WNP19 – Forts and Fortifications
Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast for the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.
David: And I'm David Gallagher.
David: Yes, Woody.
Woody: We finally had our Secret San Francisco movie the other night.
David: It was great. We sold out the Balboa Theater.
Woody: Yeah, that was pretty good. Now people want another showing.
David: I think there will be one.
Woody: We're gonna probably maybe even pick a date later today.
David: Let, it's not, yeah.
Woody: No, we don't have a date yet.
David: We'll pick a date.
Woody: We don't have a date yet, but we'll figure it out and then we'll tell everybody. So, if you missed it or you want to see it again, there will be another showing.
David: The people have spoken.
Woody: The people have spoken. It was fun though.
David: Yeah, we had a good time.
Woody: Mr. John Martini is here. John, welcome.
John: Yeah, good morning.
Woody: You are a former National Park Service Ranger, right?
John: Yeah, and I was stationed at places. Well, in our western neighborhoods, I was stationed at [00:01:00] Fort Funston. And patrolled Lands End and Ocean Beach and Fort Miley. It was really weird. It was sort of like patrolling your own backyard.
Woody: And then, so this was after GGNRA, so you're talking about the early ‘80s pretty much?
John: Actually, I started to volunteer at Fort Point, right when GGNRA was created. I was on, started at Alcatraz in January ‘74.
John: So, I'm coming up on my 40 years with the Park Service.
Woody: Wow. So, when you're patrolling these areas in this time, what was it like? I mean…
Woody: Yeah. Lawless. It was kind of a transition period, essentially.
John: The city of San Francisco had, basically they had put up those hanging green plaques that said like, Fort Funston, San Francisco Parks and Recreation. Then they left.
Woody: Yeah. So we're gonna talk today, I think, as we could talk about a lot of things that you are steeped in. I know over the past 40 years, you as a ranger and as a historian, [00:02:00] you've learned a lot about a lot of these areas. But we're gonna talk, I think, about forts today. Is that what we want to talk about?
David: Yeah. Fortifications and various things around the Golden Gate, along the coastal?
John: What are these bunkers?
Woody: Yeah. Maybe some personal anecdotes can get us into this. So, when I was a younger man, all our stories, all our stories, David and I, all our entrees into local history are where we got in trouble as teenagers.
David: I never got caught really.
Woody: So, that's not trouble if you don't get caught. Is that what you're saying?
Woody: As younger men, we used to run around what we thought were bunkers and gun emplacements looking into the bay. We used to go to the ones just west of the Golden Gate Bridge for sure and kind of look out and play soldier, maybe go drinking, on hikes too though. Very innocent sort of after school things. And at the time I thought they were these sort of relics from some, from World [00:03:00] War II especially. That they were there and there were gun emplacements and all these machine gun nests, all that. Is that true? Are these, do these things date from World War II or are they older, or…
John: Oh, go back. Most of the big concrete bunkers, really what we call 'em, were fortifications or gun emplacements. The vast majority that the people encounter at Fort Miley, and you're talking about Fort Winfield Scott near Golden Gate Bridge?
John: Really, they're from the 1890s. Because they don't have, like any architectural style that links them into, they're not Victorian gingerbread. They're not art deco. They're just modeless. But they're kind of timeless. But everyone assumes because World War II was so huge out here in San Francisco, that they must date from the war. No. We, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Americans, we've all been paranoid of having someone try to take San Francisco away. So, you've got these generations of fortifications, and [00:04:00] especially the monstrous concrete stuff, it's gonna be around probably like the pyramids. Some of these things, the concrete’s 75 feet thick.
Woody: Right. Because of a fortification. So that's a good question. San Francisco, everybody was paranoid about it because it's a great benefit, the bay, and at least in the old days, I assume, for strategic reasons.
John: Sure. Spain kind of accidentally discovered San Francisco Bay. Discovered is always a weird word because there were like a few thousand native people already here.
