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  A Piece of the Rock?
November 15, 2003

Once again, Red Rock Island, which lies just south of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, is being hawked as the ultimate getaway – just minutes from “The City” (San Francisco – not Richmond).  A Coldwell Banker Realtor in San Jose has the listing, and the island can be yours for only $6.5 million. That’s $18 per square foot, and a substantial reduction from the $10 million asking price in 2001 (See West County Times, June1, 2001: “S.F. Bay’s Red Rock Island on block for $10 million). Where else can you buy waterfront (and waterback and waterside) property at that price? For more information, call Rosemarie Delson at 408/656-0264, rosi-del@att.net. The island is apparently owned by M.L. During, who resides in Thailand.


I bring this to light with some reluctance, because City of Richmond officials will probably start evaluating it as the ultimate location for Richmond’s transient City Hall. It would be an answer to their dream, imposing a significant impediment to all those pesky residents complaining about City services. Or maybe ChevronTexaco would be interested. The island would make a perfect redoubt to secure their southern flank and Long Wharf from waterborne terrorists.


Red Rock Island is one of Richmond’s greatest curiosities. One of five (or six) of Richmond’s islands, eight acre Red Rock Island lies in two cities (Richmond, San Francisco) and  three counties (Marin, San Francisco and Richmond). It would be a developer’s nightmare. If the future owner wanted to build something there, he or she would encounter the first serious impediment at the Richmond Planning Department, where no one returns phone calls. Ultimately, however, Richmond would be a pushover, generating a negative declaration faster than you could say “neg-dec.” Marin and San Francisco would be a little tougher. Then off to BCDC, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Corps of Engineers, State Lands Commission, Department of Fish and Game, Fish and Wildlife Service … and so on.


A short history of Red Rock Island was written by Russ Whiting in May 16,1970, in "New Vistas" (a section of the now-defunct Berkeley Daily Gazette by the Richmond Independent). It can be found on the website http://www.redrockisland.com, and is reproduced in part below:


Riddle: Where in the State of California can one stand in one single spot and at the same time be in two cities and three counties?

Answer: At the very highest point of Red Rock Island between Richmond and Marin County.


If you stand at that particular point on the island - and it is marked by an iron surveyor's monument - you will be, or at least part of you will be, all at the same time, in the City and County of San Francisco, the City of Richmond, the County of Contra Costa, and the County of Marin. That isn't the only oddity about this bit of colorful rock and earth that juts up out of the channel at the dividing point between San Francisco and San Pablo bays because it has been the focal point for executive orders by at least four presidents of the United States.


It has been claimed by a long succession of owners and is today privately owned.  Just within the past year advertisements have appeared in newspapers offering it for sale. It was used as a campsite for Russian and Aleut sea otter fur hunters, and it was inhabited by at least one man for a period of about five years. This is passing strange, too, since it has no natural water supply, except for rainfall.


Bridge Plans


One of the first proposals to build a bridge spanning the bay was from Richmond to Marin County and the engineers suggested that Red Rock Island be used as an anchor. As it turned out, this bridge was one of the last to be built across the bay, and it missed the island entirely. There are a few rabbits living on the island, and no one has the slightest idea how they got there. In any event nature keeps their population under control because they have to survive on a limited food supply and rainwater, or fog and dew that condenses on the rocks. When they get too energetic about reproducing, some of them simply have to die. That's ecology.


Manganese Ore


The island is comparatively rich in manganese and it is the oxidized metal which gives it its red and yellow appearance, and hence its name.

Attempts have been made to mine the island for this metal on several occasions


The island has been known variously as "Treasure Island", "Golden Rock", and "Molate Island." Like all similar islands, legends have been circulated that it was once the burial place for pirate's treasure. Picnickers and hikers who have boated out to the island have amused themselves probing around in likely spots for treasure. If any has ever been found, no one has mentioned it publicly.


