Berkeley Steam Ferry Boat

Posted by amber in San Diego Ghost Tours
Berkeley Steam Ferry Boat - Photo

Haunted ships galore in the paranormal community, from the Titanic to the spirit-ridden vessels of wartimes gone by. It seems as if ghosts flock to these ships, the slapping of salty waves against the port and starboard sides keeping their memories alive. Ships have been the resting place of countless individuals over the years, ever since human beings figured out how to build them. It’s also said that moving water provides energy that spirits so desperately seek to have the ability to show themselves or communicate. In this article, we’ll be learning of a steam ferry docked in sunny California, the Berkeley Steam Ferry Boat.


A Hard Working Ship


Built about ten years before the famous Titanic, the Berkeley remained in service for over sixty years operating on the San Francisco Bay between the Oakland Pier and the San Francisco Ferry Building. She was used in the rescue efforts of the infamous 1906 earthquake that hit the coastal cities in Northern California, as well as continuing her regular efforts for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Berkeley was known for being one of the first propeller-driven ferries on the West Coast. Most ferries of the time were propelled using large paddle wheels. Even with the ‘high-tech’ additions, the Berkeley was known for its poor steering and was given the nickname ‘Pile Driver’s Friend.’ The ferry was built in 1898 by the Union Iron Works of San Francisco, and one of her first voyages was met with an accident. On October 3rd of 1900, Berkeley was leaving the dock in San Francisco when she collided with the coastal passenger liner SS Columbia. The crash was due to a misunderstanding of signals when Captain Blaker of the Berkeley thought that he would be able to pass in front of the SS Columbia while the larger liner was traveling forward at a slow speed. Once he realized his mistake, it was too late to fix it. Luckily, no one was injured in the collision.



The Berkeley was taken out of service for repairs in the spring of 1958 and was never put back into service as Southern Pacific decided to end all ferry services on July 29th that same year. She was eventually put up for sale and was purchased by the Golden Gate Fishing Company to be used as a whaling processing facility. She ultimately deteriorated and was then sold to the Maritime Museum of San Diego, where she was restored and remains today.


The Earthquake of 1906


On an April morning in 1906, a massive earthquake shook the west coast. The disaster caused several gas mains to rupture, resulting in immense fires that raged throughout the entirety of San Francisco. Of the damages, it is believed that 90% of them were due to the fires alone. More than 80% of San Francisco was destroyed, and at least 300,000 people were faced with homelessness due to the loss of their homes. Even worse, three thousand people perished in the disaster. The crew of the Berkeley worked night and day to safely charter survivors out and away from the blazing fires that overtook their city. It’s no doubt that the death toll would have been higher without the tireless work of the Berkeley and her crew.

It’s no surprise that the Berkeley is rumored to be haunted. With all of the chaos in her past, as well as her island-like rescue status. Many visitors to the Berkeley and employees of the Maritime Museum report strange happenings aboard the vessel. The upper deck seems to inhabit spirits that carry on conversations with themselves and others, their disembodied voices floating about the decks of the quiet ship. Unexplained footsteps accompany these voices as if they’re walking and talking with one another. The upper deck features rows of original wooden ferry benches, where sometimes apparitions are spotted looking for their seats. Passengers of the past are known to show themselves on the ferry regularly, but one stands out in particular. He has been coined ‘The Fedora Man’ and is a menacing spirit. While many guests see him floating around the vessel, the caretakers and employees have even creepier stories to tell.


Hauntings of the Berkeley


The director of Marine Operations for the Maritime Museum, Jim Davis, has shared a few of his personal accounts taking place on the ship. When speaking with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jim said, ‘I was walking the upper deck of the Berkeley Ferry Boat making my way to the front and back deck, originally known as the Ladies Deck. It was pretty late in the night, and I saw a vivid image leaning against a door jamb.’


He continues, ‘He was wearing a trench coat, a Sam Spade type thing, and a fedora. I told him he needed to leave, the ferry was closed, when he didn’t move, I walked toward him and all of a sudden he was gone.’


While the identity of the hat-wearing ghost is unknown for sure, the standard agreement is that he is the spirit of John O. Norbom, who died back in 1911 while on the Berkeley. John was believed to have been carrying a bottle of nitroglycerin near the men’s restroom located on the ferry’s main deck. According to police reports, it is said that John dropped the bottle, which caused a large explosion, killing him instantly and injuring five others on board.


Accident – or Something Sinister?


When the explosion occurred, the captain feared that it was the ship’s engine, and ordered the chief engineer to check below deck, only to find no damage whatsoever. One of the crew members decided to check the bathroom only to see John Norbom’s remains and several injured passengers. Many were quick to wrap up the incident as an accident, except for Norbom’s own family.


The family was adamant that Norbom would never just carry such a volatile substance with him, as he was a miner and knew the explosivity of nitroglycerin. They said that Norbom was concerned that he was being followed. They believed that the chemical was placed on him by someone else and that he was murdered that day. No one has ever come forward with more information, so we’ll never know who or why.


Of the injured, Edward Hoffschneider ultimately succumbed to his injuries. Whatever took place that day, it seems as if the Berkeley isn’t going to reveal her secrets any time soon.


Some visitors believe that Hoffschneider was the assassin and that he is the malicious spirit seen onboard wearing the fedora. Others think that the ghost is simply that of one of the victims of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.


Other Hauntings Aboard


Other than the fedora man, there have been instances of disembodied voices and footsteps all around the ship when no one living is on board. Objects disappear and reappear often, and doors are slammed by unseen hands.


The Berkeley These Days


Clearly, the Berkeley holds secrets under her decks that we will never come to know. Was John Norbom murdered? Why would he be carrying such a dangerous substance aboard a ferry ship? Did he have ill intentions? Sitting in mystery, the Berkeley is now part of a maritime tour and is visited by hundreds of people each year. Perhaps they’ve heard or seen something that could answer all of these questions. Have you been aboard the Berkeley? If you dare to venture on, keep your eyes open for a fedora-wearing spirit, but don’t get too close, you never know what he’s got in his pockets.


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