The Incredible History of San Francisco's Coast, as Seen From the Air

Blood-colored evaporation ponds, smoldering toxic-waste dumps, a rusting fleet of military ghost ships – the Bay Area has it all.

Perhaps no region in America has a coastline as fascinating as the San Francisco Bay. The water's edge is larded with incredible industrial sites in various stages of growth or decay – secretive aeronautic labs, former explosives factories (some that have actually exploded), bloody-looking salt ponds, rusty naval "ghost ships," and distended municipal dumps that smolder and belch fire.

Many folks may not realize the wealth of historically significant, now frequently polluted sites within a stone's throw of San Francisco and Oakland. Barbed-wire fences and vast buffers of asphalt and marsh keep them safe from the casual explorer's view. But fly a small aircraft over the Bay Area and the industrial giants reveal themselves: sprawling compounds, often dissolving back into the soil and sea, that would fit right in with land art monuments or the smoke-veiled skyline of Blade Runner.

Matthew Coolidge has actually been performing such aerial surveys for the past year or so to collect fodder for a new book, Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region. "Flying is sometimes an important thing to do to show things on a scale you can't really achieve on the ground," he says. "It can be quite illuminating, even in the days of Google Earth. There's only so much zooming you can do."

As the director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Los Angeles-based group devoted to "understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface," Coolidge has a natural interest in how California's industrial tycoons, tech leviathans, and even blubber-hungry whalers have molded the Bay into their own concrete anthill. "[San Francisco] was the first dominant city on the West Coast, the first to become an outpost for the Pacific empire, if you will, that the United States was managing and developing over those years," he explains. "It's interesting to consider the whole region as a megacity, which it is – it's just one that has a big, wet hole in the middle of it."

Coolidge recently took the time to chat about the sites spotlighted in Around the Bay; here are a few of the more bodacious ones.

Cargill Salt

One of the many unheralded superlatives of the Bay Area is its status as a paradise of salt. These carmine fields in Newark, which stick out on Google Maps like a sore thumb at the southern tip of the Bay, are solar-evaporation reservoirs for pulling salt from seawater. The red coloration is a decorative gift from naturally occurring halophilic bacteria.

"Salt is a funny thing," says Coolidge. "It's one of the most basic things in our food industry, yet it doesn't come from many places in the United States." Some of it is mined, like from a big rock-salt deposit under Detroit; and some comes from evaporation ponds like these guys, which together make up the nation's largest salt-pool system outside of the Great Salt Lake.

A network of dykes operated by Cargill Salt holds the water in place as crystalline material accumulates on the bottom of the ponds. "Then they come in with these big graters that just scrape off the top layer, put it in a pile to process, and turn it into various-shaped globules ranging from pea size to small grains," Coolidge says. Most of the salt goes to the chemical industry or roadway deicers, with only 3 percent winding up as food seasoning. The entire process can up to 5 years to generate commercially viable salt.

West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill

San Francisco is hedged on many sides by great walls of garbage, like an armchair slob who just chucks his beer cans and salami rinds around the room. Here's one of the more impressive dumps, located in North Richmond. Opened in the 1950s, the facility recently had to stop accepting municipal waste because it maxed out its permitted terminal height of 235 feet. The behemoth pile of stinky refuse is so heavy that it sinks 25 feet below sea level, and yet it somehow manages to look pretty.

"So much of the Bay is landfill," Coolidge says. It's not just swamps that people have filled in with garbage to create new real estate (although there's plenty of that), but also hulking mounds that the locals have amassed over the decades. "The biggest hills around the shore are dumps, some up to 240 feet high."

Mothball Fleet

Strategically located San Francisco was a key component of U.S. military might dating all the way back to the Civil War. There's evidence of the city's firm ties with national security floating in Suisun Bay: a ghost fleet of inactive war vessels, silently bobbing and dribbling who-knows-what into the water. The country won't sell them on the international market because they might contain military secrets, Coolidge says, so it's ever-so-gradually moving them to Texas for domestic-scrapping operations.

The number of mothball ships in the Bay numbered in the thousands in the 1950s, although the fleet has greatly shrunk since then. "They're mostly veterans of World War II that we weren't ready to scrap yet. Some are held there in reserve in cases of national emergency... and are now rusting and falling apart." According to one maritime administrator, work crews have swept "more than 300 tons of loose exfoliating paint" from the creaky ships since 2009.

Googleplex

Even Google's shiny original campus in Mountain View (disjointed buildings at right) can't escape the region's filthy urban past. It's basically built on an old dump, according to the book, which notes that during concerts at the nearby Shoreline Amphitheatre – the tent structure at left that's modeled after a bad-ass Grateful Dead skull – heshers were "known to use cigarette lighters to ignite methane gas leaking from the landfill underneath them."

Point San Pedro

A gaping cavity in the earth on a Marin promintory marks the location of two family-operated bulk-materials concerns, the McNear Brickyard and the San Rafael Rock Quarry. The former is one of the oldest brickmakers in California, whereas much of the base building material for local coastal construction comes from the latter. If the quarry closed it "could become a very deep marina," the book intriguingly notes.

Point San Pablo

This decrepit structure at the mouth of the San Pablo Bay used to house a commercial whaling station, complete with rendering plants for brewing tallow. "Used to" makes it sound ancient, though – the whale-hunting operation was active until 1971, when a court order finally gave it the kibosh. The buildings sat around for a while to leak machine oil into the Bay, until a raging fire and then construction crews dismantled it into this skeleton army of wood pilings.

"[People often] don't think of the San Francisco Bay region as a whaling port, but it was one of the last whaling facilities to operate in the United States," says Coolidge. A writer at news site Bay Crossings has personal and somewhat disturbing details, if you read the whole thing, about its heyday:

When active, the station was manned by a crew of 40 men who boasted they could reduce a humpback whale to oil, poultry meal, and pet food in an hour and a half. I watched them do just that. It was not an empty boast. The station’s boats hauled in an average of 175 finbacks, humpbacks, and sperm whales a year. It was reported that once or twice an Orca was accidentally killed, but none doubted the men worked hard in the classic maritime tradition of Nantuckett or New Bedford whaling men.

They caught whales in the Pacific Ocean along the California coastal migration routes. Whales were brought into San Pablo Bay, dropping off their catch in the shallow bight by the station. Taking one at a time, the huge whales were pulled up the ramp with big grappling hooks, hooked up to winches, and pulled up the gangplank by their tails. As the men worked, that part of the Bay filled with blood and brine. Fishing near by, we would catch more sharks than strippers on those days, which probably was a factor of the speed at which the whalers worked.

Images taken from Around the Bay: Man-Made Sites of Interest in the San Francisco Bay Region (Blast Books), copyrighted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

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