“Is hereby given that the Goats on Yerba Buena on Wood Island, are the property of the undersigned. Any encroachments therefore upon our right either by shooting or taking away said goats will be considered a robbery and treated as such.”
N. Spear, J. Fuller
San Francisco, June 5, 1847
The confused, contradictory charm
of Yerba Buena Island
A photo essay by Bill Couch and Marcin Wichary
There are many reasons to go for a walk on San Francisco Bay’s Yerba Buena Island, and one huge reason not to: it’s a cryptic, unsafe space, owned by three different entities providing varying levels of access. There are some pedestrian routes here, but also heavy construction and hostile KEEP OUT signs. Unaccompanied visits are discouraged.
Fortunately for our excursion, we had a wonderful tour guide, Ruth Gravanis, who volunteers on the island and knows it from inside out. She graciously agreed to spend a few May weekend hours introducing us to zip code 94130. Here’s what we found out.
The views of the city
Treasure Island may have once been home to the 1939 fair celebrating Bay Area’s achievements, but today its name is a bit of a misnomer — it is Yerba Buena Island that is home to most of the treasures. Unless, that is, you consider dangerous radioactive waste a treasure.
Sorry, let’s try again without being snarky.
In between San Francisco and Oakland, there exist two conjoined islands. Many people collate them into one, which is funny since there are so many ways in which they couldn’t possibly be any different. Yerba Buena Island is the natural one; Treasure Island was constructed from scratch through the Works Progress Administration for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Yerba Buena Island is an irregular rock, Treasure Island a flat rectangle. And when the next Big One hits, it’s Treasure Island that will liquify into oblivion, with Yerba Buena Island — technically just a mountain that happens to rise above the water level — laughing heartily at its demise.
However, Yerba Buena might also be the most scenic of the Bay Area islands. Yes, you can drive to Treasure Island, park your car at the Avenue of Palms, and gasp in awe at the view of San Francisco’s skyline. And yet, that’d be some lame, watered-down awe, for you’re only getting a pedestrian, boring postcard view of San Francisco’s skyline.
Yerba Buena Island, on the other hand, if you put in an effort to befriend it, will give you this:
And, as you’re climbing towards the very top, this:
And this, over and over and over again, when the many celebrated layers of San Francisco are matched by the layers of the island itself.
The western span of the Bay Bridge
There was a time when Yerba Buena Island was just another outcrop in the middle of San Francisco Bay. People called it Sea Bird Island then. Sometimes, Wood Island. Sometimes, Goat Island, when there used to be goats.
(The Spear/Fuller quote we opened the story with hints at goats being quite valuable at one time.)
And then, the bridge happened. We cut through Yerba Buena Island with an unprecedented double-decked tunnel, and we built out two separate spans pointing in two directions — or, really, two separate bridges that happen to share one name: the Bay Bridge.
Now, a word of advice: you should grab your bucket list, and put a bridge on it. You will thank us later. There is nothing like standing right next to a magnificent, heavily-trafficked bridge. And, on Yerba Buena Island, you can stand right above it.
You will feel like the master of the universe, thinking back on those times you spent entire weekends playing SimCity. Except these are not early computer pixels; these are real people and cars in front of you.
Usually, it’s the Golden Gate Bridge stealing all the attention. Here, it’s easy to forget about it. The Bay Bridge easily dwarfs even fireworks and the entire San Francisco skyline (this is an earlier photo, from New Year’s Day in 2009).
Although Golden Gate Bridge will also make an appearance…
…it’s the Bay Bridge that shines here, adding one more layer to an already astonishing view.
Step away a few yards, though, and the bridge is again just an accent on the horizon, with the island reclaiming the attention.
Because what’s great about Yerba Buena Island is that the views are just a bonus. Even if, SimCity-style, we were to pick it up and pluck it down in the middle of the ocean, it would still be an island worth exploring and returning to.
The dead and the living
The orange flowers in the above photo are California poppies. The wealth of flora is one more beautiful aspect of an island itself named after an herb (yerba buena is one of the regional mint vines that used to cover the slopes of the island).
