A Treasure (Island) trove: Navy artifacts

February 20, 1994|By McClatchy News Service

Picture the golden era: 1939-1940. Crowds are flocking to the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island, where the "Pageant of the Pacific" celebrates America's Pacific Rim neighbors and the bay's new bridges.

Visitors take paddle-boat rides on the bay and carnival rides on the Gayway. They see an entire Deco-Moderne city, Billy Rose's Aquacade and Sally Rand's Nude/Dude Ranch. Before the two-year party is over, they've managed to chase away the Depression blues.

Then fast-forward past wars and decades to 1994. Every day, 250,000 people cross the San Francisco Bay. They are commuters, tourists, residents and day-trippers moving from point A to point B across the Bay Bridge.

Unless they're on a tour bus that stops at vista points or they're going to work at the naval base, it's unlikely they'll take the island exit.

They don't know what they're missing.

Yerba Buena Island -- Spanish for 'good herb' -- got its name from the sweet-scented creeping plant that grew on the island. During the 1840s it was dubbed Goat Island because of the hundreds of goats that populated it.

The flat, 400-acre Treasure Island was built adjacent to Yerba Buena by U.S. Army engineers to house the Golden Gate DTC International Exposition of 1939-1940, and when that closed, it was supposed to become San Francisco's airport.

But Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany, and before long, World War II had transformed the world. As for Treasure Island, the U.S. Navy borrowed it, converting the exposition halls into barracks and processing up to 12,000 men a day bound for war zones in the Pacific.

Treasure Island would have been too small for an airport, anyway. Eventually, the Navy traded land on the peninsula for the island.

An uncertain future

Now, Treasure Island's future is uncertain. The Naval Base San Francisco and Naval Station Treasure Island are targeted for closing in 1997. Several suggestions have surfaced: converting it into a tourist attraction, site of another world's fair, perhaps, and then a Disney theme park.

The future of the 19-year-old museum -- and its contents -- is up in the air, too. Technically it is owned by the Navy, but Navy spokesmen say it will revert to the community.

"San Francisco needs this museum," says curator Douglas Brookes. "We're confident that we will survive."

But no one is discovering the museum in any rapid fashion. Only 25,000 people visit the museum every year, compared to the million who visit Alcatraz.

Maybe they don't know that, except for the $1 bridge toll, a trip to Treasure Island is free.

5) Maybe history doesn't appeal to them.

Beginning in 1813

Nevertheless, the museum's time line begins in 1813, the year America's first naval ship in the Pacific rounded Cape Horn. It chronicles the history of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard in the Pacific with a curved, 250-foot mural, ship and aircraft models, uniforms, equipment, weapons and relics.

The museum also takes visitors back to the island's beginnings, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a three-mile wall around the bay's shoals and supervised the creation of the world's largest man-made island. Publicity men dubbed it Treasure Island, from Robert Louis Stevenson's book and from the gold particles that supposedly washed down from the Mother Lode mines and were dredged to fill the island.

The island's street layout, palm trees, airport terminal and two hangars remain much as they were shortly after the island was created.

The terminal houses the museum. Out on the sidewalk are four art deco statues, other leftovers from the fair. At each end of the terminal is a bas-relief figure of the winged god Mercury, holding one of the China Clipper seaplanes.

The control tower on top of the museum has never been used. But it came in handy when a a film crew converted the terminal's exterior into a Berlin air terminal, circa 1940, for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

Other fair relics include a model of the 400-foot Tower of the Sun that stood at the entrance. There are programs, posters, souvenirs and photographs. Twice a day, the museum shows old movies about the fair.

And every February, some of the people who worked at the fair have a reunion at Treasure Island.

"Even the theme girl -- Zoe Dell -- comes back," says Mr. Brookes. "She flies in from Ohio wearing gold sunglasses and a mink coat. She's a major hoot."

Fair visitors traveled to the island by car, ferry, Key System train -- and a few by the Pan American Airways China Clippers.

'Flying boats'

A section of the museum is devoted to the Clippers, the famous "flying boats" that flew between Treasure Island and the Orient for five years. Clipper exhibits include the log of the first Pacific voyage, which began at Treasure Island in 1935 and ended in Manila eight days later, stopping at Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam and covering 8,210 miles in about 60 flying hours.

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