Angel Island Landscapes

  Historic Landscapes of the Angel Island
  Coastal Fortifications
  Thomas Wheeler

  Associate State Archaeologist

Within the San Francisco Bay region much of the natural landscape consists of introduced vegetation. Imports from Europe, Mexico, Africa, Australia, and numerous other places, have insinuated themselves into the landscape from the backs of cattle and sheep and in the seeds sown by Spanish missionaries and later settlers. These plants have established themselves as the predominant vegetation within both urban and suburban settings- to the extent that they form a common and therefore overlooked context for many historic events, which have shaped our communities. The plants themselves reflect some of the overriding events which form our community landscapes.

A common ethic among environmentalists resists the acceptance of this "unnatural" vegetation and seeks to restore some of the original species forced out by these intruders, even if only within the small enclave of our personal domain. Thus an easy acceptance, if not outright cheering, has followed such climatic events as unusual cold spells, which threaten some of these intruders.

Current resource management policy within parks and public lands has sought to restore natural landscapes through planting programs and vegetation removal. Unfortunately, such programs look to landscapes, which are more the result of purposeful formation processes rather than random escapees of natural dispersal processes. This paper will focus on Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay and the development of successive cultural landscapes.

Angel Island, a U.S. Army installation from 1863 to 1946, has operated as a coastal defense site during the Civil War, Detention and Discharge camps from 1900 to 1946 and as Immigration and Quarantine stations established in 1892 and 1909 respectively.

Prior to European contact, the island supported an oak woodland community dominated by coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), intermixed with California bay (Umbellularia californica) and madrone (Arbutus menziesii). Grassland and coastal scrub communities dominated the island's south and west aspects. These communities are thought to have been expanded through the use of fire by the Coast Miwok who favored grassland communities. This increased the seed and bulb harvests while maintaining and increasing the woodland grass belts, providing greater forage for the resident deer population (L. Bean and H. Lawton 1993:46; CDFG 1977:4).

The island was called Wood Island in the early 19th century by the coastal traders who sought a ready supply of water and firewood out of sight of Spanish customs. Henry Dana, following his visit to the island in 1835, described it as covered with trees to the water's edge. By 1859, continued collecting had led to the complete deforestation of the island (Dana 1965:178; CDFG 1977:5).

In 1839 the Mexican Governor granted the island to Antonio Osio to "enable respectable citizens to have possession and prevent its being a rendezvous for smugglers" (Tyler 1872). Under Osio's ownership a variety of tenants introduced horses, cattle and sheep to the island resulting in both intensive grazing and the introduction of alien plant species (Bentley 1869:1; Anon. 1880:1).

In 1863 following the Mexican war, and the settlement of subsequent land claims, the U.S. Military took over the island, initially establishing Camp Reynolds (West Garrison) in response to perceived threats to the security of San Francisco bay during the Civil War. Military occupation resulted in the introduction of many more exotic plant species including blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), established in the middle 1870s, and century plants (Acacia melanoxylon, Agave americana) (Ripley 1969:4). By 1880, the gravel walkway in front of the officer's quarters at West Garrison had been lined with pollarded Eucalyptus (Anon. 1880).

All of the Eucalyptus groves on the island were planted during the 83-year period of military occupation. These groves were established as a means of controlling erosion, forming windbreaks, and improving the appearance of the island.

The military's use of Eucalyptus was in part a response to a nationwide concern for a reduction in hardwood timber supplies. The extraordinary increase of immigrants into California beginning in 1849 stimulated rapid development, resulting in the harvest of the state's vast virgin timber stands. Used not only in construction but also as fuel, the need for wood products resulted in the increasing harvest of forest resources. According to a 1909 estimate, up to three million acres were being logged each year. By the turn of the century, concern for a wood shortage grew in California and throughout the country. In response to this, tree planting increased to a near patriotic duty. The Arbor day tradition of tree planting, begun in 1870 New England, increased in popularity throughout the U.S. In the San Francisco Bay region school children set about planting Eucalyptus at the San Francisco Presidio, Sutro Forest, and Mount Davidson (R. Friedman 1988:24-31; V. Schrenk and Fulks and Kammerer 1909:7).

Both popular and scientific publications produced articles on the valuable characteristics of Eucalyptus trees. In 1871 the California Academy of Sciences published "On the Economic Value of Certain Australian Forest Trees," and an article in the 1909 Sunset Magazine (interleaved with advertisements for seedlings and planted land) lauded the tree for its usefulness in timber, furniture and oil production (Friedman 1988:27-29). Its vigorous growth and ability to sprout from cut stumps suggested it was an excellent means for meeting increasing demands for wood.

In California, Eucalyptus globulus has been the most extensively planted Eucalyptus over the last 100 years (Krugman 1974:384). First introduced into California in 1853 by Robert Waterman, a clipper ship captain, by the 1870's the tree had spread throughout coastal and central regions of the state becoming a common character of the landscape.

