Two Lives Ago on Treasure Island
- By Wes Starratt PE, Senior Editor
Treasure Island is a man-made island built on the shoals that lie on the north side of Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay. Before it was built, the sandy shoals nearest Yerba Buena Island were visible at extremely low tide, but to the north, the water deepened, shoals could not be seen, and bed rock existed only 60 feet below water level...
Treasure Island is a man-made island built on the shoals that lie on the north side of Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay. Before it was built, the sandy shoals nearest Yerba Buena Island were visible at extremely low tide, but to the north, the water deepened, shoals could not be seen, and bed rock existed only 60 feet below water level.
Starting in 1936 and extending over a period of two years, the 403-acre island was built from 29-million cubic yards of mud and sand dredged from several points in the bay, and barged and pumped to the site. As a final step, the island was protected on all sides by a levee or dike constructed of large boulders known as rip-rap. The island was reportedly named Treasure Island because much of the mud and sand from which it was built had been washed down the rivers from the Sierra gold diggings of the 1950s. Some of it had a gold color, and some of it even sparkled; so, who knew, but that it might still contain gold.
First life: city that knows how
This man-made island experienced its first life as the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. In addition to exhibit buildings, two large airplane hangars were built along side of the lagoon between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island that, at one time, housed Pan American’s famous China Clippers. Those sea planes provided the first regular passenger air service to the far-flung reaches of the Pacific. Completely within the limits of the City and County of San Francisco, the island’s original plans called for it to become the site of the San Francisco International Airport after the International Exposition closed.
The year 1939 came at the tail end of the Great Depression and President Roosevelt’s famed Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put the country back to work and constructed some of the marvels of the Bay Area, including the famed murals at Coit Tower, Rincon Postal Annex and Treasure Island. Actually, San Francisco - and we use the name to include the entire Bay Area - seems to have survived the Depression relatively well, with the construction of two world-class engineering marvels: the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. So, locals liked to call their home town, the city that knows how, and took great pride in these seminal achievements. Everyone wanted to celebrate and let the whole world know about their city; so, the idea of a World’s Fair was born, even though it was in direct competition with the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was called the Golden Gate International Exposition.
And what an Exposition it was: beautiful, glamorous and fantastic in every respect. A two-berth ferry terminal was built on the west shore to carry thousands of visitors from San Francisco every day, while bus service was provided from the East Bay, and the north end of the island hosted a sea of cars in a vast parking lot. Elephant Trains (one of which is still in operation on Angel Island) carried visitors from point to point throughout the vast island.
The fair was designed with major pavilions stretching along the west shore and serving as a break from the constant winds blowing through the Golden Gate. Inside was a myriad of courts filled with flower-beds, statuary and fountains, while music flowed from every corner. The dominating feature was the 400-foot Tower of the Sun, which could be seen throughout the Bay Area. At night, the lighting was nothing short of spectacular
Treasure Island had something for everybody, including buildings and exhibits from California and countries throughout the Pacific, as well as Europe and South America. There were shows for all tastes, ranging from Billy Rose’s Aquacade and an outstanding outdoor pageant or cavalcade with live horses depicting the founding of the West. And there was an amusement area, called the Gayway, that shouldn’t be neglected, since it featured the much talked about, Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch. The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition was such a tremendous success that it was carried over a second year to 1940, closing that October as war was spreading throughout Europe.
As the fair’s buildings were about to be torn down in anticipation that the island would become the site for the San Francisco International Airport, word came from Washington of the Navy’s desire to lease the island from the city. Later, the Navy offered the City and County of San Francisco to exchange Mills Field on the Peninsula, near the city of Burlingame, for Treasure Island. The offer was accepted and Mills Field became San Francisco International Airport.
By April 1941, Treasure Island, along with the northern half of Yerba Buena Island, entered its second life as a military base, known as Naval Station Treasure Island.
At Treasure Island, military structures soon took the place of exposition buildings as the island became the headquarters of the 12th Naval District, as well as a center for receiving, training and dispatching service personnel throughout the Pacific. Sailors from the island flooded the streets of San Francisco. The City was once again a Navy town, and Treasure Island came to be known by the sailors, and everyone else, as TI.
After the war, the Naval Station served as a major center for the thousands of Navy personnel returning to civilian life. Later, it was used primarily as a naval training and administrative center with approximately 3,000 military and 1,000 civilian personnel.
But man-made Treasure Island was not without its problems, even for the United States Navy, which has occupied the island for 64 years. The Navy reports that the land surface of TI was originally 14 feet above sea level, but that it had sunk to a level of only 9 feet above sea level within the stone dikes surrounding the island, which also had sunk by a comparable amount. Retired Captain Arthur Osborne, who was Commanding Officer at Treasure Island during the 1980s, and later Deputy Director of the Port of San Francisco, reported that the land at the north-east corner of the island was six-to-eight feet below the breakwater, making it just about even with the high-tide water level at that time.
Storms and Earthquakes
On the West side, TI lies directly in the path of wind blasting through the Golden Gate, normally at not more than about 25 to 30 miles per hour. But, Capt. Osborne recalls the great storm of 1983, when the waves and the wind hit the island at 86 to 92 mph. It was a tremendous storm with a lot of rain and wind and high tide. The waves were big enough to move the huge boulders that had been used as rip-rap along the west side of the island. The waves almost tore away the protection from the storm. So, I got the sailors out there, and they filled sand bags all night, and the island held.
The next day, I drove around the perimeter road and found that bounders up to three feet in diameter had been moved all around by the waves. That day, the wind was less, but the tide was even higher and just about lapped over the top of the sand bags that we had put in the day before. To its credit, the Navy came through and put about $9 million worth of rip-rap rock back in the break-water, thus ensuring grater stability for the breakwater along the vulnerable west shore of the island.
Even though TI lies between the San Andreas and the Hayward faults, it had not experienced a major earthquake for 50 years. But that changed on Oct.17, 1989 when the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake struck. The island may have been fortunate, since the epicenter was about 70 miles away near Santa Cruz, and the quake’s duration was only 15 seconds. Nevertheless, the temblor did considerable damage in San Francisco’s Marina District, and to double-deck freeways in Oakland and in San Francisco.
A report prepared by the UC/Berkeley College of Engineering showed that the island did not fare particularly well during the quake, noting that evidence of soil liquefaction was pervasive over most of the island … sand boils occurred at numerous locations, as did surface settlements of up to 12 inches. Numerous pipe breaks occurred, and most of the island was without water service for three days following the earthquake. Lateral spreading and settlement of the crests of the levees surrounding the island occurred in a number of locations. The maximum levee crest settlement appears to have been nearly two feet at the northern end of the island.
The report concluded that …this relatively moderate shaking did produce general subsidence on the order of three to 12 inches over large parts of the island, and levee settlements, cracks, and other clear evidence of limited lateral spreading occurred near the edges of the island on portions of all sides … these studies also address the likelihood of major settlements of the island, major movements associated with lateral spreading, and potential stability failures at the fill edges. The Navy noted that officials estimate the cost of shoring up the island for redevelopment at $100 million … The island clearly has its problems, as the Navy had discovered.
In 1993, the US Congress and the President selected Navy Station Treasure Island, along with numerous other military bases, including Mare Island Navy Shipyard and Navy Air Station Alameda, for closure. The Dept. of Defense subsequently designated the City and County of San Francisco as the Local Base Reuse Authority, responsible for the conversion of the base to civilian use.