clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

People (Not Just Birds) Used to Live on the Farallon Islands

New, 2 comments

Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed highlights a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

Southeast Farallon Island, 1945 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

On a rare clear day you can look out from the Cliff House or Ocean Beach and just barely make out the shapes of the Farallon Islands in the distance 30 miles away. Protected as part of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, the islands are completely off limits to the public and only accessible to a handful of scientists. But long ago when the Coast Guard and Navy had stations on the island, the Farrallons had permanent inhabitants...and they weren't just seabirds and sharks.

Technically part of the City and County of San Francisco (District 1, if you're wondering), the islands are comprised of four groups of small islands: Southeast Farallon, North Farallons, Middle Farallon, and Noonday Rock. There's a long history of European exploration of the islands, dating back to Sir Francis Drake in 1579 and Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, and later Russian seal traders. Elephant seals were harvested for their blubber while fur seals were hunted for their pelts. When California was ceded to the US in 1848 and the Gold Rush brought a population increase to the Bay Area, the Farallons quickly became a popular place for egg gathering. People collected murre eggs by the thousands, and a group of men claimed the island for the Pacific Egg Company.

Egg collecting, 1880s [Photo: California Academy of Science]

As early as 1853, a lighthouse was constructed on Southeast Farrallon Island. The egging business was competitive, and the many disputes over the practice eventually led to an 1881 executive order making it illegal - just the lighthouse keepers and a few support staff remained. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated North and Middle Farallon Islands and Noonday Rock as the Farallon Reservation.

Farallon Island lighthouse, 1960s (left) and now (right) [Photos: Lighthouse Friends]

As the only inhabitable island among a cluster of rocky outcrops, ">SEFI once supported a various military stations. The Weather Service had a long-range radio out there as early as 1903, and by 1905 the Navy had their own station, and they built a bunch of buildings to house servicemen and their families. The Coast Guard took over running the lighthouse, and together the two branches housed up to 78 people during World War II. The island held a radar outpost that was kept secret during the war. The lighthouse and foghorn also served the critical role of preventing incoming ships from colliding with the rocky islands. The Navy left after the war and most of the buildings were torn down. A few Coast Guard folks remained until 1965, when the families moved off the island and only six people remained to manage the lighthouse. It stayed in use until 1972, but today only the lower portion remains. In the late 60s, scientists moved onto the island to help monitor the wildlife.


[Photos: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY] Most of the former houses, barracks, and outbuildings that were constructed in the early years were torn down, but a few still exist as a field camp. There was also a giant water cistern that was used originally to cool the coal-fueled boilers that ran the steam fog horn, and later was used to collect rainwater for the residents to drink. Supplies weren't shipped in regularly, and when they came, they were transported by carts on railroad tracks.

The only remaining buildings today (click to enlarge [Photo: John 'K']

No one but scientists and Fish and Wildlife representatives are allowed on the island, and they live in one of the remaining houses dating back to the 1870s. There's no actual harbor on SEFI, so they use a huge crane to launch a small boat that greets visiting biologists from large boats.

Crane hoisting visitors, 1950 (similar system still used today) [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Half the researchers are out there to study the bird life, while the others man a lookout at the lighthouse and boats offshore to study the great white sharks and giant blue whales. The Farallones sit in the middle of the Red Triangle, a triangle-shaped region off the coast that's home to one of the largest concentrations of great white sharks in the world. The sharks, plus the rocky coastline, have earned the islands the nickname of Devil's Teeth.

Devil's Teeth [Photo: Jeff Gunn]

Congress designated all the islands except Southeast Farallon Island as the Farallon Wilderness Area in 1974, completely off limits to all people.

· Farallon National Wildlife Refuge [Fish and Wildlife Service]
· Farallon Islands [Lighthouse Friends]
· Farallon Islands [Every Trail]
· Farallon Islands items at Nightlife [California Academy of Science]