by Lee Foster
Two recent developments on Angel Island now make a visit to this engaging state park in San Francisco Bay more enticing than ever.
First, guided Seqway tours March-October have been introduced, providing a visitor with a handy way to traverse the five-mile perimeter road and see all the grand views without a sweat. No automobiles are allowed on Angel Island.
And second, the Immigration Station, which processed many Chinese and other immigrants coming to the U.S. between 1910 and 1940 is being restored, opening in late 2008, making the story of this “Ellis Island of the West” more fully known.
A tour on one of the ingenious gyroscopic personal transport vehicles is now an option, bypassing the rather strenuous hike required to walk around the island on the perimeter road.
The Segway outings are all guided, with nine riders to a leader, organized by the concessionaire, the Angel Island Company.
Because Angel Island has a relatively level, paved road, it is ideal for Segways.
Other options include walking, biking, or taking a guided tram tour around the island. All of these modes have their fans.
Because Segways are silent and don’t pollute, they are ideal for Angel Island.
If you haven’t ever ridden on a Segway, it takes some getting used to. Primarily, many novices don’t believe that the vehicle can keep them upright. However, it does.
THE IMMIGRATION STATION
Late 2008 is now the target date for opening up the first unit, the Barracks, in the restored U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island.
The Immigration Station functioned 1910-1940. Though Angel Island is often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the reality was somewhat different from the New York counterpart. Ellis Island was a welcoming place for European immigrants. Angel Island, however, was a watchful place that attempted to exclude Chinese laborer immigrants when possible, following the popular mandate of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In fact, Angel Island was called “The Guardian of the Western Gate.” Merchant and professional class Chinese were allowed in, but laborers were excluded.
Chinese in California experienced widespread discrimination following the Gold Rush period, despite their contribution in building the railroads. The situation was complicated further by the Great San Francisco Quake and Fire of 1906, which destroyed most of the birth records of Chinese in California. Suddenly every Asian then resident in California could claim to be a full citizen, with rights to bring in their families. Large numbers of “paper sons” came to California from China, but they had to languish on Angel Island while their cases were examined.
On the walls of the Barracks many poems were written. Some of these writings have been preserved. The common theme is lamentation over the long waiting period and anxiety before an “interrogation” would verify that the person was a family member from a certain village.
Of the estimated one million immigrants who first stepped foot in America on Angel Island, the largest group was Chinese, about 175,000 people. The Chinese felt they had come to “Gold Mountain,” a hopeful place. However, there were actually 89 different nationalities of immigrants recorded on Angel Island. Japanese were the second main national group.
THE JOY OF ANGEL ISLAND
Angel Island boasts one of the most favored locations on earth, in the center of San Francisco Bay. On this grass- and woodland-covered island, just 740 acres of prime real estate, the air is fresh and bracing, and the views are stunning, taking in San Francisco, the Golden Gate, and Marin County.
From the top of Mt. Livermore, at 788 feet, you get an unparalleled panoramic view of the San Francisco region, including the five major bridges.
Wildflowers flourish March-May. Native trees, such as oak, bay, and madrone, are making a comeback after a period when the island was harvested of its trees for lumber, then used for grazing, and then planted with exotics, such as eucalyptus.
A backpack camper can stay on the island overnight, waking up to see dawn on the Golden Gate Bridge and on San Francisco.
The birdlife around the island is abundant, especially cormorants that feed off the crustaceans churned up from the bay floor by the currents as the tide moves in and out.
The cultural relics of Angel Island, beyond the Immigration Station, are also extensive. Miwok Indians lived on the island before the arrival of Europeans. Many Miwok artifacts, which were recovered when the Barracks were restored, will eventually go on display.
For a time, Angel Island flourished as a military base. Civil War-era Camp Reynolds, on the western side, has a parade grounds and a restored officer’s house from that period. The legacy from the Spanish American War period is Fort McDowell, also called the East Garrison, a red tile-roof enclave on the east side of the island. Near the south tip of the island, there is a chilling Cold War legacy, a Nike missile pad.
PRACTICALITIES OF AN ANGEL ISLAND TRIP
The primary way to get out to Angel Island is via a daily ferry that runs back and forth from Tiburon, starting early in the morning. The last ferry back to Tiburon is at 4:20 p.m. You must be on the last ferry because no one stays overnight, except for the few backpack campers and some resident Park Rangers.
Come prepared for wind and chill, even though the day of your trip may be sunny. There are ample picnic grounds at the ferry terminal, Ayala Cove, or you can buy grilled oysters and other food and drink at a small restaurant near the ferry terminal during the popular spring-to-fall season.
ANGEL ISLAND: IF YOU GO
The Angel Island Company is the concessionaire handling most aspects of the island, including the Segway Tours. Contact them at www.angelisland.com.
The ferry company providing daily transport from Tiburon is the Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry. Info at www.angelislandferry.com. Less frequent ferry service from San Francisco is provided by the Blue and Gold Fleet. Info at www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
The support group guiding the restoration of the Immigration Station is the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation at www.aiisf.org.
The local tourism authority closest to Angel Island is Destination Tiburon at https://www.destinationtiburon.org/ Their Social Media hashtag is #hellotiburon.