Angel Island State Park

A Bicycle Tour of the "Jewel of San Francisco Bay"

Photos by Neil Mishalov

On 28 May 2005, I did an 9.45 mile bicycle ride at ANGEL ISLAND STATE PARK

Angel Island sits near the north end of San Francisco Bay. The largest island in the bay, it's roughly triangular in shape and measures about one and a quarter mile to a side.

Angel Island rises to 781 feet above sea level at its highest point. Geologically the island is best described as a large block of San Francisco sandstone. Sandstone is sedimentary rock and it occurs over most of the island. The total land area of Angel Island is approximately 740 acres, or a little over one square mile.

This gallery of photographs is focused on the history of Angel Island from 1861, the time of the American Civil War, through 1962; a period of 99 years. During that time period, Angel Island was used mainly as a United States Army military base. Since the island is somewhat isolated and access is limited, there are a surprising amount of artifacts remaining on the island which give a clue to what life was like on the island during its military occupancy.

I have explored the island a number of times, and each time I discover something new; this trip was no exception. On this outing I took my bicycle, my GPS, a camera, some water and snacks, and a map.

All photographs were taken with a Canon 20D camera and a Canon EFS 18-55mm lens


Poetic Justice for a Feared Immigrant Stop

December 7, 2005

By Patricia Leigh Brown

ANGEL ISLAND, California, December 1, 2005 - It was known, simply, as "the wooden building." For 30 years, from 1910 to 1940, the barren walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station gave mute testimony to the experiences of roughly 175,000 Chinese immigrants who were detained and exhaustively interrogated on this island in San Francisco Bay, the West Coast's insidious version of Ellis Island.

"Today is the last day of winter," begins one of nearly 300 poems surreptitiously carved in Chinese characters by detainees on the walls.

"Tomorrow morning is the vernal equinox/ One year's prospects have changed to another/ Sadness kills the person in the wooden building."

On Thursday, this little-spoken-about place, the physical embodiment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was intended to prevent Chinese laborers from entering the country, received long-awaited recognition when President Bush signed into law the Angel Island Immigration Station Restoration and Preservation Act.

The legislation, a result of a 35-year effort by the nonprofit Angel Island Immigration Foundation, authorizes up to $15 million to establish a museum and genealogical research center on the island and to help preserve two original structures, including barracks with chicken-wire clerestories and melancholy graffiti - eloquent poems carved on wooden walls and routinely puttied and painted over by the authorities. The immigration station, nestled in a eucalyptus grove on the largest island in the bay, is a national historic landmark, though it is closed to the public.

The facility was the point of entry for roughly 75 percent of Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, and its preservation has underscored the story of the "paper sons and daughters" who used false identities to circumvent the Exclusion Act, the first legislation in United States history to ban a specific ethnic group. For Chinese-Americans like Li Keng Wong, now 79, who was detained with her family as a 7-year-old in 1933, it has been an emotional journey.

Even today, she can ruefully recite from memory the description from her investigation file assembled by the authorities: "Female of the Chinese race. Faint pit near outer corner right eye. Height, in socks, 2 ft 11½ in." The faint pit, a scar from a childhood infection, is still visible beneath her bangs. The artifice and fear with which Mrs. Wong and her family lived, even as they prospered, was repeated by thousands of immigrants. In contrast to Ellis Island, where millions of European immigrants were processed largely with swift industrial efficiency, the Angel Island station was designed for exclusion.

Upon a ship's arrival, officials would separate the immigrants on board, with those bearing first-class paperwork allowed to disembark in San Francisco, while those remaining - mostly Chinese, but also a smattering of Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Russian and other groups - ferried to Angel Island.

"Ellis Island was created to let Europeans in," said Robert E. Barde, deputy director of the Institute of Business and Economic Research at the University of California, Berkeley, who is writing a book on immigration. "Angel Island was created to keep the Chinese out." The Exclusion Act, repealed in 1943 when China became America's ally in World War II, was the culmination of decades of anti-Chinese sentiment in the aftermath of an economic depression that resulted in mob violence and lynching.

Chinese laborers had been coming to America since the Gold Rush, bearing "a harsh purse with a reverence for copper coins," in the words of one poem on the barracks walls. They worked for 12 cents an hour laying the tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad and erecting levees in the swamps of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. The law was intended to end the arrival of Chinese laborers and to bar Chinese from becoming citizens. At Angel Island, this meant grueling interrogations and humiliating physical examinations.

In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed municipal and birth records, creating an opportunity for the city's Chinese residents to claim citizenship and to try to bring friends, family and fellow villagers, often with false identities, to "Gam Saan" - the Gold Mountain - or America.

Like the poems on the walls, Mrs. Wong's five days on the island as a little girl remain deeply etched. Her father, or "Baba, " Soew Hong Gee, came to the United States from a small village in the Pearl River delta as a 16-year-old in 1912, presumably as a "paper son."

Sipping green tea in her kitchen in a suburb overlooking the bay, Mrs. Wong recalled the ruse that brought her family to San Francisco. Because wives were prohibited from entering, it was decided that her mother, Suey Ting Gee, then 28, Mr. Gee's second wife, would pose as her "yee," or aunt. Blood relatives were allowed to emigrate.

