In 1892, seventeen year old Thomas Crowley launched the first of many companies which would one day be a fixture of the San Francisco Bay. Using $80 he had saved, he purchased a used Whitehall boat, and in so doing entered the competitive boating business of the time. His inaugural boat was just eighteen feet long and less than five feet wide, and he rowed it alone through the waters of the bay. Tom, like other boatmen in the area, transported not only miscellaneous goods and supplies, but also professionals whose work relied upon such travel. Serving the ship traffic twenty-four hours a day, Tom soon expanded his fleet to three Whitehalls.
Reinvesting his profits brought by the Whitehalls, Crowley soon bought several gas-powered launches which were bigger, faster and more efficient than those upon which he had previously relied. This new company was incorporated in 1906, and was to be called the Crowley Launch and Tugboat Company. During the 1906 earthquake the fleet transported some of the coin and dollar deposits for the Bank of Italy (now the Bank of America) vault from the burning City of San Francisco in milk cans to the Berkeley Pier. There was just one escort as the Bank did not want to call attention to all this cash. Needless to say, we had no problems and customer expectations were exceeded! However, in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, many ferry services halted their operations. Crowley’s operations not only continued, but in fact increased, as his boats continually crossed the bay carrying people and their belongings from the battered streets of San Francisco. One of his launches actually anchored in the middle of the Bay, full of securities from several damaged banks. Tom Crowley, through these times, continued the expansion of his business. With his purchase of the Piper-Aden company he now controlled a fleet of scow-schooners, boats made specifically for the trafficking of materials such as grain, lumber and sand. Simultaneously, he entered into the tugboat business, competing with much larger companies such as Shipowners and Merchants Tugboat Company.
In 1913, planning started for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, a World’s Fair to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Crowley Launch and Tugboat Company played an integral role in the execution of the event, offering up manpower and equipment as supplies were taken to the Exposition. It also was Crowley’s first attempt at offering excursions on San Francisco Bay to visitors of the fair. This included exclusive sightseeing excursions via ferry to the U.S. Battleship Oregon, which at the time docked in the bay. Two double-deck boats, the Crowley 17 and Crowley 18, were constructed for this purpose.
During World War I, his vessels were used to carry goods between San Francisco, South America and Australia. In the years following the War, Crowley’s influence in the boating and shipping industries in the Bay continued to flourish. He became the general manager of the Shipowners and Merchants Tugboat Company, once his primary competitor, and gained economic control of several other competing firms.
Crowley’s passenger services continued to flourish, relying strongly upon tourists’ desires to visit the several historic battleships docked in the Bay. When the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge were completed in the 1930’s Crowley’s fleet of ships offered breathtaking views of the bridges from the Bay below. In 1939, his vessels were also present at the Golden Gate International Exposition, as more than 17 million people came to view the magnificent bridges. This was the origin of Red and White Fleet’s popular Golden Gate Bay Cruise®, San Francisco’s longest running narrated tour under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz.
In the late 1940’s, Crowley repainted the vessels – red and white – and took the present name Red and White Fleet®. New vessels were built and the fleet was expanded.
The ticket booth formerly located at Pier 16, was re-opened at Fisherman’s Wharf, and the sphere of passenger services was expanded. Throughout the 1950’s the fleet began its ferry service between San Francisco and Tiburon, and there was an increase in the frequency of sightseeing excursions on the Bay.
In 1960, Tom Escher, the grandson of the founder and the current owner, started working as a sweeper and a mechanics helper on the vessels. New vessels were added, and in 1982 ferry services were initiated between Sausalito and Fisherman’s Wharf.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, bridge damage stranded approximately 15,000 commuters. Red and White Fleet provided free transportation to those stranded, and initiated new service routes with an expanded fleet.
In 1997, Tom Escher purchased the Red and White Fleet, becoming the third generation of the family to own and operate the business, continuing the tradition of offering premiere San Francisco Cruises to visitors from around the world.
Since then, Red and White Fleet created a series of new bay excursions and added multilingual headphone audio to its daytime cruises, to provide international guests and locals alike with the opportunity to learn about San Francisco’s inspiring history and magnificent landmarks.
With the purchase of a larger vessel in early 2013, rechristened Zalophus, Red and White Fleet set the stage to host even more visitors aboard it’s vessels and showcase the sights of San Francisco. Improvements to the fleet’s Pier 43 1/2 location further added to the enjoyment of passengers.
In the Spring of 2018, Red and White Fleet will welcome Enhydra, the newest and largest addition to the fleet. In doing so, Red and White Fleet will also be welcoming the future of marine propulsion, as Enhydra will become the first 600-passenger hybrid-drive vessel operating in the United States.