SAN FRANCISCO — Riding a ferry to it from busy San Francisco, you find Angel Island a quiet, peaceful haven with no traffic roar, almost no cars, no hotels and no restaurants. It's a sharp contrast in the space of a few minutes, a contrast borne of the angels.
Things move slowly on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, starting with the ferry you arrive on from San Francisco or Tiburon. It's only 740 acres in area, with 13 miles of foot trails and fire roads to hike.
Bicycles are for rent, for those who want to move a bit faster. Deer are so abundant that they have to be relocated or thinned out from time to time. Other wildlife includes raccoons and 80 species of birds.
In the early spring colorful wildflowers blanket the hills and meadows. More appear in the rainless summers, relishing the fog that rolls in and out.
Since 1863 people have been bringing in trees from other lands--eucalyptus, cypress, pines, cork oaks and others, and planting them on the island. These and the native shrubs have made it a place of natural beauty. Angel Island is a state park, so a ranger steeped in knowledge of the flora and fauna gives guided walks.
The island comes to a 781-foot peak at Mt. Livermore, from where you may enjoy a 360-degree view of the bay area. This includes San Pablo Bay and the hills of Sonoma and Napa counties, the East Bay, Alcatraz, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito in Marin County and Mt. Tamalpais. And it's a grandstand seat for watching sailboat races in the bay.
Belying its peaceful present, Angel Island has had a fascinating past that involved plenty of action and international intrigue. Indians, explorers, fur trappers, smugglers looting Spanish galleons, whalers, immigrants, escaping convicts, military men and prisoners of war all were part of its history.
For thousands of years the Miwok Indians lived here, hunting and fishing. In August, 1775, Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala anchored his sailing ship, the San Carlos, at Angel Island's pretty cove, which is named after him. He named the island Isla de Los Angeles and spent several months mapping the bay.
In the early part of the 19th Century, Russian expeditions arrived and based here, hunting sea otter and chasing out the Indians. Later it became a cattle ranch, with a grant from Gen. Vallejo.
Old Buildings Still Stand
During the Civil War, Camp Reynolds was established at West Garrison and gun batteries were built there and at other points around the island. Batteries were in operation until 1909.
Camp Reynolds was also a distribution point for soldiers protecting settlers of the Western frontier. Some of its old buildings still stand. Sixteen have been restored and 14 more will be reconstructed.
It's a short walk from sailboat-dotted Ayala Cove, where the ferries land, to West Garrison, to see its greasy military quadrangle lined on one side by the officers' quarters. It is said that these are the only remaining wooden Civil War buildings in the nation. The big brick storehouse on the bay is a fine example of the classical, clean-lined revival style popular in military buildings of the 19th Century.
The immigration center at North Garrison came to be called "Ellis Island of the West" until it was closed in 1940. Up to 50,000 Chinese immigrants were held there, some as long as two years, before either gaining entrance or being deported.
Some committed suicide rather than return to Asia. Although some, those with families, gained citizenship, some had to leave America when all they had seen of it was Angel Island.
The immigrants scratched thousands of poems into the walls of the barracks, layer upon layer of Chinese characters. One poem that is still visible reads: "Even if it is built on jade, it has turned into a cage."
Because of this historic graffiti, descendants of detained immigrants have begun to restore the barracks, erect a monument and build a museum. They have published a book of poems called "Island," that they were able to decipher. During World War II these quarters held German prisoners and interned Japanese-Americans.
Ft. McDowell, at East Garrison, was the largest Army induction center in the world during World Wars I and II. From it 87,000 men returned to civilian status in 1945-46. That was a busy time for little Angel Island. That year the Army closed East Garrison and declared the island surplus property. It soon became a state park.
Nearby is the old quarry where stone was cut by Alcatraz convicts for San Francisco's downtown section and Alcatraz. Quarry Beach is the longest beach on the island. If the waters are too cold for a swim, it's a pleasant place to sun, beachcomb, picnic, camp or just rest and enjoy the view. As the park brochure advises:
"Sit a while and relax. Soon you will find yourself back in a busier, noisier world. Breathe in the island's clean air, and open your senses to the special sounds and smells of this place. Feel the slow, steady pulse of this living island, and take its peace home with you."
For information on ferry schedules from San Francisco and Tiburon, contact Angel Island State Park, P.O. Box 318, Tiburon, Calif. 94920, phone (415) 435-1915. Round-trip fares are $6.10 for adults and $3.30 for children from San Francisco, $3 and $2 from Tiburon. Ferries run all year.