Bay Tours by Land and Sea Took Public Out There

1073 Tourbus stops for visit to Mare Island. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

PUBLIC TOURS OF THE BAY'S marginal zones were conducted by the CLUI, as part of the Back to the Bay exhibit, including an all-day, guided bus tour that touched the edges of each of the three bays that make up the Bay Area (Suisun, San Pablo, and San Francisco). We examined sites typical of the built shoreline of this part of the Bay system, and stopped to meet with local representatives at a number of places, who helped us interpret the contemporary human history of the Bay shore by studying what we saw in front of us. Some of the themes that emerged included petrochemicals, explosives, and redevelopment at closed military sites.

Treasure Island: Built to Celebrate the Bay
Leaving downtown San Francisco, the sold-out tour first looped around Treasure Island. A landmass created from scratch in the middle of the Bay for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, Treasure Island was soon shuttered to the public for over half a century when the Navy took it over in WWII. The old fair buildings were mostly torn down and a new, sequestered military community took shape. The island was officially returned to the people of San Francisco a couple of years ago, however most of the buildings are still unused. The bus drove around this artificial island, past empty buildings, as a film from 1940 about the abandoned World’s Fair site, from the Prelinger Archives, played on the video monitors overhead: one period of abandonment superimposed on another.

Vital Fluids: Petroleum, Fish Oil, Wine

Down the road, as we passed the Chevron refinery in Richmond, bumper to bumper traffic on the 580 allowed us time to see a corporate video from Chevron, that describes operations at that refinery (one of the largest in America) down to the molecular level. We turned off the highway at Point Molate, another shoreline site in transition. Point Molate was developed by the California Wine Association in 1908, as a central winery for processing grapes from all over the state. The Winehaven Winery, as it was called, became the largest winery in the United States, producing 12 million gallons of wine and port per year at its peak, before being shut down during prohibition (though it continued to make Sacramental wine until 1937). In 1942, the Navy purchased the 400 acre property for use as a fuel supply depot. Most of the fuel was kept in 20 underground concrete tanks, with a capacity of over 40 million gallons, built on the hillside above the winery. The facility was officially closed in 1998, and the City of Richmond is in the process of taking it over, once clean-up issues are resolved.

Further down the "Do Not Leave Roadway" road through Point Molate, a Port of Richmond official opened the gate for the bus to be allowed into the normally off-limits Point San Pablo site. In 1950, the shores of Point San Pablo were lined with docks and reduction plants for animal processing, such as the production of fish oils and tallow. The last rendering plant burned down around 1990, by which time the facilities at the site were used for storage and logistics for chemical industries. Metal tanks on the hill stored everything from ammonia to sulfuric acid to molasses. The site, part of the Port of Richmond, is being cleaned-up by the last tenant, the PakTank company, owned by the large Dutch chemical distribution conglomerate Vopak. Many tanks have been removed, and the site may be redeveloped in the future.

Here the bus stopped so people could wander around the ruined piers where the last whaling station to close in the United States used to be located. During the late 19th Century, the Bay Area contained the nation’s largest whaling fleet. This last whaling station was shut down by the federal government in the 1970’s.

The bus then lumbered out of this crumbling waterfront site, back to the main roads leading through the stark industrial landscape of North Richmond’s railyards, junkyards, and chemical plants, while playing, on the monitors overhead, the ambient and lyrical film Castro Street, shot on this same stretch of road by the experimental filmmaker Bruce Baille. The huge West Contra Costa County landfill – a mountain of trash built in the Bay- appearing on the right, was followed by a shooting range, where skeet is flung out over the bay, no doubt forming a reef of clay pigeons on the muddy bay bottom.

Old West Meets New:
Explosives and John Muir

Next was Point Pinole, a 2,100 acre park on the site of a explosives plant, one of several plants around the Bay that provided explosives for the "building" of the west through mining and railways, as well as munitions for Indian battles, security, and overseas wars. In 1892, after disastrous explosions at two San Francisco sites, and another at the relocated plant in Albany (the current site of Golden Gate Fields racetrack), the Giant Powder Company relocated to Point Pinole and stayed until 1960. Giant was the first American company licensed to use Alfred Nobel’s newly patented product: Dynamite. In 1915 Giant was bought by the Atlas Powder Company. With the invention of ammonium nitrate explosives in the 1940’s, the plant slowly became obsolete. Walt Disney bought the narrow gauge railway that moved explosives around the plant, and installed it at his new amusement park, Disneyland.