Those plants could tell us many stories. A 1936 book recounts:
There is at present, a fence-enclosed area on the west end of the island, dedicated to those who have reached their life’s sunset. All cemeteries are like pages from the past, and these orderly, uniform, flat gray granite headstones are headlines for stories, romantic and sad, with dates going back to 1852. There are service men, whose permanent relief from duty has thinned ranks of sailors and marines, and there are names that write “finis” to island claims.
The cemetery has long moved to the Presidio, but there are magnificent trees, like this California buckeye, that must still remember it.
(Both of us took photos of that one tree, and we couldn’t decide which one to pick.)
Some of the long-gone trees used to serve important functions before technology took over. From Wikipedia:
Located west of the island is Blossom Rock, a treacherous submerged rock that lay only 5 feet below the surface of the water at low tide. Blossom Rock was discovered and named in 1826 by Captain Beechey of the HMS Blossom. Beechey noted that the rock could be avoided by aligning the northern tip of Yerba Buena Island with two especially large redwood trees growing in the East Bay hills as one entered the Bay. These redwoods were located in what is now Roberts Regional Recreation Area, near the “Madrone” picnic area; the area is marked with a historical marker. The “Navigation Trees” were logged in about 1851, exacerbating the danger of Blossom Rock.
Some of the flora is slowly reclaiming the island…
And here the trees slowly encroach on the side of the road; another example of ongoing battle between nature and infrastructure.
Because yes, the island is home to a lot of infrastructure as well.
Of 2,500 people living on both islands, the majority settled on the artificial flatland of Treasure Island. But there are buildings on Yerba Buena Island also, and quite a few of them have led interesting lives.
Much like in San Francisco, some buildings have to work hard to conquer the island’s challenging vertical profile.
Among the island’s oddities we were pointed to one long, bending heating pipe that connects each of the buildings.
There are also moments — like when you encounter a white-on-black ONE WAY sign, or a pair of vintage cars — where you feel that the journey through Yerba Buena Island is also a journey back in time.
Then there’s Quarters 10 and Building 267, the 1948 military buildings deemed architecturally valuable enough to be put on National Register of Historic Places. They will have to be moved soon, as they’re in the path of imminent construction. (Moving buildings is not unusual among Bay Area islands — if you visit Angel Island, some of the structures there actually came from Yerba Buena Island, transferred carefully by boat.)
Anywhere else, those buildings would feel out of place, but is there anything that truly feels out of place on Yerba Buena Island?
(Also, the blue trashcan almost matching the blue accents of the roofs and awnings is a pretty delightful detail.)
The observation tower
Then, there’s the wooden observation tower, originally used by the Navy in the 1940s as a control tower for seaplanes. (Seaplanes were popular back in those days. During and after the Exposition, Treasure Island was a seaport, although that lasted for only a few years, most memorably earning a short scene in the first Indiana Jones movie.)
Some time later, the tower was converted to a unique officer’s club, cramped and rickety — but undoubtedly exciting. Limited space prompted the owners to add a red light at the base, alerting people there might not be enough room upstairs to get in.
(One must wonder how many interesting fights happened here.)
The 1989 earthquake proved one strong shake too many, damaging the tower enough so that it was boarded up and condemned. Since it’s not protected in any way, it is likely to be destroyed soon — unless something is done.
Imagine how frustrating it is today, standing next to something promising the grandest possible 360° views of the Bay Area… and not being able to get in.
Atlas Obscura mentions a herd of cats being the only contemporary tenants, but do those cats appreciate what must be the most astonishing view and the historical significance of the whole situation? We doubt so.
We’re not sure what could be done to save the tower, but we’re not the only people who are interested in this happening. As you see below, even the sole graffiti we found on the island seems to express some sort of approval for the tower.
The past and the future
Yerba Buena Island is no stranger to change. The construction of the Bay Bridge in 1936 was a major event — you can see the impact of the works on the following historical photo.
For over a century now, the island was a tripartite entity shared between the Army, the Navy, and Coast Guard. Some of the access restrictions were relaxed in the 1990s and 2000s, but parts of the island are still inaccessible to the public.