John: But when the Spanish got here, really in late 1769, really late in history, it's like look at the size of this place. One guy wrote, it's so big that not only his Catholic Majesty's fleet, but the fleets of all the kings of all the world could anchor in here at one time. And the Spanish, their first reaction was, we gotta make sure no one takes this before we can establish it. So that's why the [00:05:00] Presidio of San Francisco and Mission Dolores were set up. Put a Spanish presence here to keep the other people out of San Francisco Bay.
John: And specifically, they were thinking of the British and the Russians. Yeah. And in later years, the enemy kept changing, the potential enemy because we've never been attacked.
John: But the enemies varied from the British and the Russians, the Confederates during the American Civil War, the rising power of the Japanese and the German navies. Came full circle to the Russians, slash, the Soviet Union.
David: But over time…
John: In the1970s.
David: Over time as the technology changed, the fortifications had to change. I know the oldest ones are kind of inside the Gate pointing at the bay. And then they move to the outside, the ones that Woody was talking about. And then farther and farther along the coast. Right?
John: That's an excellent point. When the Spanish were here, they had these antique bronze guns that could fire a little cannon [00:06:00] ball, like nine pounds, maybe a mile. So, it made sense. If there's only one way into the harbor, you put it at that choke point. It just happens to be at the Golden Gate.
John: As cannons got more powerful, and in the 19th century, they could fire it three miles, they started to put the guns inside the bay focusing towards the Golden Gate. So, you had Alcatraz and Angel Island and Fort Mason. And the point where the Spanish had built their fort, which got to be called Fort Point, that's where cannon were located. Without getting too far into the weeds of technology, in the late 1800s, boy, there was a big revolution in how guns were designed and gunpowder. All of a sudden, ranges like jumped to 10 miles and the thinking…
Woody: Wow. 10 miles.
John: 10 miles. Yeah.
David: You can shoot it 10 miles, but could you hit something in 10 miles?
John: If you really knew what you were doing. Generally, they flew five, six miles.
John: But the thinking was obviously, you know, why wait [00:07:00] till they get in the bay to shoot 'em? Let's put these bigger, what they call the high-power guns, which look very much like modern artillery pieces, let's put 'em out at a place called the Heads. Lands End on one side point, Point Bonita on the other, so that you could keep the enemy 5, 6, 10 miles out away. That's why you end up with these little forts that were in the western neighborhoods. Fort Miley at Lands End. Fort Funston which was, actually it had an interesting purpose. The army was really afraid that a battleship might show up and anchor off of Daly City and lob shells over to Union Ironworks and the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.
John: So, they established Fort Funston down there to make sure nobody could anchor off the southern area.
Woody: So basically, just a hairy, a battleship or something that's sitting there, because they could with accuracy shoot right [00:08:00] over the hills and everything and hit the stuff inside the bay. So, let's talk about where these are and make sure, because we kind of know where Fort Miley and Fort Funston are, but let's make sure other people do. So, Fort Miley is the northern part of San Francisco.
John: People think of it as the VA hospital today.
John: But it really was a fort.
John: It had, had about 25 cannon in it at one time.
David: Is there anything remaining up there? I know…
Woody: This is north of Geary and like 42nd Avenue, right?
David: Kind of between Lincoln Park Golf course and the VA, there are all these storage spots.
John: Right. If anybody golfs and they play the Lincoln Park Golf course, at one point, right on the other side of the fence, I'm not sure what hole it is, you can look down and there are these big square concrete pits set into the ground surrounded by groomed earthworks. And that's where they used to have mortars mounted. And, a mortar is a gun that basically fires a shell, kind of almost straight up in the air, so it comes down in an [00:09:00] arc, like a shot put. And they had 16 mortars, four each in the four pits.
Woody: So that's Fort Miley up there.
John: That's Fort Miley.
Woody: And then where I was playing around the Golden Gate Bridge. That's Fort Scott.
John: Fort Scott. Fort Scott is located entirely inside the Presidio of San Francisco.
Woody: Okay. And then we were talking about Fort Funston. That's like just where Lake Merced is, near the zoo.
John: That's where you let your dog go berserk.
Woody: And the hang gliders…
John: And the hang gliders. Yeah.
Woody: Are out there. So that's kind of on the south, the very southern edge of San Francisco.
