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Defending the Bay

It’s a windy, foggy day in San Francisco, California, nothing the city hasn’t seen before.

The Golden Gate looms in the distance, its alluring red paint glistening in the sunlight that manages to break through the overcast climate.

Let's travel beyond the Gate and its bustling five lanes of traffic to the city, the islands, and the headlands that encompass the San Francisco Bay Area.

Within the bay there's exists a vast network of military installations, with layers of defenses put in place overly nearly 200 years.  A true testament to the rapid evolution of military technology, the important status of California to U.S. economic interests, and the need for security in an increasingly globalized world

This concern toward the West Coast's security should not be underestimated.  The Bay Area was often the primary West Coast target for real or imagined enemies and therefore stood as the center of U.S. maritime defense.  The extensive military presence around the Bay Area consisted of naval operations, military bases, and naval deterrents. 

With this military presence came certain advantages, mainly people, money, stability, safety, and a more direct representation of defending freedom. 

This content explores the San Francisco Bay Area as a home to military defense on the West Coast. 

Golden Gate Bridge
Military History of Alta California, 1776-1848

Before San Francisco’s infamous Gold Rush period, California was a land of Native American civilizations that utilized its natural resources as experts in California’s unique terrain.

In 1776, Spanish explorers in Mexico travelled upwards from San Diego down from Northern California to claim a vast land that stretched the most of the distance across today's state of California--referred to as Alta California or Nueva California.

The Spanish used a network of missions and presidios as religious and military bases (respectively) throughout California to hold their influence and security of the coast.  This included religious conversions and forced labor.

Mexico then gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and established a government in the California territory in 1824.

California’s military and defense history in this era is primarily defined by the hostility between the Native Americans and the Spanish and Mexico’s unstable governmental body that ultimately led to California being occupied and ultimately annexed via war by the United States.

Sarony_&_Major View_of_San_Francisco._C

Sarony & Major View of San Francisco. California San Francisco United States, ca. 1851. New York City- Published by Geo. W. Casilear, Atwill. Photograph.

Lawrence & Houseworth, Publisher. The Pr

In November 1769, Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolà was crossing Montara Mountains Sweeney Ridge where he was amongst the first Europeans to lay his eyes on the San Francisco Bay.

Six months after the departure of Captain Ayala’s company, the Spanish returned to reconnoiter for military presidios and missions. They settled near the Ohlone Village of the Yelamu tribe and began building a presidio.

The mission system was the outgrowth of the political, economic, and religious ambitions of the Spanish government, which was trying to protect its territory from British and Russian incursions. In order to flourish, this system needed forts and soldiers at various presidios, which by 1782 had been built in San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. In addition to keeping out the British and the Russians, the military supported the priests in their conflicts with the local Native Americans.

Lawrence & Houseworth, Publisher. The Presidio and Golden Gate, from Russian Hill, San Francisco. , 1866. [Published] Photograph.  

While the Native Americans were the ones who helped the Spanish settle, learn the land, and provide food and labor; they also ultimately lost much of their freedom when the missions were assigned to ‘civilize’ them by converting them to Catholicism. If they refused to convert or tried to escape, they would often be subject to punishments.

Natives at the missions were subjected to forced labor and many priests were known to be intolerant and violent. Many visitors were appalled by the treatment of the Natives, but others saw it as just treatment of so-called ‘savages.’ The Spanish also had to deal with Alacades, democratically elected Natives who were initially enlisted by the Spanish to govern to Indian population.

Quirot & Co., Lithographer. Mission Dolo

Quirot & Co., Lithographer. Mission Dolores : Lith. & publ. by Quirot & Co., corner California and Montgomery Sts., S. Francisco. California San Francisco, . [San Francisco- Lithographed & published by Quirot & Co., Photograph.

The Mexican War of Independence lasted until 1821, resulting in Mexico’s independence from Spain. 

