Angel Island

Aero Photographers c. 1960

Global warming is not new. When most of North America and Europe were covered with ice sheets Angel Island was part of the Tiburon Peninsula. When the ice melted, the bay waters rose and separated the island from the peninsula. 10,000 years later, 1964 to be exact, the two were reunited when the island was included within the boundaries of the new Town of Tiburon.

The peace and tranquility of the Angel Island of today belies its historic uses. Military posts, gun batteries, immigration detention barracks, quarantine hospitals, prisoner-of-war camps, anti-aircraft missile launchers, and an Air Force radar station, are only some of the uses in the island’s past. Until included in Tiburon’s borders most of the proposed uses included anchoring several bridges spanning the Bay, hotels, convention centers, a West Coast Coney Island, other tourist attractions, and more missile launching sites. Frank Lloyd Wright even proposed a 500 story building at one time.

The effort to save Angel Island actually began in the 1950′s when Caroline Livermore and Charles Winslow badgered the State of California to acquire the island from the Federal government when the Army declared it surplus to its use. The state finally acquired the last parcel in 1962 and all of Angel Island became a State Park.

The Miwok tribe of native Americans crossed to the island and left shell mounds and other indications of the visits but there is no evidence that they ever built a settlement there. The first European to make a landing was Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, captain of the Spanish ship San Carlos which anchored in what is now called Ayala Cove in 1775. Captain Ayala used this protected site as his headquarters while his navigators explored and mapped San Francisco Bay. He named the island Isla de los Angeles and the point of land across from it Punta del Tiburon.

The island was not included in the great Reed Ranch on the mainland. After a few years as a cattle ranch the U.S. Army took control in order to strengthen the Bay defenses against a naval attack by Confederate forces in the Civil War. Gun batteries were constructed facing the Golden Gate and they remained, in one form or another, for fifty more years.

An Army hospital was opened in 1864 at the cove so that it became known for the next one hundred years as “Hospital Cove.” In 1969 the State changed the name to “Ayala Cove.” Camp Reynolds was the training ground for recruits for posts throughout the West. In the 1880′s lighthouses were built on Angel Island. Eventually there were three lighthouses on the one island making it unique in the United States.

In the early 1900′s Fort McDowell was established and processed 126,000 returning soldiers from the Philippines. A public health quarantine station was opened at Hospital Cove. Ships arriving from across the Pacific were required to stop here to have the passengers screened for tropical diseases and the ship fumigated. The U.S. Immigration Station opened on Angel Island in 1910 to screen all passengers arriving from foreign ports. Some passengers, especially Chinese, spent many months or even years waiting for clearance to land. Carvings in the wooden walls expressing their laments are still visible.

During and after World War I Angel Island continued serving as a training and interment camp. By 1926 Fort McDowell was handling 40,000 men per year, more than any other post in the country.

In 1939 Angel Island played a rather unusual role in American legal history. Harry Bridges, the outspoken labor leader, was ordered deported to his native Australia. Fearing trouble in the courtroom, authorities transferred the trial to Angel Island where they could maintain order. (Bridges was not deported.)

During World War II 300,000 American soldiers transited Angel Island en route to the Pacific Theater. German prisoners-of-war were held in the former Immigration Station which had ceased operation in 1941. Some Japanese and Italian prisoners also passed through en route to other camps in the west. Anti-aircraft guns appeared on Angel Island.

An interesting chapter in the history of Angel Island involves the crew of the German luxury liner Columbus, the sixth largest in the world. In 1939 the Columbus was on a Caribbean cruise loaded with American passengers when Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain declared war closing off the Atlantic to German shipping. After unloading his passengers in Cuba and visiting several other neutral ports in the West Indies the captain was ordered to make a dash across the Atlantic. Intercepted by the British fleet the captain scuttled the vessel off the New Jersey coast. The 576 members of the crew, including the captain, were rescued by U.S. Navy ships and brought to New York.

The U.S. was technically neutral at this time so the rescued seamen proved to be a diplomatic embarrassment. Most of the crew were of military age and would be in the German Navy if returned to their homeland. They were not prisoners-of-war, and as shipwrecked sailors, they should have been repatriated immediately. But how? The British would intercept any vessel trying to get them across the Atlantic, so somebody had the bright idea of sending them home via the Pacific Ocean, Japan and Siberia. They were shipped to the West Coast and held on Angel Island. Those crew members too old for military service were allowed to depart on Japanese ships but even most of those were removed en route by the British Navy. The remainder, now classified as “excluded aliens,” were quartered in the Immigration and Quarantine Stations. In March, 1941 the 411 crew members still here left Angel Island for camps in New Mexico, where they remained until finally repatriated at the end of the war. The men from the Columbus had spent 14 months on Angel Island.

In 1946 the flag was lowered on the U.S. Army posts on Angel Island but the military was not through yet. In 1954, as the “Cold War” heated up, Army engineers constructed underground silos on Angel Island to house Nike anti-aircraft missiles, and a radar and control station was built on the top of the highest peak. The Nike base was deactivated in 1962 and the radar removed but the silos remain on the island. The top of Mount Carolyn S. Livermore was not restored until 2002.

Throughout the 1950′s and 1960′s many of the buildings on Angel Island were destroyed. The various federal government stations were closed, and the State Parks Department took over. Some historically significant structures have been restored and more are waiting for volunteer crews to save them. The Angel Island Association has been formed by local citizens and plays an important role in the operation and preservation of the park and buildings on Angel Island

For more information go to or write California State Park, P.O. Box 318, Tiburon, CA 94920

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