It is exhilarating to stand on Lime Point in the Marin Headlands or atop the serpentine cliffs of the Presidio and feel the energy and expansive significance of the scene. Several years ago, as a photographer, I became drawn to the sites of the old coastal defense batteries protecting the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The beauty and natural dynamism of these sites give an immediate charge.
Because of the strategic value of San Francisco Bay, the U.S. military made great efforts to secure coastal lands surrounding the Golden Gate. This work began directly after the Gold Rush and continued into the late 1970s. For 25 miles on each side of the entrance to the Bay, on the most visually and tactically commanding headlands, the military placed big guns, mine casemates, and eventually missiles with nuclear warheads. They were housed on and within solidly engineered forms that remain today.
The story and widening pattern of these coastal defense batteries reflect the political, economic, technological, and psychological realities of the emerging American empire. Beginning around 1883, as the U.S. shifted from defensive to offensive player on the world stage, a new round of homeland defense came to the Pacific Coast in the form of large guns placed at further and further distances north and south of the Golden Gate—guns scaled to match those on enemy battleships. The new defensive batteries were meant to free up the U.S. battleships (many made in the Bay Area shipyards) to roam the Pacific and beyond.
In 1951, the West Peak of Mount Tamalpais—perhaps the most prominent and revered mountain in the Bay Area—was cut 31 feet in elevation to make way for a new Air Force-Army air defense command center: Mill Valley Air Force Station. This peak offers a commanding view of the Bay and is easily accessible by road. At the initial surge of the Cold War, few objected to the disfigurement of the mountain in the name of national defense.
Thirty years later, with the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the coastal defense system became obsolete, though much of the land remained under military ownership until transferred to the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—or abandoned altogether. The Air Force and the Army vacated the Mount Tamalpais site in 1982, leaving a toxic legacy with no responsibility for cleanup. The cement slabs, sewage facility, tangled fences, and seeping chemicals remain, a strange mix of urban ruin and ancient temple, it would seem.
Perhaps the final embodied symbols for the ongoing transformation of these former military sites are the hang gliders at Fort Funston, located several miles south of the Golden Gate. This is the home of Battery Davis, where in 1937 two 16-inch guns with a range of 25 miles were placed, forming a matching set with the guns at Battery Townsley at Fort Cronkite in the Marin Headlands. Fort Funston features 200-foot-high sandy bluffs, and is now one of the premier hang gliding sites in the country.
The architectural forms of the batteries reflect a modernist elegance based on a singular function: to protect and control an arc of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay within a 30-mile radius centered at Point Lobos. After these land-based coastal defenses were replaced by more advanced technology, the guns were dismantled. For the most part, only the rugged, streamlined encasements have persevered. The finely engineered structures are alarming in their stark beauty. They play well with the hard light streaming through blue skies as well the muted light of coastal fog. Always they stimulate an expanded view of place and appear as stages for new performances ready to begin.
Galleries | In a Battered Light
By Scott Hess
All images in this gallery copyright Scott Hess; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Descriptions below courtesy National Park Service and Wikipedia. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:
Battery Spencer at Lime Point, Marin Headlands
For half a century, Battery Spencer was one of the most strategically important sites guarding the Golden Gate. It was a reinforced concrete Endicott-period 12-inch gun battery located on Fort Baker at Lime Point in Marin County, California. Battery construction began in 1893. This battery has a commanding view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Battery Dynamite and Harbor Defense (H Station) Command Post
1895-1904 and 1941-1946
Battery Dynamite was originally built as an experimental concrete coastal gun emplacement, with three 15-inch M1886 pneumatic dynamite guns mounted on Barbette carriages. The H Station Command Post was built during World War II on the site of Battery Dynamite, entering service in January 1944. The upper story contained two concrete-and-steel pillbox observation stations, one for the Army and one for the Navy. The lower floor held 16 rooms used for Army and Navy command functions.
Battery Crosby, Fort Scott, The Presidio, San Francisco
Built to protect underwater minefields laid outside the Golden Gate, Battery Crosby was completed and armed in 1900. Armed with two 6-inch guns mounted on disappearing carriages, the battery’s artillery had a range of eight miles and could fire at the rate of two rounds per minute. In 1943, as the emphasis on the air defense increased and the threat from Japanese submarines subsided, the War Department closed the battery and its guns were scrapped.
Battery Wagner, Marin Headlands
Originally built as an Endicott-period concrete coastal gun battery with two 5-inch M1897 guns mounted on M1896 Balanced Pillar carriages, Battery Wagner is located just west of Battery Spencer, overlooking the Golden Gate from the east. There are no powder or shell hoists so the ammunition was carried by soldiers up the steps from below as complete cartridges. There are two ten-foot by 16-foot rooms, one for the guard detail and one for the battery commanding officer. Electrical power came from Battery Spencer for lighting only. In 1910, a fire control (siting) station for the battery was constructed 110 feet behind and above the battery.
Battery Godfrey, The Presidio, San Francisco
Completed in 1895, this Endicott-era battery was armed with three 12-inch guns mounted on Barbette carriages. The first 12-inch artillery platform in the nation was constructed and tested at this battery. Battery Godfrey was built to match or outshoot the guns of contemporary battleships at ranges of up to ten miles. These guns could fire one 1,070-pound shell per minute. In 1943, the War Department ordered the salvaging of this battery along with 12 others considered obsolete.