John: Yeah. It's right below the zoo. In fact, when you drive down Great Highway, when you cut over, were all the erosion is taking place, just south of the zoo, actually you're cutting through Fort Funston. The big water treatment plant there is actually within the boundaries of Fort Funston.
Woody: I have a quick question while we're thinking about it. There's a road there called Armory Road that goes right near the old zoo area. Is that part of [00:10:00] Fort Funston then too?
John: Yeah. Because the National Guard had a reserve center down there. That’s called an armory.
John: And if it's the one we're talking of, there's a road there and there's an elaborate rock work gate posts. That was the old main entrance.
Woody: To Fort Funston?
John: To Fort Funston. The whole fort. The whole fort.
Woody: Yeah, it's funny cause I think people nowadays, especially younger people, they walk around these places, they don't really, they know they're called Fort Funston or Fort Miley, but they don't really know that these are actual forts. I mean, I don't think they quite get in their brain that they had a huge army presence, you know, in these places.
David: Well, I mean, in Fort Funston they're huge batteries up there, you know, with the big concrete structures that are a real big part of the area if you're walkingyour dog around.
Woody: They’ve got those giant tunnels, they look like now. Right? What are those things, John?
John: That would be, that would be Battery Davis.
John: It mounted two battleship guns. [00:11:00] Each one of these guns was just immense. It was almost 70 feet long, and it fired a shell weighing a ton, 25 miles with accuracy.
David: That's 2000 pounds.
John: 2000 pounds.
Woody: So, how long are these guns? 70 feet?
John: 70 feet. If you could imagine like the battleships, like the Missouri and the Iowa, you see mounted, two of those guns sticking out of the battleship turrets. But instead of putting them in turrets, they mounted them in these massive concrete rooms of like up to 17 feet of concrete above them and 600 feet apart. And the tunnels, they built an artificial hill with all these tunnels with rooms for ammunition, storage, and the crew. They built two of those. Remember their fear that somebody's gonna anchor off Fort Funston?
John: Well, they also had kind of the fear that somebody might anchor off Marin. Or maybe even try to land at like Stinson Beach. So, they built a twin gun battery called Battery [00:12:00] Townsley.
Woody: That's over in the Marin headlands?
John: Yeah. I think we visited there once. Some of our group hiked up there. So, the one at Fort Funston, it's all buttoned up inside. They welded steel plates over all the doors.
David: That's because Woody used to run up and down those tunnels and break beer bottles and stuff.
John: Well, that's one of the first ones that I discovered, you know, growing up in Westlake. You know, we'd pack up our little sack lunches and get a canteen of water and hike around the Olympic Club and get to Fort Funston. And we'd go explore that thing, you know, with our little, you know Cub Scout flashlights.
Woody: We didn't bring water.
John: Later on the libations changed.
David: Woody brought his spray paint and his beer bottles.
Woody: No, no. I never did any of that. I never did. But they're all, they're all sealed up now, right?
John: They are, yeah. That was, you were talking about what was it like in those days? It was, that area was open when the park first took over. During the city days. ot was unpatrolled. I guess maybe [00:13:00] occasionally a police car would, you know, go up there. But the interior was wide open. It was all black from fires that had been stoked. This is in the mid-late ‘60s this was going on.
John: Apparently Hell's Angels used to gather up there.
John: It was a heavy, it was a heavy cruising scene. So, it wasn't really a family friendly environment.
Woody: Right. Okay. so, I have a question. Real quick too. So, Fort Miley was part of the Presidio. Right?
John: It's what they call a subpost.
Woody: Okay. A little, a little outside of it.
John: Yeah, there you go. It's like a satellite.
Woody: Right. And the Army's been there, moved to the VA, and it's been pretty much continuous. But when did the military leave Fort Funston?
John: In phases.
Woody: Oh, okay.
John: They really shut down Fort Funston right after World War II. Because it was pretty obvious World War II had changed everything. Long range bombers and nuclear weapons. But the Army maintained a [00:14:00] presence down there, off and on. The National Guard had their armory, they did some training activities there. But it got a new shot of life in 1955 when they built a Nike missile site down there. And from 1955 to about 1961 or ‘62, there was a launch site for, I think like there are three missile silos, missile pits.
