A day on Angel Island

Gem of the bay: Angel Island offers an uncrowded oasis of beauty — and history
The Sacramento Bee, September 23, 2004


Angel Island looms large in the geography of the Bay Area, but it also occupies a special place in time.

It’s been revered by early residents, such as the Coast Miwok tribes, and used by various branches of the U.S. military for nearly 100 years. It was the first place many Asian immigrants touched ground upon arrival in America.

“There’s a lot of history going on here,” says Rebecca Schenone-Chase, the new head ranger for Angel Island State Park.

What makes a visit to Angel Island unique is that the history lessons can be learned while hiking, biking or camping on the 740 acres of the island, which rises to the 788-foot summit of Mount Livermore.

Located just south of the Marin County enclaves of Belvedere and Tiburon, Angel Island is within clear view of Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco and much of the East Bay. There are a million reasons to visit, but two especially good ones to go soon.

You won’t be fighting crowds now. And sometime before the end of the year, certain buildings will be closed for a face-lift.

One of them is Immigration Station, which housed thousands of detained Chinese immigrants. The $15 million renovation should be finished by 2006.

Manage your time well on Angel Islandl. The park is open 8 a.m. to sunset, but at this time of year fewer ferries go to the island. Check with angelislandferry.com and
blueandgoldfleet.com.

Because of ferry schedules, a “day” on Angel Island is not a sunrise-tosunset affair. Transportation considerations may limit a visit to as few as five hours. So decide if this is a one-time trip to get an overview or just the first of many visits, which can be allocated to hiking, picnicking or visiting the historic sites.

“If you want to go around the island and climb to the top of the mountain, you’re going to be moving pretty fast,” says Surrey Blackburn, executive director of the Angel Island Association, a nonprofit group that supports the volunteers and island restoration work.

Another option
One way around the time-management problem is to camp overnight.

“At night, the views of the lights of San Francisco are spectacular,” Blackburn said.

A San Jose man and his 8-year-old son, Jason, agreed, having just spent the night. “It’s so quiet, you feel very removed from the city,” says Jason’s father, Eric. “It’s so close, but so far away as well. We love it here.”

Oddly, the island is not much visited.

“We find that 75 percent of our visitors are coming for the first time,” says Blackburn. She said Angel Island’s more famous – and much smaller – cousin across the bay, Alcatraz, gets 2 million visitors a year. Angel Island plays host to only 200,000.

“A lot of people come here because they can’t get a reservation to see Alcatraz,” she says. “And they’re very surprised by what they find.”

Ranger Schenone-Chase says the park is getting even fewer visitors than usual, which she attributes to a weak economy. “It’s less busy than it’s been in a long time,” she said.

Following is what we accomplished in a day.

Spectacular views
The island, which can be seen from all over the Bay Area, has the best views you’re going to find. A climb from Ayala Cove on the island’s north side, up to the summit of Mount Livermore, is well-maintained and gradual. There is an unsurpassed and unobstructed 360-degree view of Marin, the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Richmond Bridge and beyond.

No crowds. During the foggy, mid-morning climb through cypress trees, only two other people were on the path. On reaching the top (in about 45 minutes), we were greeted by the sun burning through the gray, and by lunchtime we were baking in the heat.

There are several trails that circumnavigate Mount Livermore in about three miles, bringing one eventually back to Ayala Cove just in time for the last ferry’s departure. But there is an easier option: the Perimeter Road. Winding for five paved miles around the island, it’s suitable for walking, cycling (mountain bikes can be brought over or rented at Ayala Cove) or, the easiest option of all, the tram.

Running around the island in one hour, the audio-enhanced tram tours give a breezy overview of the island and its history and are perfect for those who like to take their armchair travel on the road – or for those for whom a five-mile walk might be too strenuous.

But even if you walk it, Perimeter Road offers the biggest payoff for the least exertion of any California hike. It affords cool breezes and world-class views unfolding around every curve.

And it is at this lower elevation that visitors will find most of the island’s historical features: abandoned barracks and Nike missile silos, evidence of a century of military use, and the more evocative barracks of the Immigration Station at China Cove on the northeast side of the island.

The missile silos are off-limits, but other batteries can be seen up close, as can the barracks of Fort McDowell and Camp Reynolds. The barracks were the temporary homes for hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers who fought in wars over nearly a century. Here, soldiers from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II were “processed” – some on their way to or from overseas.

But most unusual among Angel Island’s old buildings is the Immigration Station (also known as the North Garrison), on China Cove. It was here that Chinese immigrants, along with immigrants from other Asian nations, were held, ostensibly while being quarantined for such diseases as smallpox.

Mostly, though, they were being held for being Chinese, which, according to U.S. government reports of the time, was tantamount to being persona non-grata for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Poems tell tales
Having spent weeks or even months getting here, lured by the promise of California’s gold fields, and later by the same promise of freedom and opportunity that drew people from all over the world, the Chinese after 1882 suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Laws, designed to thwart their immigration.

The barracks in which they were housed (some for weeks, others for months), were nearly destroyed in 1970, after the island became a state park. But through the efforts of preservationists and politicians, they have been turned into a museum.

The barracks features that captured the imaginations of the preservationists were the dozens of poems carved into the wooden walls by homeless, disillusioned Chinese immigrants awaiting their fate.

“Even while they are tyrannical, they still claim to be humanitarian,” reads one (in translation). “I should regret my taking the risks of coming in the first place/America has power, but not justice/In prison, we were victimized as if we were guilty.”

That poem was taken from a Web site (www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/ a_f/angel/polster.htm), since the museum is open only on weekends, and only the men’s barracks is accessible. With the imminent closure of the Immigration Station, the poems will not be visible again until 2006.

The place of Angel Island in Chinese American history varies, depending on what wave of immigration a family came in on, says Erika Gee, education director for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. The imprisonment is not an experience survivors found easy to discuss.

“It really took the foundation’s work to get the community to talk about it,” says Gee. “In many families, no one knew about their parents’ experience. … Because of the exclusion laws, some people got in under false pretenses, they didn’t want to be exposed.

“More than that, it was a shameful period, and these prisonlike conditions were not a time people wanted to remember.”

On a quiet weekday, the Immigration Station is virtually abandoned, and one can easily imagine the isolation those would-be Americans felt, isolated by the cold green waters of the bay.

We ended our visit to the Immigration Station, since we needed to be back at Ayala Cove by 3:15 p.m. for the last ferry. And that’s the rub: Time is tight on Angel Island.

Which is a shame – but it’s just another reason to visit. After all, it’s as convenient to Sacramento as anywhere else in the San Francisco/Marin area.