Large plantations of Eucalyptus, at one time covering up to 65,000 acres, were established to provide timber for dimension lumber, railroad ties, pilings and fuel. Throughout the agricultural regions of the state miles of Eucalyptus were planted in rows to form windbreaks. On park lands they were established as ornamental and in damp areas they were used to reduce malarial conditions through their ability to absorb surface waters. (McIntire 1973:156).

Although initially accepted with great enthusiasm, the expected potential of Eucalyptus began to unravel when attempts were made to use the wood from these trees. Several cautions were raised regarding Eucalyptus including those of the chairman of the state board of forestry, Abbott Kinney. He described railroad ties, which split and checked so badly that they would not hold down rails. Others found that the wood's hardness, although of value for some purposes, was also a drawback in that it is difficult to work. Additionally, sawn timber required steaming for several hours to prevent warping and shrinkage. In its native setting, the best Eucalyptus wood was cut and kiln-dried from mature trees; in California only air-dried youthful wood products were available. Much of the enthusiasm for the tree's potential ended when the California grown trees were test milled (Friedman 1988:29).

Improved transportation and development of the softwood industry in California eventually facilitated utilization of the forests in the Pacific Northwest. This brought Douglas fir, pine and redwood timber to California markets at lower prices than Eucalyptus (McIntire 1973:157) bringing an end to the economic motivation to establish Eucalyptus in the state. Although its use as windbreaks and ornamental plantings continued for some time.

In 1892 a quarantine station was established on the Island at Hospital (Ayala) Cove and an Immigration Station was constructed at Simpton Point in 1909. The development of this section of the island resulted in the introduction of Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis), Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria exdelsa) and English Ivy (Hedra helix) (Ripley 1969:5). Development of Fort McDowell, on the east side of the island, began around 1900 with the construction of a Detention Camp for soldiers returning from the Spanish American War. Shortly after this it the camp was expanded to act as a discharge camp for soldiers returning from the war in the Philippines. In 1902 John P. Finley , Captain of the Ninth U.S. Infantry, wrote the following description of the flora of Angel Island:

The flora of the island is remarkably extensive and interesting. The slopes are heavily wooded on the leeward side, protected as they are from the prevailing westerly winds. The windward exposure, especially on the ridges, is free from bushes and trees, but the grass and wild flowers grow luxuriantly everywhere even on the summit, where the wind blows constantly. Among the trees and bushes the following well-known specimens have been observed: Lupine, manzanita, buckeye, scrub oak, larkspur, eucalyptus, live oak, hazel bush, tallones, romerio, palmas silvestre, wild rose, blackberry bush. The following are some of the grasses, vines and flowers: Wild oats, burr clover, poison oak, alfalfa, cacomites, alfilaria (pin grass), California poppy (eschscholtzia), fox-tail grass, amoles (Indian), ceballa silvestre (wild onion), camer (wild Spanish sunflower), chillicotes (Indian), ferns of various kinds, gloria de la manana (wild morning glory), petota (Indian, used for salads), lengua de boca (cow's tongue), flor de cafe (coffee flower), santa cardo (holy thistle), canary grass (Finley 1902:301).

Improvements contemplated for the discharge camp included:

12 Wind breaks of fast-growing trees should be provided for, at least on the south and west sides of the camp. The great success which has attended this form of tree culture at the Presidio can be repeated at the Discharge camp with equally good results, and with greatest benefit to the troops (Finley 1902: 380).

The Fort continued in use through both world wars, finally being declared surplus in 1947. Of the many plants introduced into the Fort Dowell area, most notable are Japanese Redwood (Cryptomeria japonica), Incense Cedar (Calodcdrus decurrens), Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) and Big Tree ( Sequoiadendron giganteum) (Ripley 1969:6).

The San Francisco Call for October 11, 1908 reported the intent of the U.S. Government to plant 600,000 trees including redwood, blue gum, and other varieties. Assisted by A.E. Roberts, Sausalito town engineer, 200,000 of these trees were to be planted to beautify Angel Island. The gum and pine trees to be used by the government were to be transplanted from the Presidio in San Francisco. The reason given for this extensive planting by the government was to conserve water in the dry soil, make the forts more habitable by using the trees as windbreaks, and to beautify the harbor and its entrance.

On Nov. 4, 1909 Additional plantings of Eucalyptus and fir trees were set out on the island's south slope (McDonald and Associates:102).

In the early 1920s the San Francisco Wild Flower Society initiated a long-term wildflower seed-planting program on the island. During the same period, the help of school children was enlisted to plant several groves of Eucalyptus, including several flowering types, adding to the variety of trees growing on the island, (McDonald & Associates 1966:110; CDFG 1977:4; Powell 1949).

One of the most recent planting concerns was carried out by Anthony Julis between 1942-44. Julis first came to Angel Island in 1907 from Monterey with the 22nd Infantry. He returned to the island in 1919 while enroute to Hawaii. He spent the last two and half years of his military career on Angel Island in the Chief Clerk Quartermaster's office, retiring in 1936. Between 1941-44 he worked on the Island as a civilian employee doing the same job.

