Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum


Rights & Permissions; Homework

Click on any image or link to ACCEPT the USER AGREEMENT.
Click any image or link to accept the User Agreement.

© 2014 CPRR.org. Use of this Web site constitutes acceptance of the User Agreement which permits personal use web viewing only; no copying; arbitration; no warranty.

Model of the World's Largest Ferry Boat, the CPRR Solano

By Thomas Rubarth, Bill Rubarth, and Jim Turner,
September 2, 2003.

Subject: Solano Ferry Model Debuts

We wish to thank everyone who has shown an interest in the progress of our HO scale Central Pacific/Southern Pacific train ferry Solano. [HO Gauge is 3.5mm to 1ft, 1:87 scale; i.e, 424 feet long by 116 feet wide → 4.9 feet long by 1.3 feet wide.] We especially thank all who have contributed info, personal stories and pictures that helped make this 15 year endeavor a reality. It's been quite a trip so far. (See the images below for the latest progress pictures plus earlier pics demonstrating the general scope of this model.)

Now the Solano model is nearing completion ... and the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society is holding their annual convention in Sacramento this October 1-5. We are contemplating debuting the nearly finished Solano model and her Port Costa dock (minus certain planned features such as Port Costa's train yard, portions of downtown Port Costa, and some near dock structures) at this convention, and possibly other California locations if the opportunity presents itself. The Solano did, after all, play a remarkable role in early California transportation for half a century, so California is where we think she should debut.


But we have some large hurdles to jump to get the model from its Michigan home to California. So we are looking for "model sponsors" that might help with funds for shipping and other expenses. Sponsorship agreements could take on many forms, including displaying the model and demo'ing its many features at the sponsor's chosen site for a period of time, or in the form of a listing on the model's back board display. If you have any ideas regarding this, or wish to become a sponsor, let us know ASAP. We could use some help here. Email Bill Rubarth with your thoughts.


The Solano plied the straits of California's Carquinez Straits in the northern San Francisco Bay area between Benicia and Port Costa for over 50 years (1879-1930). This all wood ferry served brilliantly as a vital link in the Central Pacific's Transcontinental Railroad and later with her sister ferry Contra Costa for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Often claimed as the largest train ferry in North America, her 412' x 110' 4-track deck could easily hide a football field, extending well past the end zones. The fact that she often ferried 2 entire trains, including their road engines AND also a yard switcher, made her the king ... er, queen ... of train ferries.


This is a "working model" and that means that the Solano model includes features that enable it to demonstrate how the Solano actually operated. These include:

1. electrified and block sectioned track that demo the unique process in which whole trains were split and loaded on her decks within minutes to keep Transcontinental trains moving at break neck speeds as railroads raced to beat each other across America.

2. her Port Costa dock with a motorized dock ramp – complete with working detailed pulley and weight mechanisms within the interiors of the twin counterweight towers.

3. motorized walking beam engines and side paddles that bring to life the motions and feel of this immense ferry.**

4. navigation lights that correctly change with the direction of the paddle wheels.** (Ya, I know ... details details details!)

5. outside lighting (and some inside cabin lighting).**

6. select cabin interiors details (including both pilot houses with their state of the art Sperry Gyro Compass and Repeater, lever control pedestal for her hydraulic steering, and huge ship's wheel (which, by the way, was only used to gain leverage if the steering system happened to fail)

7. a wheeled cart mounted below the ferry to simulate departures, arrivals and docking.**

8. authentic freight and passenger cars, switchers and road engines the Solano would have ferried during her operations (including a demonstration on how rail equipment grew tremendously in weight and size during her life time (1879-1930).

9. a backboard display with historical pictures of the real Solano in her early and later years.

10. a collection of Solano stories and tidbits, including where her remains are laid to rest.

** These features come complete with rechargeable battery system and wireless remote control for "away from dock" operations.

All in all, this is a very complete model. It's also a very rare model since, throughout the years we've been researching and working on the Solano, we have yet to come in contact with any other individuals involved with a full Solano model. We invite all of you to see this piece of history sometime, either at the upcoming SP convention or perhaps at other sites as they materialize. We'll keep you posted. And again, thanks!

Thomas Rubarth
Bill Rubarth
Jim Turner

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

September 22, 2003 The ferry is nearly complete:

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Solano Model

Courtesy Thomas Rubarth, Bill Rubarth, and Jim Turner.

Also see: Modeling the World's Largest Ferry Boat, the CPRR "Solano"Adobe Acrobat PDF format Courtesy Thomas Rubarth.


Solano Model Tour Poster

The Largest Train Ferry in the World Returns to Benicia!