After the plant closed, Point Pinole was considered as a possible site for NASA’s mission control center for the Apollo program, but Houston was eventually selected instead. Bethlehem Steel bought the site, and was going to build a large steel mill there, but changes in the industry and, perhaps, environmental concerns, caused them to change their minds. An unrelated, smallish steel plant did eventually open on edge of Point Pinole, operated by the MSC Steel Company, which one park ranger from Point Pinole calls the UFO building, due to mysterious goings-ons there. After passing the park entrance and a neighboring prison complex, the tour bus stopped to get a glimpse of the unusual-looking building.

From this point the San Pablo Bay shoreline becomes a labyrinth of residential streets, so the tour headed inland, past the Hilltop Mall, and on to Interstate 80, past the distant bayside ruins of the Hercules explosives plant, next to a new office park which contains the world headquarters for the BioRad company, at the intersection of Alfred Nobel Drive and the John Muir Parkway. Curiously, John Muir, the celebrated environmentalist, founder of the Sierra Club, and Bay Area resident, never seems to mention the Bay in any of his published writings. Instead, he reportedly asked, when arriving by boat in San Francisco Bay, "Which way to the mountains?" This story was recounted to the tourists on the bus as we pass by his home, visible right next to the highway in Martinez.

September 11th being just a few weeks back, the scheduled visit to Port Chicago, an active military munitions base, famous for a 1944 explosion that killed 320 dock workers while loading a munitions ship, was cancelled by the military. The tour bus instead turned north on to Highway 680, through the impressive petrochemical corridor that includes the Shell refinery and a number of chemical plants, and over the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, with sweeping views of Carquinez Strait and Suisun Bay. The Mothball Fleet, a collection of over 50 dormant military ships tied together in clusters in Suisun Bay, was visible as we crossed the tall span, and an episode of Huell Howser’s California’s Gold provided impressive aerial views of the fleet on the monitors overhead.

Benicia: Camels to Kias

In Benicia, the bus looped through the Benicia oil refinery, which was built by Exxon from 1966-1969, and which has the distinction of receiving the first shipload of crude to be delivered from the Alaskan Pipeline, in 1977. Like most of the five major refineries in the Bay Area, the crude processed here comes from the pipeline, via ship from Valdez, or from crude oil pipelines bringing oil from the San Joaquin Valley. When Exxon and Mobil merged, Exxon had to divest itself of some of its assets, including this refinery, which it sold to a young oil company called Valero in 2000.

The oil refinery and the surrounding industrial park were built on the grounds of a former arsenal, and munitions storage bunkers can be seen poking out from under petroleum storage tanks. The Benicia Arsenal opened in 1849, making it the first army arsenal established on the West Coast, built to provide a defense for the gold mines of the Sierras, and to supply the Army with weapons for wars against the native Americans.

During its life, it served as a manufacturing, service, and storage center for military armaments. During the Korean War it was a repair center for cannons, tanks, and trucks, and after the war it served as a Nike missile maintenance depot for some of the dozen or so Bay Area Nike missile sites. In 1964, most of its functions were transferred to the larger Tooele Depot in Utah. Clean-up of the sprawling arsenal grounds, which include most of the land around Benicia, is ongoing. Unexploded ordnance surveys, conducted by the Army Corps, routinely unearth bombs, and sections of the hillside are occasionally closed off.

Many of the old arsenal buildings remain intact, converted to other uses. The tour bus pulled into the compound with some of the oldest arsenal buildings, now part of the Camel Barn Museum, to pick up our local briefer, Ron Rice, a museum representative. The bus chugged up the hill to the clocktower building, overlooking the Port and surroundings, for a talk about the region by Mr. Rice, who, among other things, explained the story of how the Army Camels came to Benicia, and their connection to General Beale, and Fort Tejon, in Southern California.

Visible below, along the shores, is one of the more impressive sights in Benicia; row upon row of parked cars. Amports, an international automobile logistics company, uses Benicia to store as many as 40,000 cars at a time, mostly Kia’s right now, enroute from manufacturer to market. The huge paved spaces around the old arsenal facilities, that once shipped military equipment to the war in Korea, are now filled thousands of new Korean cars, soon to be spread throughout America.

Mare Island Shipyard

Video programs played on the bus to prepare the group for the next stop, fifteen minutes away: Mare Island, a self-contained industrial city, with over 1,000 buildings, that once employed 42,000 people, and is now being redeveloped. From 1854 through the early 1990’s, it was one of the most important Navy shipyards in the country, building and servicing vessels, from destroyers to nuclear submarines.

