top of page
History of San Francisco's Waterfront
Waterfront Strikes of 1901 and 1934

The impact of industrialization, the conditions in which men had to work under, and the lack of consideration from employers caused one of the biggest strikes in San Francisco’s history. Understanding how strikes begin can become complicated. For the 1901 Waterfront Strike, its origins begin with Michael Casey, the leader of the strike and head of Teamsters Local 85, and the Draymen’s Association. After a successful strike on Labor Day in 1900 by the Teamsters, the employers and the workers came to an agreement: the employers would not hire non-union workers and union workers agreed to not work in firms that were not a part of the Association. Although many unions existed besides the Teamsters, the creation of the City Front Federation became essential to create an alliance between the unions. Finalized in 1901, the City Front Federation was comprised of 14 unions, including the Teamsters, Sailors of the Pacific Union, and twelve other smaller unions. With over 16,000 members, employers of these union men felt intimidated by their unity and were concerned that they would strike.


In response, the Employers’ Association, supported by the Draymen’s Association, was founded in order to keep unions in line. Members of the Employers’ Association agreed to not give into union demands.  If a member of the Association did so, then the delivery of supplies would cease. This eventually impacted smaller firms who were part of the Association and relied on working men to perform the jobs that needed to be done, while bigger companies like Levi Strauss, California Fruit Canners, and United Railroads hired non-union workers to pressure the unions and not listen to their demands.  In July 1901, dray owners (drivers with low trucks that hold heavy cargo, typically without any sides) were ordered by the Association to lockout any worker who refused to haul any baggage that was directed to nonunion firms. Refusing to do so, approximately 1,000 men were dismissed from work that day. On July 29, 1901 the Labor Council of San Francisco called on a strike of all waterfront unions under the City Front Federation. To be expected, the employees were met with violence by the employers. The police and strikebreakers were sought by the employers in order to put an end on the strike. The loss of product value such as fresh produce and meats that were imported and exported was of great concern between the firms. The amount of work that was needed in the ports was overwhelming, and without workers, employers were desperate. The employers did not show their desperation and did not acquiesce to union demands, since it was not allowed by both the Draymen’s and Employers’ Association. Eventually, the two parties came to agreement and the strike ended on October 2, 1901. Employers could hire non-union and union workers without prejudice, and union workers had to work with both union and non-union firms.

Screen Shot 2020-12-04 at 9.59.24 AM.png

 "Organized Labor 3 August 1901 — California Digital Newspaper Collection". Cdnc.Ucr.Edu, 2020,


Anton Refregier, American. 1949. San Francisco '34 Waterfront Strike. Print. Place: The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams.

On May 9, 1934 two hundred longshoremen walked out of their jobs and in response, a hundred police officers were sent in response.  The strikers were met with clubs and arrests. This eventually initiated a huge strike that would last 83 days, backed by nearly the entire waterfront. A violent incident started the strike, but it was not as violent as Bloody Thursday, which was on July 5, 1936. At 8am, trucks full of cargo were driven by strike breakers leaving the pier.  Police men began to throw tear gas upon 4,000 nearby union men. The attacks by the police happened all-day and rumors of the National Guard arriving in the city were spreading fast.  The strikers, believing their window of opportunity was closing, began to seize the railway. At the end of the day, two men, Nicholas Bordoise and Howard Sperry, had died.  In response, more than 30,000 workers went out on strike the next day. Strikers and union men were soon labelled as “communists” and “radicals.” Policemen targeted the Marine Workers Industrial Union and were encouraged by the mayor of San Francisco, who wanted a quick end to the strike. Arresting and attacking union men and people who were on the picket line was not uncommon. After an incredibly tumultuous 83 days, the Teamsters finally agreed to get back to work. Fortunately, the strikers had won this strike, and their terms were largely met.  The exception being, that they only say pay increases up to 95 cents an hour, rather than the one dollar an hour they demanded. The passion and violence in these strikes speaks to the danger inherent in these trades at the time.  Today, working in the ports is still labor intensive and remains one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Even so, the determination of these sailors dramatically changed the waterfront.

