The Road to Point Bonita

By Robert L. Harrison

The Point Bonita Lighthouse and adjacent fog signal building, circa 1910. The tall chimney at left was for steam boilers in the fog signal building. Courtesy of GGNRA Archives.

In the late 19th century there was considerable public discourse among Sausalito residents over the need for a good road to Point Bonita. Concern was expressed by some that the growth of the town was greatly constrained by a lack of “driveways”. The January 18, 1896 Sausalito News described the matter this way: “Sausalito’s Future — Its Principal Drawback the Lack of Better Driveways.” The article asserted, “Our town will never fill the position it is entitled by nature to fill, as the leading locality for those desiring to live away from the metropolis — San Francisco.”

The advantage of a good road to Point Bonita gained regional recognition in the February 11, 1896 San Francisco Call: “With an end-of-the-nineteenth-century boulevard extending from San Rafael , through Sausalito and around the coast to the Government reservation the southern part of Marin County could boast as pretty a driveway as could be found in the State of California.”

The southern part of Marin County includes Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkite, all now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Until 1897 Forts Baker and Barry were known as the Lime Point Government Reservation. The reservation through the late 19th century was under the military command of Colonel George H. Mendell (1831–1902). In 1866 the Colonel ordered construction of the first road in the Marin Headlands connecting Lime Point with Point Bonita. The Mendell Road used portions of today’s Conzelman Road, Julian Trail/Fire Road and Bunker Road to reach Rodeo Lagoon. From there the route led up the valley near the historic Nike Missile base to Point Bonita. The Mendell Road did not connect to Sausalito or to any public road outside the government lands.

This 1883 US Coast & Geodetic Survey map shows Mendell’s road leading from Fort Baker (right, at Pt. Cavallo) to Point Bonita (lower left). A road leads from Rodeo Lagoon north into upper Tennessee Valley. Courtesy of NOAA’s historical charts website.

An article in the November 11, 1871 Marin Journal described a ride on horseback from Sausalito to Point Bonita. While not open to the general public, the area could be traversed with permission from proper authorities. In 1871 the route from Sausalito to the gate at the government reservation was no more than a trail making for a rough and unpleasant ride. From the reservation gate the ride was reported to be on a “comparatively good road”, probably the Mendell Road. The trip on horseback “….from Saucelito (historic spelling) to Point Bonito (sic) was made in about an hour and a half.”

The need for a public wagon road to Point Bonita was highlighted by the experience of the Marin County Coroner in February 1887. From the San Francisco Examiner of January 31st, “The Coroner of Marin County received a telegraphic message at San Rafael that a body….had been found on the beach….near the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Coroner Eden started out with his wagon and an assistant early in the day to get the body, drove along the county road toward Sausalito, turned off…. into Tennessee Valley. He was shortly stopped by a locked gate, he being on private property….With some delay he obtained the key and passed on his journey toward the beach….”

After Eden experienced further delays at additional locked gates and decaying bridges, he decided to backtrack to Sausalito for tools to patch-up the bridges. Later he took a disused road to the top of the hill above Sausalito and from there rode down into the Throckmorton property. He was able to open a gate at the boundary of the government reservation and to retrieve the body. Late that night he arrived back in San Rafael with the body. The Examiner further clarified, “….the Government holds a large reservation where a large amount of money has been spent on roads within and which have no communication with any county road, and are not approachable with a wagon except through private lands.”

The old road from Sausalito, seen on the far right, to the Marin Headlands over Rodeo Ridge. Sausalito and Belvedere are in the background. Courtesy of John Martini.

A private wagon road used by the public was identified by the Sausalito News in 1886 as the Light House Road and in 1890 as the Point Bonita Road. In both cases the road served the Gioli Dairy Ranch located in the Gerbode Valley. The approximate alignment of this route likely followed a private unimproved path along today’s Bobcat Trail over the hill to Rodeo Avenue in Sausalito.

