The Ghosts of the Steam Ferry Berkeley

1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101

The ferry boat that transported thousands may have a few passengers left inside.

The Berkeley was built in 1898 to charter people across the San Francisco Bay. Yet, an explosion in 1911 chartered one man into the afterlife. Was this a mere accident? Or is a darker secret lurking within the hull?

Did you know?

  • The Berkeley played a crucial role in rescuing citizens during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
  • It is rumored that explosion on the Berkeley was an act of murder.

The Tragedy of John Norbom

The Berkeley worked effortlessly in a 60-year-long career. However, there was one incident that quite literally shook the foundations of the hull. Some say the culprit still haunts the passages of the decommissioned ship.

The Explosion

January of 1911 was met with a massive explosion in the men’s bathroom on board the Berkeley. Fearing it was the engines, the captain ordered the chief engineer to check below deck - only to find no damage.

One of the crew members checked the bathroom only to find the remains of miner John Norbom along with several injured passengers.

It was discovered that Norbom was carrying nitroglycerin on him, a substance used for mining detonations. How much he was carrying remains a mystery, but the result is very much clear.

Mere Accident? Or Foul Play?

Many were quick to wrap up this incident as a mere accident, except Norbom’s family. They were insistent that more was at play.

The family was adamant that Norbom would never carry nitroglycerin on him. They said that Norbom was concerned that he was being shadowed by someone. They believed that the chemical was placed on him and that he was murdered.

By exactly who and why, we’ll probably never know.

It could be chalked up to a case of mistaken identity and Norbom was caught up in the bad end of a botched assassination attempt. Perhaps it was just a simple accident.

One of the injured, Edward Hoffshcneider, ultimately died from his injuries. Perhaps he knew what had really taken place. Perhaps he was the assassin. Or perhaps he was a mere innocent bystander like Norbom.

Whatever took place, it seems like the Berkeley isn't ready to reveal its secrets anytime soon.

The Man in the Fedora

It is believed that John Norbom still walks the deck of the Berkeley. Some report that his presence is felt in the area where the exploded bathroom used to stand. While others say that the bathroom stalls on the ship will lock by themselves.

Many others report a mysterious apparition wearing a fedora and coat. It’s of wide belief that this is the ghost of John Norbom.

Others say it’s an entirely different ghost altogether. Possibly the ghost of Hoffschnieder? Or perhaps a victim of the 1906 earthquake?

More mysteries for the Berkeley to leave unanswered.

Cave Entrace

Other Hauntings

Besides the presence of Norbom, there have been instances of footsteps and voices being heard in the upper deck when no one’s there. There have been other instances of objects disappearing and reappearing as well as doors being slammed by unseen hands.

Clearly, there are a few more spirits like Norbom who are still waiting to disembark to the afterlife.

Early Expeditions

The Berkeley is known for being one of the first propeller driven ferries in the West Coast. Ferries at the time were propelled using paddle wheels. The Berkeley was also known for its poor steering. Because of this, she was given the nickname “Pile Driver’s Friend.”

Cave Entrace

In 1900, the Berkeley accidentally collided with the SS Columbia while attempting to leave the dock. Due to miscommunications, both ships slammed into each other. The Columbia was badly damaged while the Berkeley only lost one life boat.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

One April morning in 1906, a massive earthquake shook the west coast. The earthquake caused several gas mains to rupture, resulting in massive fires that raged throughout the city. Of the damage done, it is believed 90% of it was due to the fires.

Cave Entrace

More than 80% of San Francisco was destroyed due to the earthquake. At least 300,000 people became homeless out of a population of 410,000, and at least 3,000 died.

The crew of the Berkeley worked tirelessly to safely charter survivors away from the blazing inferno that was once their city. No doubt the death toll would have been much higher if not for the valiant efforts of the Berkeley.

The Berkeley Today

The old ferry boat was decommissioned in 1958 and subsequently sold to Bill Conever and converted into a gift shop for 12 years. Due to lack of care, the ship slowly deteriorated and the shop closed.

Cave Entrace

Then, in 1973, the Maritime Museum of San Diego bought The Berkeley and it underwent heavy restoration. It is now a part of the maritime tour and museum along with several other ships.

Know Before You Go

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Due to COVID-19, all below deck attractions and submarine tours are temporarily closed.

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