Battery Chamberlin, Baker Beach, The Presidio, San Francisco
This Endicott-era battery was built on Baker Beach in 1904 and was fitted with four 6-inch rifled guns mounted on disappearing carriages intended to protect wartime underwater minefields laid outside the Golden Gate. These guns had a maximum range of 7.5 miles and crews were trained to fire two rounds per minute. The original guns were removed in 1917 for use in World War I. The battery received two 6-inch guns on simple Barbette carriages in 1920. During World War II, the Sixth Coast Artillery (Harbor Defense) Regiment, Battery “D”, manned the two guns at Battery Chamberlin, living onsite until the end of the war. The battery was covered with camouflage netting to hide it from air attack. These guns were removed in 1948 . In 1977, the National Park Service received the 6-Inch Rifle Gun Number Nine and disappearing carriage, the same type as those installed in 1904. This is one of the few disappearing guns in the world that still operate, moving from loading to firing position.
Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkite, Marin Headlands
Considered the zenith of military technology when it was built in 1938, Battery Townsley was a casemated battery that held two 16-inch caliber guns, each capable of shooting a 2,100-pound, armor-piercing projectile 25 miles out to sea. The guns and their associated ammunition magazines, power rooms, and crew quarters were covered by dozens of feet of concrete and earth to protect them from air and naval attack. This battery was the result of intricate long-term planning. As early as 1915, the Army was eager to construct the 16-inch gun batteries at San Francisco, and by 1928, the decision had been made to install two batteries near the city, one on either side of the Golden Gate straits. By 1940, Battery Townsley was completed and its two guns installed.
Battery Townsley was a high-security operation. Civilians living in San Francisco knew that there were batteries nearby but their exact locations were not revealed. A battery of this design had never been fired before, so the soldiers underwent several months of practice before firing the guns for the first time. The men were subjected to endless rounds of training, often under difficult situations: in rain, in total darkness, and with officers blocking the usual route to the emplacements. This rigorous training ensured that the soldiers could operate their guns at a moment’s notice if ever under enemy attack. By summer of 1940, Battery Townsley was ready for testing with live ammunition. The Army estimated that the projectile’s farthest range would be 30 miles out to sea, about five miles beyond than the Farallon Islands. On a non-foggy day in July 1940, a test shot was fired. The whole mountain shook with the power of gun, which fired even farther than anticipated. Battery Townsley, together with Battery Davis at Fort Funston on the Pacific shore south of the Golden Gate, became the prototypes for the Army’s future coastal defenses. The War Department planned to construct at least 25 additional 16-inch gun batteries along both the nation’s eastern and western seaboards before it became evident that air power would trump these efforts.
Battery Davis and Nike Missile Site SF-59L, Fort Funston, Seven Miles South of San Francisco
Battery Davis was the southern match for Battery Townsley in the Marin Headlands. The battery was originally constructed as a pre-World War II reinforced concrete coastal gun battery with two 16-inch guns mounted on Barbette carriages. Both guns were Navy-manufactured and were originally designated for the battlecruiser U.S.S. Saratoga. The Washington Treaty of 1922 halted construction of the battlecruiser and the gun tubes were repurposed for coastal defense. This was a single-level battery with the two casemented guns separated by earth-covered concrete magazines. The central traverse housed the two casemated guns, two magazines, storerooms, and a power room. A separate plotting-switchboard room was located approximately 700 feet northeast of gun emplacement #1. Twenty-five 1.5-ton, hand-powered hoists were used to convey shells from the magazines to the gun-loading platforms. An internal power plant provided electrical power for the battery. Electric motors were used to elevate and traverse the guns into firing position. Electric motor-powered rammers loaded the shells into the guns.
Nike Missile Site SF-88, Fort Barry, Marin Headlands
SF-88 is one of 16 Nike missile launch sites deployed around the San Francisco Bay Area. Commissioned in 1954, and located in the Marin Headlands, the site was intended to protect the population and military installations of the San Francisco Bay Area during the Cold War, specifically from attack by Soviet bomber aircraft. The site was originally armed with Nike Ajax missiles, and modifications were made to the site in 1958 to allow it to also be armed with Nike Hercules missiles. In 1974, SF-88 was closed though not dismantled. It is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Mill Valley Air Force Station, West Peak, Mount Tamalpais, Marin County
1951-1980 (USAF) and 1980-2005 (FAA)
Mill Valley Air Force Station played a significant role in the U.S. air defense system during the the Cold War. In the 1950s and 1960s, the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons with ever-more advanced delivery systems prompted the construction of early warning radar stations throughout the U.S. This facility on the West Peak of Mount Tamalpais was among the first of the early warning stations, providing guidance for the entire coastal defense system, including 16 Nike missile sites placed around the San Francisco Bay Area and the F-16 fighter jets based at Hamilton Field. Learn more about Mill Valley AFS by watching Gary Yost’s powerful, 20-minute film, The Invisible Peak.
Header photo, gun at Crosby Battery, by Scott Hess.