In addition to the shipyards and housing, weapons manufacturing and storage operations operated for over 100 years at the southern end of the island (including a brief visit here by one of the atomic bombs being shipped to Japan in WWII). Many of the buildings there have thick walls and tin roofs, to direct the blast upward in the event of an accident. An air raid siren tower remains in the center of the weapons manufacturing complex, and rows of concrete air raid shelters line the streets on base. Clean-up of contamination and unexploded bombs in some of the industrial areas continues, with over 11,882 ordnance items unearthed so far (not including bullets).

Access is still restricted to the site, though many civilian industries have moved in already. The working waterfront area is the dominant feature of the site, where several drydocks, cranes, and large engineering and assembly buildings continue to be used by civilian companies and reserve military forces. We disembark at "the oldest drydock on the West Coast," for a briefing from Ken Zadwick, Director of the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation. The group was then led on a drive through of the island by Tom Sheaf from the Lennar Company, one of the largest developers in the West, and the company in charge of Mare Islands conversion to civilian use.


Crockett: How Sweet it Is

Back on the road, the bus headed through Vallejo to the spectacular Carquinez Bridge, the highest bridge in the world when it was built in 1927, and the largest cantilever bridge in the United States for many years. The bridge is actually two parallel bridges, the original 1927 bridge, and a similar bridge built next to it in 1958, for the Interstate. Now a third bridge is under construction as part of Caltrans’ seismic retrofit program, which is rebuilding many of the Bay Area’s superlative bridges in preparation for the next earthquake. Once the third Carquinez Bridge is built, the 1927 bridge will be torn down.

The Bay system is at its narrowest point here at the western end of Carquinez Strait, a six mile long submerged canyon that separates San Pablo Bay from Suisun Bay. The Strait has some of the deepest water on the Bay, over 100 feet deep in places, and was an important shipping point for Central Valley farms in the late 1800’s, a time when the Straits town of Port Costa was part of the largest wheat port in the world, and when most of the ships passing out of the Golden Gate were grain-laden ships heading from here to the ports of Europe.

Our next stop was the early 20th Century industrial town of Crockett, at the base of the bridge. The large C&H factory, familiar to motorists heading over the bridge, started life as a flour mill. Since 1906 though, the C&H plant has processed sugar from the company’s vast cane plantations in Hawaii ("C&H" stands for California and Hawaii), and the plant is still said to be the world’s largest sugar cane refinery, processing over 6 million pounds of sugar per day. These facts and many others were asserted by our local briefer, Keith Olsen, from the Historical Museum in Crockett, who boarded the bus outside the plant to address the group.

The afternoon was wearing on, but there was time for one last side trip, up the hill west of town towards the refinery at Rodeo. Along the way, the bus drove through a set of gates and out onto a massive black pad on the shore (which happens to have good views of the Maritime Academy, Mare Island, the Straits, and the towers of Betty Crocker cake mix plant in Vallejo). The black pad is a cap on top of the contaminated ground of a former smelter operation, located here for decades, and recently torn down. It is a strange site, this expanse of black gravel, extending to the shore, an engineered, post-industrial landscape. Many of the other shoreline sites we have seen may be headed this way too.

Half a mile up the coast, the road passes right through the Rodeo Refinery, offering a good view of its workings. It was built in 1896, the first of the five major oil refineries now operating on the shores of the Bay Area. It processes 100,000 barrels of crude per day, to make mostly gasoline, which is sold under several brand names (including Exxon and Mobil) and is also distributed through the thousands of "76" stations and "Circle K" stores owned by Tosco.

With all the recent mergers in the oil industry, Bay Area refineries change ownership like musical chairs. The Rodeo plant was Unocal until 1997, when it was bought by Tosco, a company that was then acquired (for $7 billion) in 2001 by Phillips. Texaco just merged with Bay Area-based Chevron, and the refinery in Martinez is operated by Equilon, a company owned by both Shell and Texaco-Chevron. The other Bay Area Tosco refinery, east of Martinez, was sold before the Phillips purchase to Ultramar, which bought Diamond Shamrock before that . . .  

Back Over the “Other” Bridge

As the bus passes through the "biggest toll plaza in the world" and rises up over the outfall of Oakland’s sewage plant, and onto the yet-to-be-replaced portion of the Bay Bridge that collapsed in the last earthquake, the video monitors play a remarkable film called The Other Bridge, a rhapsodic, Vivaldi-soundtracked portrait of the very bridge we are passing over - the dance of the cables flickering past the windows in synch with the rhythmic web of those portrayed on the screen. The Bay beneath us, now behind us, as we head back over the western cable anchorage that locks the span of the bridge to the San Francisco shoreline.

A boat tour was also conducted around the Bay too, but that’s another story. . .