebuilt and named the Kalakala. No further trouble happened as far as I know.

Speaking of the fire, several cars were also burned up. A Sacramento Shortline motorman once told me that as he was bringing his early morning train across San Pablo he noticed a big fire 3 miles or so ahead. He brought his train to a stop at the 40th & Louise St. tower signal. After a while the signal went to stop. He saved his passengers hours of backtracking and also kept the Key mole tracks clear for cars carrying fire engines.