Last updated on: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 9:38 PM (Pacific)
Alaska News Nightly Radio November 10th 2009

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Historic Kalakala

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MV Kalakala

Steel Electric Class
The story of the Kalakala really begins in 1926 - nine years before anyone would set eyes on the world's first streamlined vessel. The Kalakala started life as an entirely different ferry - the elegant steam turbine passenger ferry Peralta, built in 1926 for the Key System Route between San Francisco and Oakland, California. The Peralta and her sister, Yerba Buena were the most elegant and modern ferries to ply the waters of San Francisco Bay. The Peralta's life, however, would be jinxed and ultimately cut short. Like the mythological Phoenix, she would later rise from the ashes as the greatest floating icon of the art deco era.

PERALTA - John Procton Photograph, National Maritime Museum - San Francisco

By the 1920s, the Key System Transit Company held one of the prime ferry routes in the burgeoning Bay area, with service between Oakland and the San Francisco ferry building on Market Street. Few ferries at the time carried automobiles, and the Peralta was no exception. Trains whisked people from points inland directly to the elegant waiting rooms of the dockside terminals, where they boarded the luxurious ferries that glided across the bay, to be met by trains, motorcars or horse-drawn carriages on the other side.

The flagships of the Key System

The Peralta and Yerba Buena were among the largest and most expensive ferries ever built for SF Bay service. The sisters cost $900,000 each, and by 1926 standards, they were huge. At 276 feet in length, with ample beams of 68 feet wide, they are among the largest ferries afloat on the Bay. As double-ended ferries, they were virtually identical at each end, right down to the last fitting, which prompted their owners to write "Oakland End" and "San Francisco End" on opposite ends of the ferries. They could carry over 4,000 passengers each in their elegant cabins, emblazoned with murals depicting early Bay Area scenes. With their turbo-electric steam turbine engines, they could cruise at 15 knots, with a quiet elegance and grace. Advance press for the boats made the ominous claims that due to their all-steel construction, and water-tight compartments and ballast trim tanks, they were virtually fire-proof and unsinkable . . . words the Peralta's owners would live to regret. The Peralta's keel was laid on April 29, 1926, and on October 14, 1926, she stood on the ways awaiting her launching. Tradition has it that the vessel stuck momentarily on the ways, rather than gliding directly into water. Old salts whispered that this was an ill omen. They were right.


The Peralta entered service in March of 1927, and within a month she'd rammed the dock at San Francisco, severing phone cables and causing over $35,000 in damage. (Dock ramming became a recurring event for which the Kalakala was infamous.) Among the Peralta's modern features were ballast trim tanks located in the bow and stern sponsons. (This unique sponsoned hull design is still evident on the Kalakala today.) As the vessel neared her destination, passengers naturally gathered near the bow to prepare for disembarking. The Peralta's aft trim tanks were flooded with water to counterbalance the vessel and prevent the bow from dipping under the weight of so many people. But on February 17, 1928, just eleven months after her inauguration - something went terribly wrong. As the Peralta was approaching Oakland, the normal crowd of commuters began to congregate on the foredeck. Few noticed a little wave broke over the bow. The next wave was more pronounced. As people craned their necks to see, the bow dipped down and a huge wave surged over the bow and rushed toward the horrified throng. Panic ensued. Some people were swept overboard, others may have jumped. By the time the Peralta has halted, thirty people were fighting for their lives in the icy winter waters of San Francisco Bay. Five people perished. The disaster was the worst tragedy to tarnish San Francisco Bay ferry operations since 1859. A government inspection ultimately cleared the Peralta's crew, however, many suspect that the forward tank, rather than the aft had been mistakenly filled. The official cause cited was that the Peralta's bow had dipped into the trough of an unusually large wake from the steamer Hayward, magnified by the tiderip. The resulting wash-down of the deck triggered panic among the passengers, which contributed to death toll. No blame was assigned to the company or crew; however, the trim tanks were never used again.


It turned out that the ill omens haunting the Peralta weren't quite finished yet. The Peralta's days as a San Francisco Bay ferry came to a spectacular finale on the night of May 3, 1933 when a fire broke out in the offices of Key System at their elegant Oakland Pier. Three employees rushed to grab $8,000 in daily receipts and cash, and then jumped out of a window and onto the deck of the Peralta, which was tied up alongside the burning building. With no steam in her boilers, the vessel was helpless. In vain the men cast off the hawsers and set the Peralta adrift, but soon she was ablaze from wheelhouse to waterline. The men were rescued by a tug, but the Peralta was a total loss from the guard up. The fire was so intense that her steel decks literally melted. Her elegant interiors were incinerated, and nothing was left of the teak wheelhouses.

The burnt out remains of the PERALTA, 1933 - Oakland Tribune


The Key System's palatial Oakland pier was gone. With the Bay Bridges already under construction, there were no plans to replace the Peralta. The ferry terminal was quickly rebuilt with a temporary structure of corrugated steel designed only to last until the bridges were finished. The Peralta's hull was towed to Moore Dry Dock, where she had been built, and turned over to the insurance underwriters, and was ultimately sold to Captain Alexander Peabody of Puget Sound Navigation. The hulk was stripped down and towed north by the tug Creole on October 12, 1933. Few could have imagined what a wondrous vessel would arise from the burnt out remains of the Peralta!

The hull of thePERALTA begins the jouney to Puget Sound - Oakland Tribune