David: And that's kind of to the south of Battery Davis.
John: It is.
David: Right in the, kind of in the parking lot.
John: The parking lot is the missile launchers.
Woody: Oh, really? That's where they were?
John: They're underneath the parking lots.
John: If you go down there. Well, you know, I take Milo for a walk and we go down there. In this, there's three of these giant rectangular pads in the middle of the parking lot. That's where the elevators were that brought the Nike missiles up out of the ground and then they'd be elevated. When I was, when I was a kid on Armed Forces Day, it must have been like 1957, we only lived a [00:15:00] few miles from there and we used to pass it every day and it had a big sign that said Westlake Nike site. And on Armed Forces Day, they opened it for tours and my folks took me in there. And real strong memories, you know, the sounds, the smells of hydraulic and paint. And it was very spit and polished. It was very real.
Woody: Did they kind of bring 'em up to show you guys?
John: Yeah, they'd bring 'em up and then they'd elevate 'em.
David: There were a lot of Nike sites around too.
Woody: We should talk about what a Nike missile is. What are we talking about?
John: We talked about, talked about cannons and how big they could get. What a Nike missile is basically a rocket like you see on the 4th of July. It uses a propellant that just goes up in the air.
John: And then it goes off. These were called guided missiles because when these rockets, missiles, when they launched, they had in their nose a radio receiver. And they could be given directions from the ground while they were in the [00:16:00] air to change their direction of flight. But it was so accurate, it could guide the missile to the airplane.
Woody: So, we're talking about, you're talking about the early guns. You know they're shooting right at the bay at first. Then they have old brass cannons or something. Then they have these guns that could shoot five miles out to get the battle ships or whatever. What, how far, what were the Nike missiles trying to hit and how far away were they trying to hit this?
David: And there's something in between those big 17, 70-foot guns that could shoot 25 miles.
Woody: 25 miles. So, is a Nike missile a closer thing or a longer, longer thing?
John: The Nike missiles like that at Fort Funston were about a 37-mile range.
John: But they were quickly superseded by a bigger one that could fire up to a hundred miles.
Woody: And did we have any of those?
John: Yeah, we did.
Woody: Oh, we did.
John: The name of those missiles, they were called, the early ones, the 37-mile range, those were called Nike Ajax. And the thing about them was that one missile could hit, knock out one plane.
John: Because they were [00:17:00] full of TNT explosive. Yeah, that's pretty good. Yeah. And it could, you know, shoot something maybe a hundred, 150 feet in diameter.
John: That was its kill range.
John: The Nike Hercules, this wasn't talked about too much, is they had nuclear warheads.
John: So, they could take out anything sometimes within like 15- or 20-mile radius.
Woody: Wow. So, we had nuclear warheads where?
John: Not in San Francisco.
Woody: Okay. Alright.
John: Over in the Marin Headlands at Fort Barry. Down in Pacifica.
Woody: Oh, wow.
John: Up at…
David: That's where I drank my beer.
Woody: With the nuclear warheads?
David: Yeah, there weren't any there, but I do remember going, Milagro Ridge. Right?
John: That's the area. Yeah.
David: We would go down, we would go through the hatch in the parking lot and go down onto the elevator floor and drink beer inside, inside the launch panel.
Woody: You sound like terrible reprobates.
David: Terrible. [00:18:00]
John: Oh, I was right in there with you. When I retired from the Park Service in 1999, at my going away, they brought in a big piece of wood. It was part of the window framing from inside one of the gun batteries and carved into it said J Martini SI Rules 1965.
Woody: Did you know they found it?
John: No. I didn't even remember really having done it.
Woody: SI Rules. Maybe they, maybe they forged it. SI Rules. That's pretty lame, John. Because we know Sacred Heart Rules.
David: Oh boy. Oh boy. That's a whole another podcast. But I now, I think there were a lot of different Nike sites, because I, we have a picture on our website of what I think are Nike missiles, right behind the Public Health hospital.
