Albion Monitor /Features

About those batteries...

by Simone Wilson

During World War II, a soldier shot at what he thought was a submarine periscope that turned out to be a cormorant

From the Civil War to the Cold War, the U.S. military burrowed into the cliffs and hillsides of the Marin Headlands, installing the latest in firepower to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Now that the U.S. coast is defended by missiles, the fortifications are obsolete and the guns have been hauled away. But the bunkers and gun emplacements remain, relics of outmoded warfare, and visitors can scramble over the gun sites and get a sense of history along with world-class views of the bay.

Starting in the 1850's, the Army dug into the cliffs on both sides of the Golden Gate, setting up a crossfire to prevent marauders from entering the bay. On the north side, Battery Kirby could fire cannonballs to puncture any ship foolish enough to venture near the bay. Later fortifications on the Marin side included Battery Spencer overlooking the bridge, as well as Batteries Rathbone-McIndoe and Wallace on Bonita Cove.

By the 1890's the army built massive concrete emplacements like ones at Battery Mendell near Point Bonita, installing steel guns with range of eight miles. With World War I came the threat of aerial attack, and the army dug deeper into the hillsides to shield long-range rifles from bombardment.

Battery Townsley (visible from the Coastal Trail), was built between 1939 and 1943; its 16-inchers had a range of 27 miles. During World War II, the guns were primed but only one shot was fired, when a soldier shot at what he thought was the scope of a submarine. The periscope turned out to be a cormorant, which indignantly flew away.

After World War II, Cold Warriors installed surface-to-air NIKE missiles designed to reach an altitude of 50,000 to 200,000 feet. At Battery Bravo above Rodeo Lagoon you can see the missiles' metal tracks and an obsolete missile or two in the parking lot.

Most of the headlands habitat is coastal scrub, but stately cypresses mark the bunkers and tunnels. Marin Headlands may be the only parks where the trees were planted as camouflage.

For a comprehensive history with historical photos and oral histories, read "Headlands -- The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate" by Miles DeCoster and several co-authors, published in 1989 by University of New Mexico Press.

Albion Monitor November 14, 1995 (

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