The early Mexican government was somewhat anti-clerical, granting and distributing mission lands to tribes around the area, soon abolishing the mission system. Though the 1824 Mexican Constitution declared Indians to be citizens with rights to both vote and hold public office, Indians were still treated as slaves in places like California. Mexico City's control over California was limited, as the new republic had a lot of trouble ruling over their vast lands.  The executive administration changed 40 times during this period, with an average government duration of 7.9 months. While insatiable in itself, the Mexican government faced the threats of a growing nation to the east, one with the zeal of Manifest Destiny. The United States was eager to expand westward toward the Pacific Ocean and Americans disliked and often discounted Mexican rule. On February 2, 1948, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed by both Mexico and the United States. Article III of the treaty declared that immediately upon ratification, the United States would withdraw their blockade and their troops from the interior of the Mexican Republic. In Article IV, it is stated that a border dawn at the Rio Grande.

Pathoumthong, Christina. ".European and Mexican Military Defense in California [1542-1846]" Dominican University of California, 2020.

Click the Icon to Listen to the Oral History of Alta California !

San Francisco Skyline
The Establishment of
Alcatraz & Fort Point

Today, both tourists and locals flock to visit Alcatraz and Fort Point along with other historical military sites preserved around the San Francisco Bay. Both Fort Point and Alcatraz have rich histories, particularly from the Civil War (1861-1865) and World War I (1914-1918). Fort Point was built similar to traditional military forts located on the East Coast, in that it was at the water level. On the other hand, the island of Alcatraz’s natural height was utilized as a unique strategic strength.  It offered a vantage point for cannons, but was also pretty vulnerable due to its prominence in the San Francisco Bay.

Alcatraz and Fort Point went through extensive retrofitting and redesign over several decades to meet the demands of visions for military defense. Fortunately, neither Alcatraz or Fort Point experienced extensive damage, which enables the public to see these significant historical sites for themselves firsthand today.


Cannon stand ready on the barbette tier in 1870. PARC, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (FortPointBarbetteTier)


The construction of Fort Point began in 1853 but construction was a lengthy process given the lack of funding to complete the complex fort in a short amount of time. Fort Point was seen as the "the key to the entire Pacific Coast [from] a military point of view". 

The Board of Engineers for Fortifications on the Pacific Coast characterized Fort Point’s purpose in defense as: “(a) to prevent entrance of a hostile fleet into the harbor; (b) to presume that one or more ships had effected an entrance to perfect "batteries for the near defense, as to deter an enemy from approaching or lying near enough to destroy" San Francisco; and (c) to present an interior line of batteries to command the three passages into San Pablo Bay, i.e., that between Alcatraz and San Francisco, that between Alcatraz and Angel Island, and the Raccoon Strait."

PARC, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (FortPointoverviewwithcap

Alcatraz was chosen as a military fortification because of its geographic location and form. “The rock” island provided a unique vantage point for the military to have given its position above sea level and the structural components that were already in place from when it was solely in use as a military penitentiary. Alcatraz underwent some architectural modifications, beginning in 1853, to construct army fortifications such as a defensive barracks and installing cannons. By 1861, the government designated Fort Alcatraz as the official military prison for the Pacific region.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz’s military jail cells served as a place to hold southern sympathizers along with political prisoners.

In 1870, it was decided that Alcatraz needed to be cut down 50% to make it less of a target with long artillery. Inmates were forced to do the construction and began to excavate two flats but this work was not completed since Congress did not allow enough funding, leaving it stalled for a couple decades.

Reinhard, Julia. "Defending the Bay - Alcatraz and Fort Point during the Civil War and World War I." Dominican University of California, 2020.


O'Day, Edward Francis, and William Wilke. Old San Francisco: a beautiful, romantic, historic picture  story of the city. [San Francisco: San Francisco news, 19--?, 1900] Pdf.

Click the Icon to Listen to the Oral History of Alcatraz & Fort Point !

San Francisco
The United States Coast Guard
& Station Golden Gate

    Averaging over 600 search and rescue cases and more than 300 law enforcement boardings each fiscal year, Station Golden Gate in Fort Baker holds the responsibility of covering fifty nautical miles offshore from Point Reyes to Point Ano Nuevo (including the Farallon Islands), and within San Francisco Bay from Bluff Point in Marin County to Pier 39 on the San Francisco waterfront.

fort baker 6.jpg

Trifoso, Cece. “Author Photos”. Oct. 25, 2020.

