Many California residents may not be aware how close they came to losing an important part of this state’s history in early October. A wildfire blackened nearly half of Angel Island, but quick action by firefighters saved the island’s many historical buildings and left many of the roads and trails on the popular San Francisco Bay island intact.
Angel Island has been a popular destination for hiking, biking and exploration for the decades since it became a state park in the 1950s. Only accessible by boat, the island is a quick ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf and an especially good day trip for San Francisco visitors. When they arrive on the island, they’ll find a quiet, peaceful, almost idyllic landscape with pretty coves, modest hills and picture-postcard vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.
No question, visitors now will find a little less mature growth and some areas blackened by the fire. But the good news is that the main Perimeter Road is open again and visitors will be able to enjoy all of the historic buildings that are normally open to the public.
Visitors arrive at Ayala Cove where most summer days and off-season weekends there are services such as a café and small store, and places where visitors can rent bikes or Segways for touring the island. There’s also a one-hour tram tour around the island. But if you’re on foot, be prepared for some exercise because it’s about 30 to 60 minutes of walking to any one attraction, although there are plenty of stopping points and great views all along the way.
One short trip from the landing is to the Immigration Station Barracks and grounds, just a 30-minute walk to the northeast. While this area is currently under renovation andscheduled to re-open next April, it’s possible to walk to the station and get a glimpse from the outside. Most people have heard of Ellis Island and the immigrants who came to New York by way of that immigration station, but many don’t realize that San Francisco had this very similar station on Angel Island. Most immigrants affected were Chinese, who were the objects of legislation to limit their immigration to the U.S. The poems on the walls are written in Chinese and span the years from 1910 up until 1940 when the Immigration Service left the island.
A good way to see the island is to take the Perimeter Road to the southwest from Ayala Cove. In about a mile, you come to Camp Reynolds, where the officers quarters are still intact and available for tour. Some of buildings are authentic from 1863, while others were constructed in the 1870s and 1880s and are positioned around a unique parade ground odd because it’s not flat. To march at Camp Reynolds, soldiers would have to march uphill or down, or at an angle. And, believe it or not, these Civil War-era soldiers actually participated in the Civil War by preventing gold shipments from California to the Confederacy. Visitors today can see the artillery batteries that were built near Camp Reynolds and at Point Stuart, Point Knox and Point Blunt, all positioned to counter any Confederate attacks on shipping in San Francisco Bay.
Further along Perimeter Road, we came across another big part of the island’s military history: the remnants of the Nike Ajax missile site. These were cold war era non-nuclear missiles that were stored in magazines here on the island where they could be brought out and launched in time of hostilities.
When World War II began, the fort became part of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation and more than 300,000 soldiers were shipped to the Pacific Theater of Operations through Fort McDowell. The busiest month of all was in December 1945 after the war had ended: More than 23,000 returning soldiers were processed here, with the Main Mess Hall serving more than 310,000 meals in just that one month.
Angel Island has so much to offer that visitors typically make more than one trip so that they can spend more time in various parts of the island. A lot of visitors plan to take one particular hike, or to participate in one of the park service tours in which volunteers will dress in period costumes for full effect.
All of this could have gone up in smoke with a blaze that blackened half the island — but just like the military and immigrants who passed through this island, the history of the island continues to endure.
???For more information on travel in California, visit www.californiaweekend.com.