Maybe you’ve toured The Rock and hit up the Treasure Island Flea, but how well do you really know the Bay Area islands? For starters, did you know there are 48 of them? Photographer and Marin County native James Martin certainly didn’t — until he embarked on a 10-year adventure that culminated in the 2010 book The Islands of San Francisco Bay. We asked Martin to share some tidbits about a few of his favorites.
1 Alcatraz. Everyone knows the tourist spiel, but Martin has seen the dark side of Alcatraz — literally. “There’s an area built by the Spanish that’s literally just dungeons with chains on the walls,” he says. “No one is allowed down there but when the guard asked me if I wanted to see it, I said ‘absolutely.’ It’s all brick arches and you can see that someone made 19 tick marks on the wall.” Martin also has the distinction of (probably?) being the only Alcatraz visitor to willingly spend the night. “I’d asked 15 times to photograph it at night and finally one of the rangers told me If I just missed the last boat, I could sneak into one of the buildings. So I did. I didn’t sleep and ran around all night. There are birds and rats everywhere, but I didn’t see any ghosts.”
2 Brooks Island. Located just off the Richmond Inner Harbor is a 373-acre island preserve originally inhabited for thousands of years by Ohlone Indians. Today, Brooks Island is owned by the East Bay Regional Park District and considered one of the Bay’s most stunning bird sanctuaries. Access to the park is by reservation only, so if you really want to impress your friends with your exclusive status, you’ll have to call the parks department ahead of time.
3 Red Rock. Among the 48 islands, there’s just one that’s privately owned: Red Rock. When Martin was presenting photos in Alameda 10 years ago, an 87-year old man named Malcolm stood up from the audience and asked if anyone could lend a hand. “He’d planted a tree on Red Rock for the hell of it 33 years before but was so old he needed help watering it,” Martin says. “I told him the island was privately owned and he said that made him worry he wouldn’t be able to have his ashes spread there. I called the Chronicle to do a story on him and they found the owner in Thailand. He said he didn’t mind and Malcolm said, ‘That’s good because I’ve already buried three relatives there.’” A few years later, Martin received a call from Malcolm’s widow. “She called because she knew I’m a rock climber,” he says. It turns out the route to the tree was more strenuous than he’d anticipated. “I asked how the hell Malcolm got up there. She said,‘Oh he just went through the poison oak.’” Martin opted for the less itchy, albeit tougher, route and spread Malcolm’s ashes around his Red Rock tree.
4 Angel Island. Now an outdoor adventurer’s dream, Angel Island has a long and complex history, including 30 years as the principal West Coast port of entry for U.S. immigrants — many of whom were detained for years. “People know it as the ‘Ellis Island of the West,’ but some people stayed there for years because they wouldn’t let them into the U.S. — Ellis Island wasn’t like that.” A little-known bit of info about the island is how close it came to being a drivable destination. “One of the most interesting things is that the state park is actually within Tiburon city limits.” Martin says. “If you go down Tiburon Boulevard, there’s a two-lane highway where they wanted to build a mini Golden Gate Bridge from Tiburon to Angel Island. Luckily, Tiburon wouldn’t let them do it.
5 Station Island. Believe it or not, the Bay is home to one trueblue ghost town. Now part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Drawbridge was once a tiny town on Station Island, located north of Alviso. “Its heyday was in the 1920sand ’30s during prohibition,” Martin says. “There were about 500 people living out there and everyone had guns and made alcohol — it was literally a Wild West town with brothels and hotels.” Nowadays, the only way to observe the protected land is to fly by on the Amtrak, which passes through several times a day.