When the Gold Rush erupted in 1849 and the Bay was soon bombarded with copious amounts of ships, the United States tackled the situation of establishing lighthouses up and down the coast of California.

In 1878, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Life Saving Service as a separate bureau under the Treasury. These stations included lighthouses at the Presidio's Fort Point, Point Reyes’ north of the Golden Gate, Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands, and at the southern end of Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Sixteen years later in 1907, Maj. William Harts proposed an expansion of the Presidio’s life-saving station, stating that the station was needed more on the ocean’s shore than on the bay’s shore because a greater amount of devastation happened out there.

It was only in 1914 that the U.S. Treasury  merged the U.S. Life Saving Service with the Revenue-Cutter Service and birthed a new organization called the United States Coast Guard. 

The base at the Presidio was converted into the Fort Point Coast Guard Station 323.

View of Fort Baker on the northeastern s

For almost one hundred years, Station Fort Point served the Bay Area and protected those who traveled the Pacific Ocean into and out of San Francisco, rescuing ships from the perils of the bay and defending the ports from crime and attack.

In 1984, in collaboration with the National Parks Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a decision was reached that the U.S. Coast Guard Station 323 would move North, from the Presidio to Fort Baker (also known as Horseshoe Cove) in Sausalito, Marin County. 

The station would become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and today is open to visitors who come to fish, sail, hike, and gaze out at the magnificent menace that is the San Francisco Bay.

“[View of Fort Baker on the northeastern side of the Golden Gate Bridge]” Photograph. n.d. From Calisphere: California History Section Picture Catalog. (accessed Oct. 23, 2020).

As the U.S. Coast Guard inhabits the Fort
today, you can often catch the Guardsman or "Coasties" out-and-about, completing their daily tasks or rushing to their ships to confront a problem within the Bay. With its initiative to protect the public, the environment, and U.S. economic interests through the nation’s ports and waterways, Station Golden Gate has become the busiest station on the U.S. West Coast. Leading with the motto Semper Paratus, or “we’re always ready”, the United States Coast Guard has left its mark on the Bay Area through its continuous efforts to patrol and keep the Bay’s treacherous waters defended from outside threats.

fort baker 1910.jpg

Trifoso, Cece. "Defending the San Francisco Bay Area: The History of US Coast Guard and Station Golden Gate." Dominican University of California, 2020.

Worden, Willard E, photographer. “Fort Baker.” Photograph. c1910. From Calisphere: California History Section Picture Catalog. (accessed Oct. 23, 2020).

Click the Icon to Listen to the Oral History of the US Coast Guard &

Fort Baker !

San Francisco
Naval Deterrents in the Bay Area During WWII

    The World Wars brought many fears to all of the US states, but California in particular had a panicked mood after the 1941 attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

The following days saw increased tensions as Japanese naval assets attacked merchant vessels of the California coast as the state was awash with rumors of a potential Japanese invasion, enemy fleets being amassed off the coast, and Japanese troop landings.

A principal reason for an assumed attack on California, specifically the Bay Area, is due to the strategic and industrial importance of the Bay.


picture citation/description


n.d. Photograph. Image courtesy of the Parks Conservancy.

The lack of sufficient numbers to actively patrol and protect the coastline was a problem, if not the biggest initial problem for the Pacific Coast Command.

Additional land fortifications were installed in various locations on the coastlines of the Bay Area, 40 to 90 millimeter gun installations were mounted at strategic points in the various counties.  The leftover, antique gun installments at the presidio were now obsolete and new modern features and technologies were installed to effectively defend the position. The guns themselves, being classified by the projectile they shot, were designed to target aircrafts and motor torpedo boats, and were technically classified as anti-aircraft weapons.

Observation points, plotting rooms, and command stations were built and equipped with radar and listening devices.  The soldiers that kept these posts kept close watch over the skies of the Bay Area, with the aid of searchlights and observation planes, which flew out of Marin County's Hamilton Airfield.