Through the 1890s many in Sausalito continued to press for a good public wagon road to Point Bonita. In particular, J. W. Harrison (1841–1906), co-developer of the Edwards-Harrison tract located between Fort Baker and Old Town Sausalito, took the lead with the federal authorities. In his November 1894 letter to the Sausalito News Harrison claimed that the War Department had given its permission for the road and a survey of the route had been completed. His letter also included the theme that, “The lack of driveways is the principal drawback to the advancement of our town.” In 1895 Harrison’s advocacy included escorting a group of Congressmen over the proposed road.

Sausalito’s Daniel O’Connell (1849–1899), poet, journalist and co-founder of the Bohemian Club, wrote of the beauty and grandeur of the route to Point Bonita. His article in the April 14, 1895 San Francisco Call described the need for building the splendid road and continued: “But the Government is obdurate, and will not build. Its engineers allege that such a thoroughfare would make the reservation too popular, and that the San Francisco hoodlum and the females of his kind would picnic there and build fires to cook their coffee, and probably set Uncle Sam’s possessions ablaze.”

Daniel O’Connell. Published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 26, 1901.

Sausalito has remembered O’Connell at Poet’s Corner, Bulkley at Harrison Avenues, where a memorial granite bench and grotto stand engraved with his final poem. The last lines of the verse written ten days before his death provide a fitting epitaph: “Softly draw my curtains . . . Let the world labor and weep — My soul is safe environed by the walls of my Chamber of sleep.”

In a January 11, 1896 editorial the Sausalito News offered another argument for the road: “Though this driveway would be of immense value to the people of Sausalito, the authorities at Washington should be led to understand that this reservation would be almost valueless in the event of war, without a road over which to transport troops and the implements of defense;….”

A roughly graded road from the Sausalito limit to Lime Point was completed in summer 1897. With this improvement, combined one year later with the completion of a “magnificent macadamized” city street to the gate of the Fort Baker, a wagon road connection was finally realized from Sausalito to Point Bonita. On April 2, 1898 the News reported: “The great Lime Point and Point Bonita boulevard is at last a reality….”

The road, however, was still on military property and not a public thoroughfare. As noted in the September 8, 1898 San Francisco Call, “Civilians are not allowed on the military road that leads from Sausalito around Lime Point to Point Bonita, without a permit from the commander of the reservation.”

Off-duty soldiers and their guests posed atop the original fog signal at Point Bonita — a surplus Army cannon that was fired every half hour when the fog was in. Circa 1908. John Martini Collection.

While closed to civilian use during World Wars I and II, before and after these conflicts many civilians enjoyed motor trips over the new road. In 1908 the Marin Journal’s article, “A Drive to Point Bonita” described views from the road, “From our point of vantage….we saw and feasted upon such a sight, as I think no point on the globe can duplicate.” The October 17, 1925 Sausalito News offered, “Auto Club Tells About Scenic Beauty of Marin — Hikers’ Rendezvous is Now a Paradise for Motorists.”

By 1916 the steep grades on the military road became a problem for the Army moving its heavy guns and ammunition. A flatter section of new road and a narrow tunnel between Forts Baker and Barry were completed in 1918. The tunnel was redone in 1925 and widened to 20 feet in 1937. In 1989 it was closed due to falling concrete but after an overhaul, it was opened again to the public in 1995. Today the tunnel is operated with a single reversible lane and a five minute traffic signal to control opposing traffic flows.

The Point Bonita area circa 1908. Left to right are the U.S. Life-Saving Station, Army Engineers’ compound, concrete plant for building nearby fortifications, and lighthouse keepers’ residence.” Courtesy of Hoop Collection, GGNRA Archives.

The National Park Service (NPS) took over jurisdiction of Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkite in 2000. With the rehabilitated tunnel, new pavements and other improvements made by the NPS, the first civilian public road from Sausalito to Point Bonita was realized.

The tunnel and road through the Rodeo Valley offers the most direct route to Point Bonita. The grandeur of the area, however, continues to be best appreciated from the less direct road overlooking the entry to the Golden Gate. Perhaps the most inspiring and exciting drive in the Bay Area is the one-way downhill section of Conzelman Road just west of Hawk Hill.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to historians Michael Moyle, John Martini and Dewey Livingston for their insights into the history of the Road to Point Bonita.

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