Bay Farm Island

The middle East Bay shoreline has three lumps in it, three bodies of ice age sand dunes that would seem more at home in San Francisco than over here. The first, the biggest, underlies downtown Oakland; as the city border signs say, it reaches an elevation of 42 feet right at City Hall. The second underlies Alameda, the former peninsula, and has a maximum elevation of about 35 feet. The third, smallest and lowest of all, barely over 10 feet, an accident of the modern sea level, is Bay Farm Island.

The Ohlone tribes came here to harvest shellfish from the tidal flats and bird eggs from the fields, although they apparently did not stay long or build shellmounds on the place they called Wind Whistle Island. The earliest maps show a small area of treeless land with marsh on three sides and a sandy bluff facing the Bay. This is Captain Beechey’s map, surveyed in the late 1820s.

The first USGS maps, from the late 1890s, accurately show the original island.

Like Oakland, the land was settled by squatters in the early 1850s, but instead of real-estate speculators they were farmers who quickly spotted the advantages of clean virgin soil, a high water table and easy access to the San Francisco markets. They did so well, this isolated patch got its name almost immediately. Bay Farm Island asparagus was famous — farmers cleared $500 an acre in Gold Rush dollars — and having grown it myself I can see how that crop would thrive in this excellent fine dune sand.

In the 1870s, efforts began to drain the marshes and turn it into hayfields and “made land.” A 1878 map neatly juxtaposes the old property lines on the natural island and the new speculator lots on the reclaimable land around it. The outline of the firm ground was a miniature of the Alameda peninsula, a baby slipper next to its parent as seen in the geologic map.


Thompson & West map, 1878 on davidrumsey.com

Maps from around 1900 show the island divided into large farm lots, with windmill-powered wells and long windbreaks planted against the prevailing northwesterlies. The twentieth century nearly erased all of this geography, as the former marsh was built up into the Oakland Airport, the Corica Park golf course and the Harbor Bay residential and business development. An overlay of the 1878 and current maps shows that there is no natural shoreline left.

Today Shoreline Park, at the western tip of the original island, is a manufactured shore on a high berm, armored with riprap. Inland, high residential walls and mature trees blunt the stiff wind off the Golden Gate.

But the pervasive landscaping and air traffic overhead can’t camouflage its eerie setting, a naked, remote, windswept place in the belly of the Bay.

What might Gertrude Stein, who famously bemoaned the loss of the Oakland she recalled from her youth, have said had she come instead from temporarily Bay Farm Island?

Read an excerpt from Eric Kos and Dennis Evanosky’s book on Bay Farm Island

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