The first mention of the island appears in early accounts written in 1812 when the bay abounded in sea otters and Russian and Aleut fur hunters camped there for a brief period. Except for the fact that they did not have a water supply, it was probably a very good campsite for the fur hunters since driftwood lodging on the rocks and small beaches undoubtedly offered a plentiful supply of firewood. Capt. Beechey


Capt. Frederick W. Beechey of the Royal British Navy was the first to indicate the island on a map when he charted the upper reaches of the bay in 1826 and 1827. He labeled it "Molate Island," and copies of the charts are presently on file at the University of California's Bancroft Library. However good Capt. Beechey was at navigating and chart - making, it is clear was a very poor speller, especially in Spanish. He attempted to give the island a Spanish name, "Moleta," after a red pigment used in paints. But he mis-spelled the word and it came out "Molate."The Size of it  


 Altogether the island has an area of a little more than five and one-half acres. The largest portion - four acres - is in Contra Costa County and was included as part of the City of Richmond when it was incorporated in 1905.


About one and one-half acres are in the City and County of San Francisco, and a little sliver - nine-one-hundredths of an acre - is in Marin County. The island at its highest point is 172 feet above sea level and is surrounded by channels of water 60 feet deep; deep enough to accommodate the largest ocean liners. Oddly, although it stands midway in the shipping lanes, and ocean-going vessels plow by every hour of the night and day, there is no record of any ship ever going aground on the island.


He Called it Home 


The only person to ever call Red Rock Island "home" for any period of time was a man named Selim F. Woodworth, who happens to have been the second son of the poet, Samuel F. Woodworth, who wrote the words for the song, "The Old Oaken Bucket."


Selim Woodworth built a cabin on the island and raised a flagpole at the summit. He lived there from 1851 to 1856, but when he decided he would claim title to the island under the Homestead Act, he ran into his first dispute with the U.S. government. William F. Gift, the U.S. Land Office Registrar in San Francisco, refused to permit Woodworth to claim title to the island because he was convinced the government might need it at some time for fortifications or a lighthouse.  Gift's decision was upheld by the Secretary of the Interior, but during President Warren G. Harding's administration, a move was made by the government itself to offer the island for sale.


President Harding issued an executive order declaring that the U.S. government would accept sealed bids for the island and that no bid could be less than $1.25 per acre. President Harding's executive order was most magnanimous, since it indicated the government sold the island for about $7, a far cry from what it was to get for a private seller some years later.


But let's get back to Selim Woodworth . . . He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, leaving an agent in charge. The agent leased the island to a man named McMakin and granted him the right to take rock there from for a period of two years. McMakin, being a sagacious businessman, sold his lease to two other men, Loomis Miller and George C. Miller, and this led to a dispute because Woodworth returned from serving his hitch in the navy and demanded the return of the island. The Millers refused to surrender it, so Woodworth brought suit in court and won a judgment in his favor. However, after having won his court victory, Woodworth faded out of the picture, and the island remained untouched until 1866 when it was discovered that it was rich in manganese. Some 200 tons of ore were taken by speculators without any real permission from anyone, and the tunnels they dug remain on the island to this day, a refuge for bats and seabirds.


Soon it was discovered that Norwegian and Swedish sailors were loading their ships with rock from the island as "ballast" for the return trip to Europe. Then it turned out the ballast became valuable as soon as they got it to Europe and that they were selling it for the manufacture of paint pigment. They managed to move some two thousand tons of the rock before the U.S. Government stepped in and put a stop to it. There the island remained unnoticed until 1916. It was then brought to attention because of a series of bombings in the Bay Area by alleged anarchists with whom Tom Mooney, who was later to serve a term in nearby San Quentin Prison, was said to be associated.


Arthur B. Reihl, a San Francisco police detective, visited the island in search of a possible cache of guns and explosives. He found neither but he did discover and was impressed by the early mine workings. He filed a location for a mining claim, declaring the island to be unpatented mineral - bearing property. He was later joined by a Louis H. Eilken and together they filed still another claim notice. This pair did mining assessment work on Red Rock for several years. They cleaned out the tunnels and applied for and were granted a patent title.


In February 1964, the island was purchased by David M. Glickman, a San Francisco attorney, who announced plans for a multi-million dollar development. Attorney Glickman later dropped the whole idea and handed a quit-claim deed to a man named Mack L. Durning.


And so the island stands. Except for some slight changes, it is much today as it appeared when it was looked upon by Father Juan Crespi and his accompanying Spanish soldiers some 200 years ago. It has never been used for military fortifications although the U.S. Coast Guard located a carbon dioxide bell striker as a fog signal there for many years. This was even abandoned in 1961.