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Spirits Of The Bay: Islais Creek Grain Terminal

Written by Gary Kamiya | Illustration by Paul Madonna

The most mammoth — and visually stunning — industrial building still standing in San Francisco is the Islais Creek grain terminal on Pier 90. This 190-foot-high gray structure on Amador Street, just east of the Illinois Street Bridge in the vast area of the southern waterfront called the Backlands, has been derelict for three decades. Some of its windows are smashed, graffiti artists have tagged it, and its baffling array of catwalks and enigmatic auxiliary structures are rusting, but its giant silos are too smooth and massive to show signs of age. It looks simultaneously dystopian and futuristic — an uncanny survivor of a lost blue-collar world.

The Port of San Francisco acquired the stretch of waterfront from Islais Creek to India Basin in 1918, as part of an ambitious plan to expand the port to the south. That plan ultimately collapsed, but the grain terminal had a run of almost 70 years.

The first iteration of the Islais Creek grain terminal was built in 1925, replacing a facility for processing vegetable oils. Owned by the state of California and operated by a private corporation, it consisted of a 1,291-foot-long wharf and a five-story grain elevator, as well as two large warehouses. It was intended to handle mostly barley, which had supplanted wheat as the port’s major grain export and at the time was mostly conveyed in sacks. The terminal was served by the waterfront’s little workhorse railway, the State Belt Railroad.

After World War II, grain was increasingly shipped in bulk rather than in sacks. To accommodate this change and try to revive the port’s lagging grain business, in 1949 the California Board of State Harbor Commissioners built a new $1,250,000 terminal, including an elevator with a capacity of 500,000 bushels of grain, or about 11,000 tons. Grain could now be loaded from ships using a “marine leg.” The continuous conveyor-belt system carried grain in buckets from the ships’ holds up to a wharf tower and then to the elevator. The stored grain was pumped into ships using another new device, a pneumatic loading spout. These innovations were intended to eliminate the need for longshoremen to level or “trim” the grain below decks, which closed down the loading process and was unpopular with the workers because it required toiling in dusty and claustrophobic conditions. However, in the 1950s the longshoremen were still working in the holds. The first shipment of grain using the new terminal took place in June 1949, when 9,000 tons of Utah wheat was shipped aboard the liberty ship Henry Teller to feed Japan’s population during the postwar U.S.–led occupation and rehabilitation.

In the small hours of May 28, 1968, the terminal made front-page news when an enormous fire destroyed the facility’s two old warehouses. Flames shot hundreds of feet in the air and attracted a huge crowd in what San Francisco fire chief William F. Murray called “without a doubt, the most showy fire in waterfront history.” Port director Rae F. Watts welcomed the fire, saying, “This fire was a great help. We had plans to tear down Pier 90-A and build a grain elevator.”

True to its word, the San Francisco Port Authority installed a new $6.5 million grain elevator and loading system in 1971, which doubled the terminal’s capacity. (The 1971 elevator is on the north side of the facility, while the 1949 one is on the south, on Amador Street.) In the fall of 1973, thanks to a bumper U.S. wheat crop and maxed-out capacity at Gulf Coast ports, the new facility was in heavy use: “One day last week five ships were stacked up in the channel outside Islais Creek, waiting to take on their share of wheat for distant places,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. But this spasm of activity inspired by what the newspaper called a “grain drain” was an anomaly. The terminal was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Three years later, operating company Continental Grain, citing inefficiencies caused by the need to send ships 12 hours upriver to Stockton to load grain and then 12 hours back downriver to the deeper-water Pier 90 to “top off,” closed the terminal and moved its operations to Portland, Oregon.

The abandoned terminal returned to the public eye in 2014, when “Bayview Rise,” an illuminated mural by the artist team Haddad|Drugan, funded by the Port of San Francisco and coordinated by the San Francisco Arts Commission, was installed on it. What will happen to the mighty silos and the rest of Pier 90 is unclear. Although a 2016 port brochure stated that the terminal would be demolished in three to seven years, port spokesman Randy Quezada says that there are no current plans for it. For now, the uncanny high-rise on the southern waterfront will remain one of the City’s most striking landmarks — an evocation of an industrial city that has all but disappeared.

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