Tuesday, June 5, 2013

For most residents of Sausalito, the view from the water side of your home isn’t of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, Belvedere Peninsula or even Strawberry Point. It is Angel Island which forms our front porch.

A book detailing The Islands of San Francisco Bay provides a wealth of information on the history of Angel Island from its geological formation to its role as a safe haven, a military installation, an immigration station and a park.

James A. Martin, who conceived of the book and wrote a good deal of it himself, visited the Sausalito Historical Society at its May meeting and explained that the project was more than just a textual one. He photographed the scenes on the bay’s major and minor islands to make the book a thing of beauty as well as of interesting information.

Appropriately enough, in an introduction by Paul McHugh, the book begins with the history of the bay region itself, going back some fifteen thousand years to the peak of the last ice age when what are islands today were just hills on the plain that became the bay. Then, the ocean lay over 30 miles to the west of the Golden Gate and the rivers draining California flowed out to a huge cliff miles beyond the Faralons.

Today, Angel is one of seven major islands in the greater San Francisco Bay: in alphabetical order they are Alameda, Alcatraz, Angel, Bair, Brooks, Mare and Yerba Buena/Treasure. Each receives full attention in a separate chapter in Martin’s book, along with additional chapters on collections of less major outcroppings such as Red Rock and the Brothers and Sisters.

In Angel Island’s chapter, written by Jonah Owen Lamb, we learn that prior to the arrival of Europeans in the bay area, Angel Island had hosted occasional seasonal visits by Miwok people, but apparently it never had a permanent settlement. Then, in 1775, the San Carlos, a Spanish vessel under the command of Juan Manual de Ayala, became the first European vessel to sail into the bay.

Ayala named the island Isla de los Angeles and used a cove on the north side of the island as a base for extensive charting of the bay. That cove was named for the captain. Nearly forty years later the British Cormorant-class sloop Racoon beached at the cove for repairs. Using a more modern spelling, the strait between the island and what is now Tiburon, which is more than 200 feet deep, has become the Raccoon Straits.

In the 1830s, Antonio Maria Osio owned the island as part of a Mexican rancho and grazed a herd of Long Horn Cattle. He built houses for his cowboys and had a thriving business until Mexico lost California and he lost his rancho.

Lamb sketches the on-again, off-again history of military uses of the island between 1863 and the end of World War II. “Several gun batteries facing the Pacific were built by the military, and installations and bases around the island housed, shipped and trained soldiers for years” he says, adding that “to this day, the military presence still permeates the place.”

But it is, of course, the history of the use of Angel Island as a US Immigration Station that dominates the reputation of the island. It earns a separate sub-chapter in the book titled “Picture Brides and Paper Sons” in which Joe Mudnich sketches, in human terms, the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan which meant that the role of the facility was, as he says, “not so much to welcome most newcomers as to guard against them.” Mudnich points out that this history means that the station “was not exactly the ‘Ellis Island of the West’ as it is often called today.”

He says that between 1910 and 1940 as many as a million people, “mostly from China and Japan” were processed through the more than four dozen buildings on Angel Island’s “China Cove” before either entering or leaving the United States. The cove’s name, by the way, was a reference to Chinese shrimpers who camped there long before there was an Immigration Station there.

“Angel Island” was also the name of the 144-foot steamer that shuttled passengers back and forth between the island, San Francisco and the ships in the bay. Today, it is the name of the California state park which holds the entire island with the exception of an unused Coast Guard facility. Martin’s book contains as many as thirty five color photographs to illustrate its description of the island as it exists today, and the sketch of its history, which makes a visit to Sausalito’s “front porch” a day trip to remember. 

Angel Island:
The gem off our coast