Julis (1946:10) recounted the following regarding tree plantings on the island.

I am the guy who planted all those trees. Got the Post engineers to help, of course. There was a good deal of sliding on the hillside when the ground got soaked, and it was proposed to plant more trees to hold the banks. Eucalyptus. I wondered why we couldn't plant "educated" trees instead of the Eucalyptus, and finally got the Post Engineers interested. The Commanding Officer, at first said "no". But after much persuasion agreed. I was a civilian by this time, and so I wrote them to the Post Engineer. Since he was only a lieutenant, I opened up pretty good, and he by "accident" showed them to the C.O. That's the way we got the matter before the C.O., who was pretty mad at first, then amused. We secured seedlings from the Federal Soil Conservation Service I go the Federal Soil Conversation [sic] Service to send their agronomist over to the island to advise us and in the course of three years we did a lot of planting. Of course John Harriston, the foreman, got a shovel gang and took them into the hills and planted them: 45,000 trees in three years. The first year we planted 25,000. 1943 the second year we planted 10,000 (for which we paid $90.00). 1944 the third year we planted 10,000 (for which we paid $90.0) There were cork oaks from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain, black Locust, Monterey Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Redwood, Douglas Fir, and many kinds of shrubs such as the Australian Tee Tree, a small tree or big bush, with a fine root system, the toyon, lilacs. We planted the big trees to go down deep, and the small stuff to hold the surface soil immediately. The main consideration was that these varieties need little water. The commanding Officer appointed me Supt. of landscaping, forestry and gardening. I had volunteered to do this, and wanted nothing out of it in the way of pay. Seems there is a rule in the army that no man can hold two jobs- anyway we worked it out. The Jacaranda tree--we planted 2. One lived-- a large bush with clusters of large bluish flowers. Will freeze, the one on Angel Island is about the most northern in California. We had a very few dollars with which we bought some rhododendrons and camellias, I organized the gardeners.

Lastly, environmental concerns for the conditions of California's Redwood forests and the erosion of many natural communities, undoubtedly encouraged the planting of Redwood trees by State Park personnel in the 1960-70s. The vegetative history of Angel Island is a result of many people's attempts to remake the island's environment into one familiar to their cultural background and productive to their economic needs. The Bay Miwok burned off the grasslands to encourage their return, thereby insuring sufficient plants for seed gathering as well as forage for the native deer population. Osio and his tenants introduced cattle and sheep, which carried with them the seeds more familiar to rangelands than the island's indigenous species. Military occupation brought the purposeful introduction of a wide variety of exotic species which, constitute much of the present historic landscape. The Eucalyptus plantings represent both methods used by the military to enhance and control their environment and a reaction to the perceived conditions of the wood industry on a national scale.

Anon. Angel Island Guide Headquarters of the Eighth U. S. Infantry, 1880 (Copy on file at California Dept. of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento).

Bean, Lowell J. and Harry Lawton. Some Explanations for the Rise of Cultural Complexity in Native California with Comments on Proto Agriculture and Agriculture. In: Before the Wilderness Comp. and ed. by Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson, Ballena Press, Menlo Park, 1993.

Bentley, Edwin. Angel Island, California. Ms. on file, 1869. California Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.

C.D.F.G. State Park Deer Herd Reduction Program, Final E.I.R.Ms. on file, 1977. California Dept of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.

Dana, Richard H. Two Years Before the Mast. Airmont Publishing Co., New York, 1965.

Finley, John P. Discharging a Philippine Army. Sunset Magazine Vol. 9 (5) 1-4, 1902.

Friedman, Roberta. Strangers in Our Midst. Pacific Discovery. Summer 1988.

Harriston, John W. Chats with M/Sgt. John W. Harriston- Fort McDowell- August 11, 1946.On file California Dept. of Parks and Recreation, California.

Julis, Anthony. Transcript of an interview with Anthony Julis, 1946. On file California Dept. of Parks and Recreation, California.

Krugman, Stanley L. Eucalyptus L'Herit. Eucalyptus In: Seeds of Woody Plants of the United States. Agriculture Handbook No. 450 Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, 1974.

McDonald, Marshall Associates. Recommendations for the Historical-Recreational Development of Angel Island, Section II General History of Angel Island, 1966.

McIntire, Elliot G. The Rise and Fall of the California Eucalyptus. Association of American Geographers, Proceedings (5) 155-159, 1973.

Powell, Russell A. Angel Island Semi-Tropic Isle of San Francisco Bay. San Francisco Progress , June 6-7, 1949, P. A., 1949.

Ripley, James D. Floristic and Ecologic al Study of Angel Island State Park, Marin County, California. MA thesis, San Francisco State College, 1969.

Tyler, R.O. Revised Outline Descriptions of the Posts and Stations of Troops on the Military Division of the Pacific, 1872.

Von Schrenk, Fulks and Kammerer. Report on the Eucalyptus of California. Sacramento Valley Improvement Co. St Louis, MO, 1909.