The Railroad Ferry
by Thomas C. Fleming, Jun 3, 1998
In the fall of 1926, when I could no longer find work on the intercoastal passenger steamers, I told Mama I would have to return to Chico, California to spend the winter with my step-grandmother, Annie Powers, as I could still get enough odd jobs there to carry me through the winter.
In Chico, from the time I was a kid, I used to be up every night at 11:30, when the last Sacramento Northern train arrived at the end of its run from Oakland, and would often meet Bill Shorey, who was a waiter on the train.
Bill was a happy-go-lucky guy, about four or five years older than me. He was the son of Captain William Shorey, a native of the West Indies who had held a master's license on a ship in San Francisco at the turn of the century, and commanded a whaling vessel. Following his death, Shorey Street in West Oakland was named after him. It's only about two blocks long, but he was the first black resident in Oakland to be honored by the city fathers.
Captain William T. Shorey in Oakland, California, with
Late one night in January 1927, after the last train came in, I heard a tapping on the window, accompanied by the voice of Bill Shorey calling my name. When I looked out, Bill asked me if I wanted a job as a waiter on the Sacramento Northern. I thought about it a little time, then answered yes. He told me to pack a bag with my clothes and be at the depot at 6:30 in the morning.
daughters Xenobia (l.) and Victoria, and wife Julia (r.), circa 1903.
I had a hard time sleeping the rest of the night, as I did not want to oversleep and miss my chance to start working on the railroad.
I got up at 6, went to Annie Powers -- who was already up -- and told her about my good fortune. Annie was full of warnings about my being a good boy and staying out of trouble. I told her that I would be coming in and out of Chico on the train and would see her in a few days. Then, with my packed bag, I walked out of the door, to not return for a number of years.
The train pulled out promptly at 7. I walked back to the diner and was met by Bill Shorey, who introduced me to the cook, then took me into the pantry and gave me a white jacket.
After a long stop in Sacramento, the train finally began to travel through a marshy section. It seemed like the track was constantly on trestles, and I could see the water of the upper portion of San Francisco Bay.
The train stopped on the east side of the bay, then slowly pulled onto a railroad ferry. That would be the place where I would get off: I was to work as a waiter at the lunch counter on the ferry, six days a week. On the off day, one could leave on a train heading north, or to Oakland. My pay would be $60 a month, plus the few tips I could squeeze from passengers. But I had a bed and a place to eat, and could save my meager wages.
The ferry was at the Carquinez Strait, which all trains from the north had to cross on their way to Oakland. The Carquinez Bridge had not yet been built, and the ferries could carry a whole train of many cars.
The kitchen crew -- a cook, a steward and a waiter -- were all black men. Our living quarters was a one-room hut, built on stilts over the water. It was one of many built in that area for wealthy duck hunters. We came there every night about 8 o'clock, after the last train passed through. Amenities were very few. There was no place to bathe except in a galvanized tub, for which we had to haul the hot water from the kitchen on the ferry.
The hut was home for swarms of marsh mice. Every night when we went to bed, we had to shake out the blankets and sheets, and invariably a mouse or two would be thrown out. They scurried back after we turned out the light, and we had to keep knocking them off the bed, and in some instances managed to kill some of them.
The second day I was working on the ferry, a tall, distinguished-looking brown-skinned man got off the northbound train and walked into the kitchen. He looked me over and asked, did I think I could stay out there? I realized he was George Dunlap, the boss of the food department for the Sacramento Northern. He was a native son from Sacramento, about 50 miles east, where he still lived. I told Dunlap that the hut was good enough.
Dunlap was perhaps the most important black man in the city. He had at one time been a cook on one of the private cars the Southern Pacific Railroad provided for its upper hierarchy. He had sought, and was awarded, the contract from the Sacramento Northern to operate the two dining cars on each train, and the lunch counter on the ferries.
He also bid for a concession to operate a cafeteria on the grounds of the California State Fair, where he fed thousands of visitors every year, and employed black college students as waitresses and busboys.
George and his brother Walter were both fathers of two attractive daughters, and the family was one of the leading black families in the capital city. In later years, when the rail line ceased hauling passengers, Dunlap converted the upper part of his two-story house into an intimate restaurant where he could seat about 60 people. Dunlap was chef, with a crew consisting of family members and a couple of others. Practically all of his clientele was white. It was a hit with the city of Sacramento, and an immediate financial success.
Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, including postage, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5, including postage. Send mailing address.
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