John: Yeah. There were 11 sites at the heights around San Francisco. There was one right in the Presidio behind the Public Health service. [00:19:00] I think the area is now used, I think where the tree crew lays the limbs down from the trees they've cut or something. Two over in the Marin Headlands. That's where we have one that's restored. You can actually, you know, go inside.
Woody: Take a look at it. Yeah.
John: Fort Funston. Several in the East Bay Parks. The idea being that they kind of ringed San Francisco. And the question was, who were we afraid of? And the enemy, as I said, kept evolving over the years, but it was clear it was only the Soviets. That's what everybody was thinking about during the Cold War. I got a couple of years on you guys, but I definitely was, you know, the generation we're doing the duck and cover drills and people were…
David: I remember doing that.
John: Thinking of doing, digging fallout shelters in their backyards.
Woody: Yeah. So, what, what did we miss, John, what about the forts that we didn't talk about here? I mean, I know I've been like leading you on some crazy path through missile sizes and things. But what didn't we talk about at the forts, especially on the West side of San Francisco?
John: Well, I think kind of the mythology about these things [00:20:00] that grows up. We did a history minute about the little observation posts that are up at Sutro Heights. People call 'em pill boxes. And they were really, they weren't defensive. They weren't, you know, sitting there, gonna mow down, you know, the landing craft on Ocean Beach. These little observation pill boxes were for soldiers who basically manned telescopes, endlessly sweeping the ocean waiting for the Japanese fleet to arrive. And these little suckers, they pepper the coast. Some are as far down as Mavericks at Half Moon Bay. Right on that…
David: You see one as you drive down Devil Slide or when you used to.
Woody: Oh, it's totally half exposed.
David: Like Utah or something with this eroded…
John: That thing was, that's called Little Devil Slide. There's one and some guy bought the hilltop. And the story I've heard was he was going to level it and build a house there. And I guess he met his, hit the wall when he ran into the concrete battery [00:21:00] fire control stations.
Woody: He couldn't match the Army Corps of Engineers or whoever built it. Huh?
John: Yeah. So, he ended up just like pedestaling the thing because it's totally flat. But it looks like something on the Road Runner, one of those buttes.
Woody: Yeah. Or some kind of like 1950s spacecraft or something. It's very odd thing.
David: And I know that down near Fort Funston there was one of those observation rooms that has fallen into, fallen down onto the beach. There are these old iron pieces that are down there.
Woody: You were talking about the first ones up at Sutro Heights Park.
Woody: There's all that sort of fake cliff.
Woody: That goes down from Sutro Heights Park down to the road in front of the Cliff House. And it looks all kind of obviously fake. And I was always told as a kid that that was created and there were tunnels inside and it was camouflaged because of the war, but it's not.
John: Sorry, Woody.
Woody: I know, I knew it now, but I'm leading you to tell me, to tell other people that.
John: It was, half of it was built by the Department of Public Works when they widened the Point Lobos Boulevard. And it's just reinforcing, so the hill doesn't slide. The [00:22:00] other half was WPA stuff because the hill kept sliding. So, it predates the war.
John: There's nothing super mysterious about it.
Woody: They're just pasting a fake hill up on this side.
John: The fortifications were really up at Fort Miley and down at Fort Funston. These are, so again, these are just observation posts. The other big myth is there's some incredible underground network of tunnels that the government will neither confirm or deny, that connects all this stuff.
David: And they do. Right?
Woody: It's like the Chinese restaurants all have this like tunnel that just, they have one kitchen downtown. Right? That's what I heard. See, these are the stories I heard as a kid. But there's not, there's no tunnel.
John: There's no tunnel. The, the longest one with the most rooms, if you wanted, is the Battery Townsley in Marin. It's got like 25 rooms in it.
David: So where can somebody see the best examples of some of these fortifications?
Woody: Yeah. And to follow up on that is, what's the status of them now? I mean, they're national [00:23:00] parkland. I mean, does the Park Service try to preserve them as World War II things or they going to plant ice plant over them? I mean, what goes on with them now?
