Number 41 - May 2013
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website,, to learn more about our private, custom tours.

Bay Area Military Historical Sites - Part I: San Francisco

If you are interested in military history, there are many places to visit to learn about the Bay Area's contributions to the defense of first Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States. In this issue of Rick's Tips we'll cover historical sites in San Francisco. In the next issue of Rick's Tips" we'll cover military sites in other Bay Area counties.

Presidio of San Francisco

The first military post in the Bay Area was the Presidio of San Francisco. Founded by the Spanish in 1776 and closed by the U.S. Army in 1994, the post is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Not much remains from the Spanish days, just six 17th century cannons and some adobe walls and foundations that can best be seen in the Officers Club (currently closed for renovation).

A good place to start your visit to the Presidio is in the Visitor Center, which is temporarily located in Building 105 on Montgomery Street on the Main Post. The staff can provide you with maps and brochures to help you enjoy your time at the old army post. Permanent and special exhibits are on display. As of this writing, the Center is open Thursday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

The National Park Service also provides a variety of tours and programs in the Presidio and throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. One of my favorite Presidio programs is The Last Gun. Learn about the 50-ton gun that disappears and explore the underground cartridge room. The Last Gun takes place on the first weekend of each month from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Battery Chamberlin near the north end of the Baker Beach parking lot.

Many of the old barracks and offices in the Presidio have been converted to new uses, some of which welcome visitors. You can learn about the life of Walt Disney at the Walt Disney Family Museum and enjoy southern cuisine at Dixie. The Presidio Trust manages the buildings and has a full list of tenants on its website.


Most visitors are attracted to The Rock because of the famous inmates housed there during its days as a civilian prison from 1934 - 1963. However, the army first used the island as a fort. Alcatraz was also home to the first lighthouse on the west coast.

In 1850, President Millard Fillmore declared Alcatraz a military reservation and by 1859 soldiers were encamped on the island. The island remained a fort until it became a military prison in 1907. The army left the island and the Bureau of Prisons assumed control in 1934.

When you buy tickets for the ferry to Alcatraz (, a tour of the cellblock is included. (Be sure to buy your tickets well in advance as the tours frequently sell out.) To learn about the island's military history, you'll have to dig a little deeper. Displays covering the island's history are located adjacent to the theater where the orientation film is shown. You'll see more displays covering the military period as you walk from the dock to the cellblock. In addition, the Park Service offers talks and walks on most days so check out the programs board when you get off the ferry.

Fort Point

Fort Point National Historic Site is located under the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Beautiful views of the Bridge and Bay are available from the adjacent parking lot and the top of the fort. Be prepared for strong, cold winds on the roof of the fort.

Fort Point was built from 1853 - 61 and defended the entrance to San Francisco Bay during the Civil War. After the war, the fort was underutilized. Finally, after World War II, an effort began to turn the old fort into a park. In 1970, Fort Point became a National Historic Site.

Visitors to Fort Point can learn about coastal defenses and life at the fort during the civil war. A listing of daily tours and talks is posted in the entrance (Sallyport) to the fort. Children especially enjoy the canon loading demonstrations that usually are offered at noon. Currently, Fort Point is open Friday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. If you visit during the summer, call (415) 565-1693 to see if the fort will be open on additional days.

Fort Mason

Fort Mason originally was built by the army in the 19th century to provide coastal defenses. In World Wars I and II, the Fort was a major port of embarkation for troops heading off to the Pacific. Today, Lower Fort Mason is home to the Fort Mason Center with its many non-profit organizations including a theater, small museums, and a renowned vegetarian restaurant - Greens.

Many visitors pass through Fort Mason as they walk or bicycle over Fort Mason Hill on their way from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge. You can take a self-guided walking tour of Fort Mason to learn about its military history. The brochure is available for download by clicking here.

Fort Miley

Fort Miley, located at Point Lobos at the far northwestern corner of San Francisco, provided coastal defense during World War II. Today, not much is left of the old fort. However, spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate, and Marin Headlands are available at the Lands End parking area at the end of El Camino del Mar. For more great views, walk the coastal trail from the parking lot to Sea Cliff and return on El Camino del Mar, which turns into a trail just past the Legion of Honor.

Next to the parking lot are two shell-damaged sections of the USS San Francisco, which serve as a memorial to those who perished at the battle of Guadalcanal in World War II.

Fort Funston

Located at the southwestern corner of San Francisco, Fort Funston is a popular spot for dog walkers and hang-gliders.

Fort Funston was built in 1917 to provide coastal defense. The batteries were obsolete after World War II and the fort became a Nike Missile site. Today, visitors can walk among the old batteries and enjoy beautiful views of the Pacific. Fort Funston is a locals place. Not many visitors from afar find their way to this remote corner of San Francisco.

Treasure Island

As you can see, the army had a significant presence in San Francisco. Since San Francisco is a coastal city, you would also expect the Navy to be present in the city - and it was.

The Navy had a base at Treasure Island, a man-made island built for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 and 1940. After the fair closed, Treasure Island became a naval base. With the end of the Cold War, the base closed in 1994. Now the City of San Francisco is planning to develop the island.

Most visitors journey to Treasure Island for a panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline. An excellent museum devoted to the island's history closed in 1997, but the Treasure Island Museum Association hopes to reopen it in Building One, the old airport terminal. On weekdays, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., Building One's lobby has a small exhibit on Treasure Island's history including the Golden Gate International Exposition, Pan Am Clipper flights, and naval base.

Hunters Point Naval Shipyard

A commercial shipyard was opened in the far southeastern corner of San Francisco at Hunters Point in the 1870s. Privately owned until 1940, the shipyard was bought by the Navy in 1940. During World War II, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was one of the principal shipyards on the west coast. The shipyard closed in 1994. Now the City of San Francisco hopes to develop the site.

Today, there's not much to bring visitors to the old shipyard. However, twice a year, the Hunters Point Shipyard Artists hold open studios when they invite the pubic to visit. The next open house is May 4 and 5. If you are in town, find your way to the old shipyard and enjoy the work of over 150 artists.

SS Jeremiah O'Brien

The Jeremiah O'Brien is one of only two World War II Liberty Ships that are still fully functional. Launched in 1943, the Jeremiah O'Brien made seven voyages during World War II including hauling men and supplies to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Most of the ship is open to the public daily except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, and when the ship is cruising. An excellent audio tour will enhance your visit to the ship. Visitors can see the engines in operation on Steaming Weekends, which are usually the third Saturday and Sunday of each month. Liberty Ship Jeremiah is located at Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf.

USS Pampanito

Docked next to the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien is the USS Pampanito, a World War II era submarine. The Pampanito made six patrols during the war, sinking six ships and damaging four more. The ship has been restored to how it looked during 1945. Visitors are welcome daily to explore the ship and learn about the life of submariners. I highly recommend the audio tour.

As you can see, there's lots of history for military buffs to explore. In addition the old sites offer unique attractions for art lovers, those interested in US history, foodies, and people who enjoy the outdoors. If you would like to take a private tour of San Francisco that includes some of these sites, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

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See you on the road,

Rick Spear
Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel
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