Berkeley Steam Ferry

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

When you hear about haunted boats, the Titanic is probably what springs to most folks’ minds. While they both struck objects during their voyages and saw death aboard their respective vessels, any similarities end there. The Titanic is famous for colliding with an iceberg while out to sea, yet the Berkeley more or less grazed another ship that was closing in on its dock.

If the Titanic ever is able to be brought up to dry land, chances of her being haunted are pretty good. But that’s a big “if”. Here we are going to learn about a ship that doesn’t need to be raised and is known to be haunted. She is the Berkeley Steam Ferry.


Built more than 10 years before the Titanic, the Berkeley was a workhorse of a vessel that remained in service for 60 years. She was instrumental in rescuing victims of the infamous 1906 earthquake that rocked the coast of Northern California while still performing her regular duties for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Her only collision occurred just two years after being commissioned. One morning when Berkeley was leaving the dock, a passenger liner was entering. Miscommunicating signals, the two ships collided, badly damaging the bow of the Columbia while the Berkeley was largely unscathed, save for a lifeboat.

After those 60 rigorous years of service, the Berkeley was finally decommissioned in 1958. What began as service repairs quickly turned into her forever being taken off of duty, as Southern Pacific Railroad decided on ending all of its ferry services.

Today, the Berkeley Steam Ferry is part of the Maritime Museum in San Diego, California, where she serves as the operation’s main building. Visitors may tour the great vessel to learn of her storied history.

Beginning of Berkeley’s Hauntings

Probably a result of the great 1906 earthquake and past workers of the Berkeley, many visitors and modern-day employees of the Maritime Museum (which includes the Berkeley) have claimed that the ship is haunted.

The upper deck seems to inhabit spirits who tend to carry on disembodied conversations with themselves, accompanied by ghostly footsteps. The upper deck features rows of original wooden benches, and it’s as if long-dead passengers are shuffling about, trying to find their seating.


Passengers of old are known to regularly haunt the vessel, but one, in particular, stands out from all of the rest. That is the menacing spirit known as “The Fedora Man”. While many guests aboard the Berkeley have reported seeing him drifting around the vessel, so have its caretakers.

The director of Marine Operations for the Maritime Museum has shared a couple of his very own first-hand accounts of paranormal behavior taking place on the Berkeley that also include the Fedora Man.

When speaking with the San Diego Union-Tribune, director Jim Davis stated, “I was walking the upper deck of the Berkeley Steam Ferry Boat, making my way to the front and back deck, originally known as the Ladies Deck. It was late at night. I saw a vivid image leaning up against a door jam”.

Davis continued, “He wore a trench coat, a Sam Spade-type of thing, and a fedora. I told him he needed to leave. When he didn’t move, I walked toward him, and all of a sudden he was gone”.

While the identity of the Fedora-wearing ghost is still unknown, the common consensus 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 that is located on the ferry’s main deck. According to police reports, it is said that John dropped the bottle at some point, causing an explosion that killed him and injured five others who were on board.

Related to this story and possibly verifying the haunting of Jon Norbom are the reports of a restroom door within the ferry that somehow locks all on its own.

During tours of the boat, it isn’t uncommon for ghost-hunters and paranormal investigators to bring along equipment in the hopes of recording an apparition. These tours are often staged at night, as that seems to be when the most activity occurs when it comes to the otherworldly.

One such tour resulted in various guests claiming that they heard footsteps above and below them. This is rather interesting in that there were no living people aboard the boat other than those within the tour group. Investigators there agreed that this evening was rather active for the Berkeley.

Other Notables of the Berkeley Ferry

After being decommissioned, the Berkeley was put up for sale and ultimately purchased by businessman and ferryboat enthusiast, Bill Conover.

He had the Berkeley moved over 500 miles away to the small town of Sausalito, California, where he had her docked and converted into a gift shop called “Trade Fair”. However, the Berkeley was not properly maintained during her usage as a shop and fell into a state of disrepair.

Approximately 12 years later, the Berkeley was once again put up for sale, this time bought by the Golden Gate Fishing Company. There she was used as a facility for the processing of whales.

Finally, in 1973, the Maritime Museum of San Diego purchased the Berkeley Steam Ferry after she was sold for what appears to be the last time, as she has been in their care ever since. Here, this vessel and many others are maintained and cared for so that future generations may continue to appreciate them and learn of their history.

Upon receiving the Berkeley in 1973, the museum fully restored the steam ferry to its original beautiful look and feel so that her magnificence would be preserved for many years to come.

The Berkeley was notable for her having been the very first propeller-driven ferry throughout all of the west coast. Not only that, but she was also the largest of all commuter ferryboats in the United States, capable of carrying 1,700 passengers.

Further impressive is the fact that she was one of the earliest ferries to be powered by a massive triple-expansion steam system.

The Berkeley Steam Ferry was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990, as well as a California State Historical Landmark in 2000.

Actor Sterling Hayden once rented one of the Berkeley’s pilot houses while she was docked in Sausalito in order to write his autobiography Wanderer, published in 1963.

The Berkeley Steam Ferry Boat and the dreadnought battleship USS Wisconsin were both being constructed next to each other simultaneously in 1898.


The Berkeley Steam Ferry Boat has lived an interesting and full life. Despite some poor upkeep over the years from previous owners, she has continued to weather the storm and survive for well over a hundred years.

The loving care that she so richly deserves is now given to her by the Maritime Museum in order that her colorful history may be passed on for others to learn. New visitors arrive every year to see her majestic beauty and hear of her heroic services that she provided at the turn of the century.

It is rather interesting to note that her having survived for so long may be directly attributed to all of the lives she helped to save during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Without questioning their own safety, the Berkeley’s crew worked tirelessly to bring victims to safe shore.

Throughout the years, the Berkeley has become a popular location for ghost-hunters and enthusiasts. There, they take tours of the vessel in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the much-reported paranormal activity that is known to occur on board.

With such a loyal following, the history of the Berkeley will be kept alive for many to enjoy for years to come.