Lopez, Xochitl. "Industrialization and Waterfront Strikes." Dominican University of California, 2020.

"Oakland Tribune 6 July 1934 — California Digital Newspaper Collection". Cdnc.Ucr.Edu, 2020,

Watch this video to learn more about the 1934 strike and listen to these union workers tell their story about the strike!

Evolution of Steamships 

Sailboats were integral to opening pathways for international trade, explorations and cultural exchange. Although nobody knows definitively when sailboats were created, sailboats were used present as far back as 5500 BCE Mesopotamia, as the first form of water transport for goods and people. As technology improved, people began to design their ships differently, increasing efficiency in sailing. With the evolution of time and a greater understanding of how the world works, ships have changed dramatically. 


Mathew Turner, one of many who immigrated to the Bay Area during the time of the Gold Rush, was one of few who thought of ways to reinvest his gold into something with more potential than the gold trade: the shipping business. Turner became an inspiration to many shipbuilders during, and past, his time.  Out of the 228 ships that Turner built during his time, one of his most famously known vessels was the Galilee, considered one of Turner's fastest and trademark ships. As one of the packet liners between San Francisco, Tahiti and Papeete, it took the Galilee only 21 days to complete a typical 35 day voyage (in comparison to other sailboats during its time) from Tahiti to San Francisco.

Not too soon after the discovery of gold, San Francisco's population of a couple hundred soon became a town of thousands.  Along with people came more mail and the San Francisco Post Office (SFPO) contract route was through Panama, a contract that was held by the Pacific Mail Steamship company. Many companies became engulfed in a competition of transportation in the 1850s, everyone attempting to find more efficient, and therefore more lucrative forms, of transporting people, mail, and gold.  This was largely a war won through steamship technology, which revolutionized transport forever. Steamboats were an invention that came as a result of Watt's Steam Engine, an idea first coined by John Fitch in 1787. His first 45-foot vessel embarked on a successful journey across the Delaware river, following the creation of a larger vessel he would then use to travel through Philadelphia and Burlington. After much competition with James Rumsey on steamboat design, Fitch was ultimately able to solidify his first U.S. patent for Steamboats in August of 1791, but was never awarded a monopoly. Fitch created four other steamboats that constantly showed the world the power of steam technology in water travel.

As a brilliant engineer, Robert Fulton, often considered the Father of Steam Navigation, established several patents for machines that would serve and perform a variety of functions. In order to create a steamboat that was efficient, Fulton had applied himself on his own vocation to learn about the function and efficiency of waterway systems.  While his other inventions may not have been as successful, Fulton was able to collaborate with Robert Livingston; together they constructed a steamboat vessel that would be used on the Hudson River. Sailboats and Steamships have become integral innovations for the expanse of international trade, explorations and cultural exchange. Both are examples of water transports for goods and people, that have changed the course of the nation and world forever. As technologies began to improve and new designs and infrastructures started to modify and advance, the world was propelled into a new way of trade and industrialization—perhaps marking a new era in globalization. We've come a long way from cotton sailboats, and now are experimenting with new ways to utilize old technologies and designs. The Matthew Turner ship being one of those many examples. The Matthew Turner is a tall ship designed to carry the likeness of Matthew Turner's sailboat the “Galilee”, which he built in the 1800s.  It is a combination of both old-fashioned design and new technologies.

 “About.” Carnegie DTM Ocean Magnetic Survey Expeditions.

 New York State Library. Accessed October 23, 2020. 

Berg, Ayanna. "Maritime History: Sailing and Steamship Evolution & Innovations." Dominican University of California, 2020. 

Berg, Ayanna. Old School Sailboats. 2020.