… Albeit in a bit smaller form. Between 1879 and 1930 Benicia and Port Costa served as port cities to what was then billed as "the largest train ferry in the world!" And this train ferry, the Str. Solano, WAS huge. At 424 feet long by 116 feet wide, she was easily the largest ferry in all the San Francisco Bay area! While most train ferries could not accept even one heavy train engine on their decks, the Solano routinely carried two entire trains and their road engines — plus the switcher engine used to split and load the trains onto Solano’s four tracks.

But after 51 years of service for the Central Pacific transcontinental railroad and then the Southern Pacific, the Solano (along with her slightly longer sister ship the Contra Costa) was retired – never to be seen in Benicia again …

… till now!

Come see the Str. Solano come alive once again, if only in miniature! An HO scale model of the Solano and her Port Costa dock will make a rare and brief tour through the Bay Area this October. Built in Michigan by Jim Turner and Bill Rubarth, with research help by Thomas Rubarth in Arizona, this may very well be the only museum quality model of the Solano in existence.

This is a "working model" – with motorized twin walking beam engines and side paddles, and even a motorized dock track ramp – all designed to make the Solano "come alive." The model also has electrified track to demonstrate how the real Solano was able to load and transfer trains so efficiently that her owners published a brief 15 minute stop to stop time between the Benicia and Port Costa stations, although a mile long sail across the Carquinez Strait stood between them.

If you are interested in the rich history of Bay Area railroads and ferries … or if your great grandfather worked or told tales of such a boat … or if you simply have been curious about the string of old dock pilings at the end of First Street on Benicia’s waterfront, take the time to see this unique model. And if you are one of the few who actually remember the real Solano, we extend a special invitation to you, since we would like to document what you remember!

Unfortunately, due to the expense and difficulties of transporting such a large and fragile model from Michigan to California, it is unlikely that the Solano model will be able to tour the Bay Area again. So if your interest is piqued, be sure to drop by.

Here is the planned Bay Area viewing schedule for the Solano model tour:

WEDNESDAY, October 13, 2004
Benicia Public Library Noon–8:00p
(707) 746-4200

THURSDAY, October 14, 2004
Old Port Costa Schoolhouse 6:00p-8:00p
Port Costa

SATURDAY, October 16, 2004
SF Maritime National Historic Park 9:00a-7:00p on the Eureka
San Francisco at Fisherman's Wharf
(415) 447-5000

SUNDAY, October 17, 2004
Golden State Model Railroad Museum Noon-5:00p
Point Richmond
(510) 234-4884

With the exception of normal museum admission prices, the Solano model viewing and demos are free.

Thank you.

Thomas Rubarth

The CPRR Museum has posted a package of Solano Ferry Plans, courtesy of Thomas Rubarth, Bill Rubarth, and Jim Turner.

From: "Kip Hudson" kip@redshift.com
I love the story of building the model of the SP transcontinental train ferry that used to cross near Benicia.
I understand the model was in California a few years ago. Can it be seen today? And what was the destination of the train – Sacramento??
—Kip Hudson, Monterey


From: Thomas Rubarth
The Solano model is currently in the Detroit, Michigan area with my brother Bill Rubarth. It is often shown at local area train shows.
Several years ago we made the trek from Michigan to the SF bay area to show the model to her port cities. The surviving old timers that rode the real ferry got a kick out of that. But at just over 5 feet long the model is not suitable for shipping, so it took considerable time and money to drive it to California. We'd love to take her back to CA again but at the moment we have no specific plans to return her to her stomping grounds.
That's a shame because we know so much more about the real Solano these days and Bill can give quite a spiel about her.
Someday the model will be donated to a Bay Area museum.
The Solano crossed the Carquinez Strait between Port Costa and Benicia CA. This crossing made possible a shorter, more direct, and flatter Transcontinental mainline route for the Southern Pacific Railroad between Oakland and Sacramento. Until the Solano appeared on the scene, mountains and swamps forced the SP mainline to travel south out of Oakland, then climb through Niles Canyon and Altamont Pass (using helper engines), then circle back north through Stockton to get to Sacramento.
I have a Website for the Solano. It currently needs a lot of work but its got bits and pieces about the real Solano and a lot of pictures of the model. And I am about to upload a bunch of slides regarding the real solano to the site in a week or two (if not sooner) which might further perk your interest in this ferry. The site is <www.solanoferry.org>
Thanks for your interest in the Solano. It's always nice to hear from someone interested in these old ferries!
—Thomas Rubarth, Omaha, NE

Here's a slide that shows the SP routes in regards to the Solano.

Copyright © 2003-2009 CPRR.org.  [Last Updated 4/15/2009]
Use of this Web site constitutes acceptance of the User Agreement;
Click any image or link to accept.