San Francisco Ferry Building

The San Francisco Ferry Building is a terminal for ferries that travel across the San Francisco Bay and a shopping center located on The Embarcadero in San Francisco, California. On top of the building is a large clock tower, which can be seen from Market Street, a main thoroughfare of the city. Architecturally, the clock tower was modeled after the 12th century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain. During daylight, on every full and half-hour, the clock bell chime portions of the Westminster Quarters. The chimes are a recording and play through several sets of very large speakers in the tower and are not connected to the tower clock mechanism.


The present structure, designed by local San Francisco architect A. Page Brown, opened in 1898, replacing its wooden predecessor, and survived both the 1906 earthquake and the 1989 earthquake with little damage. Until the completion of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world, second only to London's Charing Cross Station. It served as the embarcation point for commuters to San Francisco from the East Bay who rode the ferry fleets of the Southern Pacific and the Key System. A loop track existed in front of the building for streetcars. A large pedestrian bridge also spanned the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry building until the late 1940s.


After the bridges opened, and the new Key System trains began running to the East Bay from the Transbay Terminal in 1939, passenger ferry use fell sharply. In the second half of the twentieth century, although the Ferry Building and its clock tower remained a part of the San Francisco skyline, the building interior declined. Over the years, the ticketing counters and waiting room areas were partitioned into office space. The formerly grand public space was reduced to a narrow and dark corridor, through which travelers passed en route to the piers. Passengers had to wait on outdoor benches, and the ticketing booths were moved to the pier.

With the construction in the late 1950s of the Embarcadero Freeway which passed right in front of the Ferry Building, views of the once-prominent landmark from Market Street were greatly obscured and pedestrian access to it became somewhat of an afterthought. When this double-decker elevated structure was demolished in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and replaced with a ground-level boulevard, the barrier between a significant portion of San Francisco's historic waterfront and the rest of the city, was now gone, and access to Justin Herman Plaza and the foot of Market Street, which the Ferry Building had been such an integral part of for so many decades, was restored.

Local radio station KBWF-FM (95.7 The Wolf) currently makes hourly references to the famous Ferry Building clocktower in their station identification, saying "The Ferry Building Clocktower strikes (time) O'Clock".


In 2003, the building reopened as an upscale gourmet marketplace, office building, and re-dedicated ferry terminal. The restoration project spanned several years, with an emphasis on recreating the building's 1898 ambiance. San Francisco's most well known farmers' market is held there on Saturdays from 8 am to 2 pm, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am - 2pm, year-round.

The original clock mechanism was refurbished in 2000 and is complete and intact, despite two previous modifications. Today the Ferry Building still boasts its original Special #4 clock made by the Boston clock maker E. Howard in 1898. It is the largest dialed, wind-up, mechanical clock in the world. The dials are twenty-two feet in diameter, and a portion of the dial is back-lit at night. Close examination reveals two concentric dials, with the inner dial being visible at night.

Although the hands and a small portion of the works are now powered by a very accurate electric motor, the entire clock mechanism is still there. The huge weight is still there in its forty eight foot shaft which once wound up originally could keep the clock running for eight days. The sixteen foot pendulum is still there, but remains motionless, replaced by more modern, reliable and accurate electric power.

Ferry service

  • Oakland and Alameda: The Oakland-Alameda Ferry provides service from the Oakland Ferry Terminal in Oakland's Jack London Square and the Alameda Ferry Terminal in the North Shore neighborhood of the island city of Alameda to the Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf.

  • Larkspur & Sausalito: Golden Gate Ferry operates service from Larkspur Landing in Larkspur and the Sausalito Ferry Terminal in Sausalito both in the North Bay's Marin County.

  • Vallejo: Service to the Vallejo Ferry Terminal in Vallejo in Solano County is provided by the "Baylink" service of Vallejo Transit.

  • Bay Farm Island: Alameda Harbor Bay Ferry has a service running from Alameda's Bay Farm Island.

  • Tiburon & Angel Island: The Blue and Gold Fleet runs between Tiburon Ferry Terminal in Tiburon with an overlay on Angel Island and the ferry building.

There is planned ferry service from Hercules, Redwood City, South San Francisco, Martinez, Antioch, Treasure Island, Berkeley, and Richmond

Transit connections

The main line of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system runs right under the building. The dock area on the eastern side is used as the transition point from the Transbay Tube to the Market Street Subway. The Embarcadero Station is a BART and Muni Metro station within walking distance (about one block) from the terminal and connects it with the city, East Bay and Peninsula.

There is service on Vallejo Transit, San Francisco Municipal Railway, PresidiGo Shuttle, and Amtrak Thruway Bus.


2 photos

Building Activity

  • Mike Cohn
    Mike Cohn commented
    Survived the fire, many boarded boats here amidst the smoke to evacuate. The market street trolley used to turn around here in a circle in front of the building. Along the water, in front of all the pier buildings, you can see artistic, embedded remnants of the old rail delivery line. The farmers market out front every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the actual commuter ferries that still run today are practical contrasts to the consumer foodie culture in the renovated indoor spaces.
    about 5 years ago via Mobile
  • removed 2 media
    about 5 years ago via