Now And Then: Fort Mason

Fort Mason
Since 1863, visitors have flocked to San Francisco’s western shore to enjoy sweeping ocean views. The concrete ruins just north of the Cliff House are the remains of the grand Sutro Baths. You can find these historic sites on the north end of Ocean Beach, where Geary Boulevard and the Great Highway converge.


Click and drag center circle back and forth, to compare then and now image.
 
Photo of Black Point and its anchorage c. 1860s Photo of Aquatic Park and Fort Mason today
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Black Point and Anchorage 1860s

Originally called Point San Jose, the ridge was renamed Black Point by early settlers due to the darkness of the bay and oak woodland and shady characteristics of the east face.  Prior to the Army occupation in 1863, several wealthy San Franciscans established homes on Black Point Ridge.  John Fremont built his house at the northern most part of the point (to the right).  Fremont was an important explorer, military leader during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, U.S. Senator, and the person who named the Golden Gate.  He built his house illegally in the early 1850s (the Army had already laid claim to the land in 1850) but it was torn down by the military shortly after this photo was taken to make way for defensive batteries on the point.  His family fought for restitution for decades without success.



 
Photo of Fort Mason before the construction of piers, c. 1880s Photo of "Off the Grid" Friday night food trucks
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Mason Before the Construction of Piers c. 1880s

Ten thousand years of westerly winds built up sand dunes before the rocky peninsula.  Typical scrub plan communities were established on the steep north and west-facing cliffs, including Coyote bush, Lizard Tail, Ceanothus, and San Francisco Wallflower. Today, Lower Fort Mason is home to a number of non-profit organizations, restaurants, and the headquarters of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.  On Friday nights throughout the summer and fall, "Off the Grid" serves up delicious food from multiple food trucks to the accompaniment of DJs and live music.




 
Photo of Alcatraz over Cannonballs at Fort Mason 1869 Today's view of Alcatraz from Fort Mason
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

View of Alcatraz over Cannonballs at Fort Mason 1869

Fort Mason was called Punta Medanos (sand dunes) by the Spanish.  They first mounted five 8-pounder guns in 1797, calling them Bateria San Jose and Bateria Yerba Buena.  After the United States took control of the promontory in 1863, the point served an important role in the defense of San Francisco Bay from the Civil War through the Spanish-American War.  Fort Alcatraz is in the background of the historical image with its 1859 Citadel atop the island.



 
Photo of Black Point with the Pioneer Woolen Factory 1864 Modern photo looking east into Aquatic Park
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Black Point with the Pioneer Woolen Factory 1864

California's first woolen mill was located at Black Point Cove where the Maritime Museum now stands.  The flume in the foreground was built by the Bensley Water Company.  It carried water for San Francisco's growing population from Lobos Creek in the Presidio along the coast and around Black Point to a pumping station where it was pumped to Russian Hill reservoirs.  The building on the right in the modern photo is the historic San Francisco Fire Department's Pumping station No. 2 built after the 1906 earthquake and fire to help suppress fires in the Russian Hill area.  Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower are in the background.



 
Historic photo of horses in Black Point Cove c1880s Modern photo looking east into Aquatic Park
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Horses in Black Point Cove c1880s

As San Franciscans moved west to Russian Hill, they sought recreation including swimming in the protected Black Point Cove.  Beginning in the 1860s, bath and changing houses were built along the beach, serving factory workers during the week and other residents on weekends.  These businesses collapsed when Sutro Baths and other indoor bathing facilities opened in the 1890s.  After the 1906 earthquake and fire, Black Point Cove became a dumping ground for debris and rubbish as destroyed buildings were razed across the city.  Aquatic Park and the Bathhouse (now the Maritime Museum) were built by the Work Projects Administration during the Great Depression and were completed in 1939.  A senior center was opened in the bathhouse in 1947 and continues as the oldest such center in the U.S.



 
Photo of Point San Jose West Battery c1900 Modern photo of the historic gun platforms located behind the Fort Mason Hostel
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Point San Jose West Battery c1900

Prior to the Spanish-American War of 1898 two concrete barbette gun platforms were built and 8-inch guns were installed pointing at the Golden Gate.  Fort Alcatraz is in the background.  Today, the battery remnant can be found behind the Fort Mason Hostel



 
Photo of Fort Mason Pier Construction 1910 Modern photo of "Off-the-Grid" and the Golden Gate
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Mason Pier Construction 1910

The Fort ended its role as an active coast artillery post in 1909, but with the destruction of several administrative buildings across the City after the 1906 earthquake, the Army centralized its administrative functions at Fort Mason.  Managing the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the annexation of Hawaii after their revolution against the king, the control of the Panama Isthmus, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Klondike Gold Rush, all became the purview of the Pacific Administration located at Fort Mason.  The construction of wharves was a consequence of the emergence of the United States as a world power.  The modern photo is the "Off-the-Grid" Friday night event as the sun sets over the Golden Gate.



 
Photo of Fort Mason Pier 2 c1915. USAT Logan in Dock Modern photo of Fort Mason Pier 2
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Mason Pier 2 c1915. USAT Logan in Dock

An Army transport ship, the USAT Logan was used to transport Marines across the Pacific to maintain garrisons in Guam and the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.  Operated by civilians, the Army Transport ships also served military interests in Hawaii and China.  Today, the piers at Fort Mason are home to theaters, the Academy of Art University, and a variety of exhibitions.



 
Photo of DUKWs in San Francisco Bay 1945 Modern photo of  a SUP on San Francisco Bay looking towards Alcatraz
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

DUKWs in San Francisco Bay 1945

DUKWs (aka Ducks) were 2.5 ton, 6-wheeled amphibious trucks with a single propeller used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps during World War II to ferry ammunition, supplies, and equipment from supply ships to depots and fighting units on the beach.  Their top speed in the water was 6 knots and on land, 50 mph.  The U.S. produced 20,000 DUKWs during the war.  They were most notably used during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the invasion of Normandy in 1944.  They played vital roles in these invasions but many sank with lives lost due to high seas and overloading.  DUKW is a manufacturer's code: D - indicates the model year (1942); U - refers to body style, utility amphibious; K - all-wheel drive; W - dual rear axles.



 
Historic photo of soldiers in a boat with Ghirardelli in the background Modern photo of swimmers in Aquatic Park
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Soldiers in a Boat, Ghirardelli in Background

In 1941, five days before Pearl Harbor, Battery B, 216th Coast Artillery forces arrived and quartered in the bathhouse of Aquatic Park.  After the Japanese attack, Aquatic Park became the site of barracks and the headquarters of the 4th Antiaircraft Command.  The beach, which was largely comprised of rubble from the 1906 earthquake, and sand from the excavation of the underground Union Square parking structure, remained off limits to the public for the rest of the 1940s.  Today, members of the Dolphin Club (founded 1877) and the South End Rowing Club (founded 1873) swim laps in the chilly waters of Aquatic Park.



Last updated: November 26, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Building 201, Fort Mason

San Francisco, CA 94123-0022

Phone:

(415) 561-4700
Pacific West Region Information Center (415) 561-4700 Special Event & Commercial Film Permits (415) 561-4300

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