The Romberg Tiburon Center,
for Environmental Studies, San Francisco State University
Call it the Net Depot, the California Maritime Academy, the Codfishery, or the U.S. Navy Coaling Station, and you would only begin to touch on some of the uses that this small cove on Paradise Drive has hosted. The latest is the Romberg Tiburon Center (RTC), San Francisco State University’s marine field station, and the only academic research facility situated on San Francisco Bay.
The RTC mission is to perform basic scientific research and educate and train the next generation of scientists. As an affiliate of San Francisco State University, the Center provides its students with graduate and undergraduate level courses as well as practical experience gained through research conducted in the laboratories of RTC scientists. RTC scientists pursue their research in the laboratories at the Center, at field sites around the world, and through collaborations with colleagues at other universities and institutions. Its 38 foot research vessel, the R/V Questuary is based at the center.
The Center’s history is almost as varied and complex as the research now conducted on the site. The cove was once the site of a Coast Miwok Indian village. After 1817 the village came under the influence of Mission San Rafael. Later, a brick kiln was established, and in 1834 the property became part of the Rancho Corte Madera Del Presidio. This rancho was owned by the Reed family and included the entire Tiburon Peninsula.
The codfish firm of Lynde and Hough bought the cove property from the Reeds in 1877. Large fishing schooners sailed to the Alaskan fishing grounds and brought back holds brimming with codfish packed in salt to preserve them in transit. Codfish processing plants were established on what is now West Shore Road in Belvedere and at the RTC site. The codfish was washed to remove the salt, then placed on racks in the sun to dry and cure before being packed for shipment around the country.
In 1904 the U.S. Navy acquired the property to use as a coaling station. Coal for the Navy’s ships was shipped from the East Coast in colliers (like tankers today) and stored here to be loaded into the bunkers of the Pacific Fleet. A very elaborate system of storage bunkers and gantry cranes was constructed on a wharf-trestle. In 1908 Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, consisting of sixteen battleships plus support vessels, stopped by to refuel before continuing on its famous round the world cruise.
The first academic use of the cove came in 1931. Oil had replaced coal as a fuel for Navy ships and the coaling station closed. The Navy loaned the property to the State of California to establish its first nautical training school for Merchant Marine officers. The Nautical School (renamed the California Maritime Academy) relocated to Vallejo in 1940 as World War II loomed and the Navy took back the base.
Also during the 1930s the John A Roebling’s Sons Company used the base to spin the suspender cables for the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the vertical cables which hold up the roadway on the bridge. The steel wire was shipped from the East Coast to Tiburon, wound and reeled, then barged to the bridge to be hoisted up to the roadway.
Local people still often call it “The Net Depot” much to the discomfort of the RTC directors. San Francisco Bay was one big Navy base as World War II loomed closer. It would have been wide open to Japanese submarines except for an anti-submarine net constructed at the Tiburon base and stretched across the Golden Gate. This seven mile long net was in place on December 7, 1941. The personnel of the Net Depot not only constructed over 100,000 tons of anti-submarine netting during the war but trained the sailors in the installation and handling of these nets which protected the harbors up and down the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and across the Pacific as well. The huge gantries left over from the coaling station were perfect for handling the giant nets.
After the war the nets were recovered and returned to Tiburon for storage in case of future need. Eventually, they were salvaged:: the nets went to scrap dealers, the massive concrete anchors became bulkheads for shoreline protection at the depot and what is now Paradise Park, and many of the huge floats became beehives around California. The gantries were removed, leaving only the tracks on which they ran and a concrete trestle down the center of the base.
Since 1961 the property has supported a number of marine oriented state and federal research facilities, often two or more at the same time. Among these were the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The Marine Minerals Technology Center, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), NMFS Southwest Fisheries Center, National Marine Fisheries Service Environmental Assessment Branch (EAB), and since 1978, San Francisco State University’s Center for Environmental Studies (TCES). It was established by the late Paul F. Romberg, then President of SFSU, and later named in his memory.
The Romberg Tiburon Center is becoming known throughout the academic world as a center for scientific research and serving as a regional resource for studies and information on estuarine and marine environments. It is the headquarters for the San
Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, dedicated to protecting the Bay’s estuarine habitant through research, monitoring, education and stewardship.
Also located at the RTC is the Bay Conference Center, administered by SFSU. It occupies the Officers’ Mess Hall on this former Navy base providing a variety of rooms for meetings, forums, seminars, workshops and conferences. Indoor and outdoor dining is available and overnight arrangements can be made at the Ohrenschall Guest Center which occupies the former residence of the Navy base commander.
For more information go to the RTC web site http://rtc.sfsu.edu
Coaling Station photo courtesy of Landmarks History Collections