John: Well, they're all historic structures and by law, we have to protect and preserve them. And I should say this for the record too. I'm retired, but I took a week off, then I came back as a volunteer and a contractor. So, I feel like I've never left.
Woody: That was a great week though, wasn't it?
John: I got so bored. I mean, how many times can he go to the mall or, you know, catch that bargain matinee? No, I really missed the public contact. So that's why I volunteer and I do contract work.
Woody: Speaking as a volunteer.
John: Speaking as a volunteer. The long-range plan is basically to stabilize and to preserve them and to rehabilitate. You could use the word “restore” to several of the best of different periods to show what they really looked like. There's close to a hundred of these fortification sites.
John: We couldn't possibly restore every one. But the classic one people might not think about is the old Fort Point under the Golden Gate [00:24:00] Bridge. That's been rehabilitated, that some of the interior rooms are furnished and they got cannon in it. A little bit of visual intrusion with the Golden Gate Bridge overhead.
John: But you get past that. Battery Chamberlain at Baker Beach. That one actually has one of the operating called disappearing guns from the turn of the century. These things were designed so that at the moment of firing the gun, it lowered itself out of sight below ground level.
Woody: And where is that? That's just north of Baker Beach?
John: Just north of, north end of Baker Beach. Right at the, you can drive right into it. Usually, the gates open. And they have volunteers that go through a gun drill where they go through loading and firing.
Woody: Oh neat.
John: There's Battery Townsley that I mentioned.
Woody: In the Marin Headlands.
John: Where we just acquired one of those battleship guns. All 70 feet, 120 tons of it.
David: How did they even get that 70-foot gun up there?
John: A bunch of really big trucks and a specially designed trailer, because that's a switchback road. Well, there's a video on [00:25:00] YouTube of a move. It's just astounding to watch these guys do this thing. And then at the end there's the Nike missile site, which is at Fort Barry. And that's just like walking back to like 1962 when you go in there. They have a, of course they're inert missiles, but they have, I think, five Nike Hercules missiles on display. The, they have the radars and the computers. Yeah, the others, it's just a battle to keep 'em from falling apart. And the graffiti is just endless. The spray can is the bane of the preservationist’s existence. So, there's this incredible legacy. And it's not just a rivet counter’s delight of how big were the guns and thick was the concrete. But there's a bigger story, and that's at these areas, Fort Funston, Fort Miley, Fort Winfield Scott, the headlands on the other side of the Golden Gate, because the army got there early and they saved this land for national defense, homeland security, if you will, from the 19th century, the military moved [00:26:00] glacially slow as these weapons became obsolete. And they were still there and they were available, surrounded by growing development in the early ‘70s when the idea came around that this land needs to be saved. And so, the military really gave us this bequest of open space, that all had its origins as fortifications.
Woody: So, I always think about preservation. I think that the sort of neighborhoods that are kind of neglected and poorer, you often have great buildings still left there because there wasn't progress, just kind of leveling everything.
Woody: And so, we can thank the glacial bureaucracy of the army for keeping all that open space for us?
John: Yeah. And the vets that I've talked to, who man these things, they're really proud of the fact that not only did they, the old expression is, they waited for an enemy that never came, but that they contributed to today's Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Woody: Yeah. Well, this has been great John, and I know we could [00:27:00] talk forever and we have other things we could talk to John about and we're gonna have John back, right?
David: Yes, absolutely.
Woody: And we could talk about some like Sutro Baths next time.
John: SI Rules.
Woody: SI Rules. Did you write SI Rules in Sutro Baths too?
John: No, I didn’t.
Woody: Okay, good, good. But thanks so much for helping us.
David: Did you drink beer and break beer bottles there at least? No?
John: When the tapes off we’ll…
Woody: Statute of limitations is over, John. Don't worry, John. But thank you. And I know you're a podcast listener, right?
John: Oh, yeah.
Woody: Yeah. So, if you listen to our podcast like John Martini, please let us know. Go to outsidelands.org and send us a note. But for now, I'm Woody LaBounty.
David: And I'm David Gallagher.
Woody: And thanks so much for listening.
Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.