"Baba could not bring Mama as his wife, only as his sister," she recalled. "He gave us coaching papers. Mama and Baba said if we made a mistake, the white officers would deport us."

Even her 3-year-old sister, Lai Wah, was required to remember. "She was always saying, 'Yee, yee, yee, yee,'" Mrs. Wong, a retired teacher, said. "But whenever we were in a corner together, we would whisper 'Mama.' "

In a recently completed memoir, "Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain," to be published later this month by Peachtree Publishers, Mrs. Wong recalls the intense interrogations, to be corroborated by family members - questions like "What is your living room floor made of?" and "What direction does your house in China face?" "I was praying 'Don't let me trip up, 'Don't let me trip up,' " Mrs. Wong recalled, her girlhood anxiety palpable 72 years later.

Until recently, Mrs. Wong refused to set foot on the island and never spoke about her experience, even to her own children. Her parents, like many of their generation, never mentioned Angel Island. She eventually made the trip, a mile's ferry ride from Tiburon, in neighboring Marin County, at the encouragement of a writing teacher.

"I saw the place where I was incarcerated," she said. "It was just like a liberation. At last I could talk about it."

The station closed in 1940. Its history was largely swept aside until 1970, when a park ranger noticed Chinese characters chiseled on the vacant barracks walls, which were scheduled for demolition. Since then, the revitalization has been a grass-roots movement, aided by $15 million in state bond money as well as support from Asian-American politicians.

The site, to be opened on a limited basis in 2007, will include refurbished barracks in which the poems on the walls will literally be brought to light.

Their presence has already given young people like Erika Gee, 33, the foundation's educational director, whose grandparents came through Angel Island, a chance to retrieve their own powerful, not-so-distant history.

"It is just a wooden building," Ms. Gee said, softly. "Yet there are so many voices that still speak."

Topographic Map of the Area with a GPS Tracked Route Superimposed

Hike data gathered with a Garmin 60C GPS RECEIVER

Topographic mapping program for Macintosh OSX by NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Satellite Photo Map of the Area with a GPS Tracked Route Superimposed

TerraBrowser satellite mapping program for Macintosh OSX by CHIMOOSOFT

GPS track converter by GPSBABEL

This gallery of photographs consists of 137 images. To insure quick loading of the thumbnails, the gallery is composed of 3 separate web pages. To see all the images, please insure that you view all three pages

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Angel Island from Raccoon Strait. Camp Reynolds hospital, built in 1904, is the red brick building on the bluff Ayala Cove, previously know as "Hospital Cove," is the former location of the Quarantine Station which started operation in 1892. It was in use through 1952. Most of the buildings were removed in the 1950's. The back of the Camp Reynolds hospital. This structure was built in 1904
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This was the third hospital constructed to serve the troops at Camp Reynolds The front of the hospital. This side faced Camp Reynolds which is down the hill. The hill is now covered with trees and brush A view of the front of the hospital, sited above Camp Reynolds
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I believe this building was housing for the doctors that worked at the hospital. It is approximately 100 feet from the hospital This broadside was published during the Civil War. It instructed enlistees to report to Camp Reynolds, Angel Island. It was printed at Benicia, California. "WHO WOULD BE FREE, THEMSELVES MUST STRIKE THE BLOW!" A contemporary photograph of Camp Reynolds
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The building on the right is the Bake House, the building on the left is the laundresses' quarters, and the building in the middle is Officer housing The Laundresses' quarters Officer's housing
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The Bake House The Bake House The Bake House oven
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Mule barn A contemporary photo of Camp Reynolds. On the left of the parade grounds are the enlisted men's barracks. They are now gone. At the top of the parade grounds are two structures that are still standing The Parade Field. The right side of the parade field was the location of the enlisted men's barracks. The brick building was a warehouse adjacent to the now gone dock. In the distance is Sausalito
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All of the building at the top of this photograph are gone. The buildings at the center right are officer housing, and they still remain These barracks are long since gone The Parade Field with the officer's quarters on the left
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Officer's quarters Officer housing A view of the Golden Gate from Camp Reynolds
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The brick warehouse The remnants of the dock Senior NCO quarters
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The Golden Gate Bridge and a sea kayaker Remnants of the enlisted mess hall which was behind the enlisted men's barracks Mess hall concrete slab
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Mess hall foundation Retaining wall A sidewalk and fire hydrant
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Battery Wallace, built in 1901. It had an 8" rifle on a disappearing carriage. The site is now overgrown with trees and shrubs
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Stairway to the gun platform Battery Wallace Battery Wallace
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Battery Wallace ammunition access bay. Ammunition access bay. The 8" shells were raised from the ammunition storage bunker on a mechanical elevator and were deposited here for the eventual loading of the rifle Ammunition storage bunker
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Ammunition storage bunker Ammunition storage bunker Alcatraz Island and San Francisco

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This page created on 30 June 2005, and all photographs copyright 2005, by NEIL MISHALOV

This page updated on 21 June 2013