In addition to the land installations, defense operations needed to consider the risks of enemy submarines entering the port through the Golden Gate straits. In order to combat this risk, the Pacific Coast Defense fortified the area by laying naval minefields in the surrounding waters and laying a net across the bay's entrance; a total of 600 mines were laid around the bay.  Rumor has it that some inactive mines remain buried beneath the surface outside the bay.

None of the mass advancements in infrastructure and defense facilities within the state of California at this time would have been advocated for without the attack on Pearl Harbor and the fears it created for those on the mainland. The Pacific Coast Commands' knowledgeable assessment of California’s ability to defend itself called for a major overhaul.  It was completed, boosting morale and giving Californians the confidence to continue to show up for work. The defense of the Bay Area was absolutely necessary to protect our military and industrial power and to ensure the rights and continuity of life for those living in the state. 


picture citation/description

Ayala-Lira, Jesse. "Defending the Bay: Inter-War to World War II, Naval Deterrents." Dominican University of California, 2020.

Golden Gate Bridge
Nike Missile Site,
Marin Headlands

In 1953, the United States military began installing "anti-aircraft batteries” known as Nike Missile sites, a term paying homage to the ancient Greek goddess of victory. The history of these missiles in the Marin Headlands and the greater San Francisco Bay Area is extensive, as they both served a purpose of protection for the Unties States West Coast, but (some) also remain standing to this day, providing history and insight to those that wish to see it for themselves.


Hess, Scott. Nike Missile Site SF 88 (1953- 1979 ) Marin Headlands. Photograph. Sausalito: August 6, 2011. From Nike Missile Site SF 88 (1953- 1979 ) Marin Headlands.


The Cold War was a period in United States history that instilled utter fear, especially the fear of nuclear attack, into the hearts of Americans.  This was truly a global fear, as those living on both sides of the ideological conflict could be victims at the push a button. Because of the new threat, the U.S. military took action fairly quickly, beginning in 1953, with the construction of a semi-permanent missile site in the Marin Headlands. There were several steps when it came to the development of these missile sites.  The rockets themselves were named the Nike-Ajax Missiles, weapons that could target both land and aerial assaults. Next came the Nike-Hercules, a missile with almost double the range.

Hess, Scott. Nike Missile Site SF 88 (1953- 1979 ) Marin Headlands. Photograph. Sausalito: August 6, 2011. From Nike Missile Site SF 88 (1953- 1979 ) Marin Headlands.

After the development of the Nike-Hercules missile, the Nike Missile Sites began looking into preventing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) attacks.  With range capabilities of over 250 miles, the aptly named Nike-Zeus series was born. After spending an estimated $15 billion on the project alone, the United States decided to move towards a more reliable technology, eventually creating the Nike-X, the final missile to be created that could be fired from a Nike Missile Site. These constant “updates” on American weaponry was solely based on the constant demand for more advanced technology in the Cold War. It was an arms battle that was won not by fighting, but by show.

Thankfully, the United States military never had to fire these missiles outside of testing, as the Cold War ever escalated to a shooting war, nor was the United States provoked or invaded to an extent where it was necessary. The development of the Nike Missile Project was formally attributed to the threat that may have arisen if Soviet Russia had taken a chance at attacking the United States. The history of the Nike Missile site in the Marin Headlands revolved primarily around the developments that arose during the Cold War, and the battle for power against the Soviet Union. With the dissipation of the conflict, the Nike Missile Site became a place of learning and experience, moving away from it’s original goals of being private and hidden.


Hess, Scott. Nike Missile Site SF 88 (1953- 1979 ) Marin Headlands. Photograph. Sausalito: August 6, 2011. From Nike Missile Site SF 88 (1953- 1979 ) Marin Headlands.

Davidson, Spencer. "'If It Flies, It Dies':; Historic Nike Missile Site SF 88-L."

Dominican University of California, 2020.

Click the Read the Oral History of the Nike Missile Site !

Photo Gallery


Lesson Plans

DUOC Public History Students designed lessons plans for both 8th and 11th grade students, incorporating California's Academic Standards and interactive features for added student engagement.  Find the associated lesson plans for  "Defending of the Bay" below


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