Marinship Corporation 

    Not many people may know about the innovative and controversial Marinship Corporation. Marinship was created under the order of the United States Maritime Commission, during World War II, to help build vessels in support of the United States’ war effort.  Marinship produced vessels between 1942 to 1945,and was created very quickly in order to make up for the many ships damaged at Pearl Harbor and sunk by German and Japanese submarines. After a telegram from the USMC was received by the W. A. Bechtel Company, the shipyard was picked to be one of six emergency shipyards to be built during World War II. Marinship picked Sausalito the very next day and the official proposal to build the shipyard was made shortly thereafter in Washington D.C. The location of Sausalito was chosen because “it was level, largely undeveloped, and had deep-water access close to the Golden Gate,” and the broader Bay Area was chosen for shipbuilding because of “its location on the Pacific Coast, it was safe from German U-boat attacks” and there was “ample room for new yards with deep water access.” The San Francisco Bay Area also had a large amount of skilled workers in the region, which further made it an ideal location for new shipyards. Marinship started off building Liberty ships, but they eventually began to build T2 tankers. Tankers were vessels which transported liquids and gases in bulk, such as petroleum and oil. The shift from Liberty ships to tankers required a change in building practices, since the workers were setup and trained for Liberty ships. Although this change certainly slowed their pace temporarily, Marinship was one of the most efficient shipyards across the entire U.S. wartime industrialization effort. 



Marinship had been strategically placed in an area where mass production of ships was possible. This new development in the war industry drew many people from all across the country to Marin County, eventually leading to the development of Marin City to help alleviate the housing crisis the Bay was facing from the sudden boom in jobs. Due to the high demand for Liberty ships and tankers, there were as many as 20,000 workers, working at the shipyard in three different shifts around the clock.  Marinship also placed minorities and women in wartime jobs, following the War Industries Board instructions for an integrated workplace.  A. Philip Randolph, a prominent civil rights activist, was the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an African American led labor organization trying to receive a charter in the American Federation of Labor at the time. Randolph eventually, with the help other black leaders, went to Eleanor Roosevelt to “demand that an Executive order be issued to stop job discrimination in the defense industry,” which was then followed by a planned March on Washington. This then prompted President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which states that, “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government, because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” Dick Miller, a 1st rigger and musician at Marinship, described that he had worked with whoever he was put in a team with, and that African American’s and women alike worked together in teams. Miller noted that the women were very fine welders and were great at their trade. The involvement of women in the war effort, as well as African Americans and other minorities, helped plant the seeds of future decisions about equality within the workplace.

With many African Americans working at Marinship, housing segregation became a battleground. Even though the workplace was integrated, discrimination, especially in housing was common. Many African Americans were discriminated against, causing a lot of outrage and gaining the attention of notable leaders in the African American community. Despite Executive Order 8802, integration in the workplace was not fully put into practice by many corporations and labor unions in the war industry, including the Marinship Corporation.  This led to a key moment in Marinship’s history, the court case known as James vs Marinship.