YBI lived more than a few actual lives, but also a couple imaginary ones, with some close calls of misguided grandiose plans. Leland Stanford wanted it to be a terminus for the transcontinental railroad, and in the 1950, among many car-friendly ideas of that decade, there was a proposal for the island to become a connector between no fewer than sixty-seven thousand upcoming bridges.
Let’s repeat: This was a bona fide actual proposal. Fortunately, something resembling sanity prevailed.
Today, Yerba Buena Island is again in the middle of significant development. In an area generally strapped for living space, there are plans to add more residential units. Some of the work is already in progress, with trees and space being cleared for construction.
In addition, the on-ramps and off-ramps from the bridge, today tight and dangerous (joining the bridge requires merging into 50-mph traffic from a stop sign; it’s an nerve-wracking experience) are in the process of being redesigned and rebuilt.
The Great Whites
It was the construction of the ramps that prevented us from seeing arguably the most interesting buildings on Yerba Buena Island: The Great Whites, a few wooden houses surrounded by gardens, with handsome architectural details both within and without. (The houses include Quarters 1, home to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who lived there while commanding the Pacific Fleet during World War II).
However, CalTrans turned us around: they deemed it too dangerous to walk around. Our tiny consolation prize was this beautiful lettering on the sign saying Caution: Autos backing into this lane. Autos! Magnificent.
The eastern span of the Bay Bridge
Fortunately, we could still take a peek at the other span of the bridge. Or, actually, two spans. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged not just the tower, but one section of the Bay Bridge and it was determined that the eastern span needs to be replaced en masse. It took a few decades, but the new span was finished recently. For some time at least, both of them will coexist, as the older one is slowly dismantled, piece by piece. It’s yet another Yerba Buena Island dichotomy.
The island is currently accessible only by car, or the 108 Muni bus. Eventually, the new bike path on the eastern span will connect the East Bay to Yerba Buena Island, allowing for easier access. The path currently terminates in the middle of nowhere — you can see the end of it in the middle of the above photo (the ramp with orange accents).
Of the many hidden, secret, half-forgotten trails on the island, this might be the best one — a long staircase descending towards a cove, with views of Treasure Island.
The buildings in the distance are remnants of the 1939 fair. Many years later, they were used as sound stages for Matrix’s famous bullet-time special effects.
It is here where we found fiesta flower, blooming in gorgeous violet — long gone from San Francisco, but surviving on the island.
The staircase led us to the most accessible part of Yerba Buena Island, and yet still a secret for most San Franciscans: Clipper Cove.
We found it a beautiful, quiet space. Here, we could not only admire the graceful curves of the new bridge, but also spot one more storied structure: Building 262, or the Torpedo Storehouse.
A useless, asbestos-ridden nuisance for some, an important historical building worth preserving to others, figuring out what to do with this 1891 warehouse was what contributed to the delays of construction of the new span of the Bay Bridge. The building survived, although today you can only see it from afar.
There are a few more secrets on the island, among them the 1875 lighthouse in, reportedly, pristine condition…
…and the Bay Bridge troll. But like the Great Whites, those — and a few other trails — will need to wait for a future visit (the lighthouse is not open to public, the troll is reportedly on vacation).
It’s easy to be mean to Yerba Buena Island for all the barriers it throws up. But that also makes loving it easy, for the adventure of overcoming them. And they provoke all sorts of questions: How it is possible for something to feel so remote, even though you might pass through it every day? How can we preserve the island’s history, but at the same time invest in its future? And how can an island so guarded and inaccessible still, at times, feel like a natural, uninhabited reserve?
Yerba Buena Island seems to exist mostly in between, not just literally (on the way from Oakland to San Francisco), but also metaphorically. After decades as a connector, it’s trying to become a destination. Here, nature and technology claim an equal stake, and the military heritage coexists uneasily with mundane residential presence.
It will be interesting to see Yerba Buena Island change. Right now, it proves that in between might be the most interesting place to be.
And with that in mind we were off to Treasure Island, which — to be perfectly honest — is also full of treasures.
But that’s a different photo essay altogether. Thank you, Ruth!
The essay was written in January 2015. Photos were taken in May 2014, with the exception of Treasure Island skyline and Yerba Buena Island fireworks photos, taken in December 2008, and historical photos dated and attributed in situ.