All the unions in the shipbuilding industry, including the International Brotherhood of Boiler-makers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers of America, were attempting to retain complete control of job access to those the unions deemed worthy of hiring. This was caused by the power these unions had as the unions were the middlemen but would ultimately manipulate the corporation into hiring those who were part of the union. Within the Boilermakers Union—arguably the highest paid among the skilled laborers, they had previously banned black laborers from joining, however in 1937 the Boilermakers changed their policies and created within the union what were referred to as “auxiliaries”. These auxiliaries were largely created so that the black workers could join and would not cause any conflict with the unions. These auxiliaries did not provide the same benefits as the regular union members had received. Auxiliary members had no vote on local union matters and no representation at national conventions. They also received smaller union insurance benefits than white members. It is important to note that Marinship actually saw itself as an innocent bystander, required to enforce its collective bargaining contract in a dispute between black workers and the union. Within a few years, the union demanded that black workers must join and pay dues to the auxiliary in order to receive their union work clearance, which immediately sparked outrage amongst the workers. Many workers were forced to pay dues to Auxiliary A-41 which was an all-black unit controlled by the Boilermakers.  James saw this as an issue for which the American people were at war for: to destroy the forces which are denying the rights of man based on race, religion or color. Subsequently, many of the 200 workers who refused to pay the auxiliary dues were fired. One of those workers was Joseph James. Many of the laid off workers led a labor strike, which was described by the San Rafael Daily Independent as “‘Marin's greatest labor demonstration and most critical situation to arise since the San Francisco 'general strike' in the summer of 1934.’” The formal hearing of the case saw Thurgood Marshall, who was then the legal counsel to the NAACP, leading the case while it was pushed through multiple courts.  In 1945 the California State Supreme Court announced its decision, a unanimous victory for Joseph James and the union members. The State also ruled that even though wages were similar, the opportunity to integrate and have the same privileges as white members was denied by the labor union. Marinship was also punished since Justice Gibson noted that the company had full awareness of the situation and indirectly assisted the union with these unequal practices.  The events that transpired at Marinship, and in the Bay Area in general, are larger than one might think. The development of industry as well as a major civil rights order, and court decisions helped push America into a new direction.   World War II, but also Marinship are a critical part of this history.

Executive Order 8802: Executive Order 8802 dated June 25, 1941, General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.

Click here to listen to Dick Miller's experience while working for the Marinship Corporation!!

Click here to listen to Moses Beard's experience while working for the Marinship Corporation!!

Vrklan, Kieran. "Marinship Corporation." Dominican University of California, 2020.

From San Francisco to Oakland

Enjoy this silent film that depicts the evolution of the Oakland Port!

   Many of San Francisco’s piers and docks have been converted into commercial zones or historical preservation sites, and many more lie dilapidated along the waterfront.​ Ultimately, this was due to two factors - the superior conditions of the nearby Port of Oakland, and technological advancement outpacing the Port of San Francisco’s ability to adapt.  The early development of the Port of San Francisco was tied very closely to the California Gold Rush from 1848 to 1855. As the transcontinental railway had yet to be completed, the port served as the main export hub for the gold and silver that was mined in the region, contributing significantly to the early growth of San Francisco as a whole. Within the first year of the Gold Rush, more than 90,000 people on over 650 ships arrived in San Francisco. Officials from San Francisco were caught in a race to improve the quality of the Port as railroad shipping began to overtake it, but they faced a great many roadblocks. A priority among these issues was the way in which the city had developed around the Port - the majority of the land surrounding the Port developed into residential, retail, and white-collar commercial zones. 

Around the same time that the railroad was expanding towards San Francisco, the city of Oakland was developing along the opposite side of the Bay. Closer to both the existing rail lines and further inland than San Francisco, Oakland proved a much more viable location for the transcontinental railroad’s western terminus, and could easily serve as a hub for smaller railways in California. Other geographic advantages included the nearby estuaries, which proved far easier to develop into Port facilities and far more room for expansion. Moreover, being a far
younger city than San Francisco, which had built itself up over more than a century starting with Spanish Missions in the late 1700s, Oakland had much more freedom to develop the land around its port in a way that was suitable for future expansion. It also meant that the city lacked the deeply-entrenched culture of labor rights and strong unions that San Francisco had, making the city much more attractive to large businesses interested in further developing the area and
utilizing the port. 
And it all paid off - today, the Port of Oakland is responsible for 99% of all container-based shipping in Northern California, and one of the biggest trade hubs in the country.

Hall, Cortland. "Maritime History: The Rise and Fall of the Port of San Franciscos." Dominican University of California, 2020.


DUOC Public History Students designed lessons plans for both 8th and 11th grade students, incorporating California's Academic Standards and interactive features for added student engagement.  Find the associated lesson plans for Bay Area's Maritime history below.

bottom of page