z_Short History

A Short History of Point Molate

By Dorothy Gilbert

Point Molate, a strikingly beautiful area just north and east of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, is clearly visible from the Bridge as one drives east. One can see the huge old brick castle, once a winery, the cottages, the sandy beach, tucked under the steep five-mile, 480-foot range of the Potrero Hills, north of the Chevron refinery. Point Molate has a rich, diverse, even at times extraordinary history; but in the late 20th century, after the Navy ceded it to the city, it fell away from public consciousness and became a “terra incognita.” [1] Then came the cause celebre of Upstream Corporation’s attempt to buy the property and create a megacasino there; after much turmoil, the citizens of Richmond voted the megacasino down in November of 2011. Now  as we urge Richmond citizens to consider  what to do with this remarkably lovely, if contaminated, spot,  we should remind ourselves that Point Molate is a significant part of California and Richmond history, and—when it’s to our credit and when it’s not—part of us.

The first known human inhabitants of Point Molate—and our general area—were the Ohlone Native Americans, thought to have arrived about 5,000 years ago. They were not a tribe in the sense that the Sioux, the Navajo, or the Hopi are tribes; they were a large group containing about 40 branches. The branch living in our area were known as the Huchiun. The Ohlone numbered something like 10,000; they were the most concentrated population north of Mexico.   They had among them at least eight languages, possibly twelve. They were hunters and gatherers; the extraordinary richness and teeming variety of plant and animal life in this area made it unnecessary for them to grow beans, corn and squash as the Pueblo Indians did in the Southwest, or live in permanent houses along the salmon rivers  as the Miwok and Yurok people, further north in California, did. The Huchuin Ohlone built fishing boats and domed huts from the tule reeds found  by the shore. In this mild climate these homes were perfectly satisfactory; they were easy to build quickly, and for a nomadic people it didn’t matter that the tule reeds tended to rot after a while. The Ohlone led both a wandering and a settled existence [2]. They moved in a seasonal pattern from harvest to harvest, of shellfish, salmon, acorns (a mainstay of every meal), seeds, roots, and greens; to quarries to get stones and minerals; elsewhere to get tobacco, medicine plants, and milkweed fiber for their beautiful highly artistic baskets of many sizes and uses. Thus they lived for millennia, returning to seasonal sites which sustained them year after year, and which, for them, sustained benevolent sacred spirits who nourished and guided the people. Evidence from nearby shellmounds (not in Point Molate, where modern industry has destroyed most traces) indicates that they ate shellfish, salmon, insects of all sorts (roasted grasshoppers), lizards, snakes, moles, mice, wood rats, gophers, doves, songbirds, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, deer, elk,  antelope; duck eggs, cormorant chicks, whales, sea lions, seals;  strawberries, wild grapes, gooseberries, elderberries, thimbleberries,  toyon berries, huckleberries, manzanita berries;  hazelnuts, pine nuts, laurel nuts, black walnuts; and in winter, clover, poppy, tanzy, miners’ lettuce, mule ear shoots, cow parsnip shoots, alum root, columbine, milkweed, larkspur, and as spring came on, cattail roots, mariposa bulbs, brodiaea bulbs, and soaproot bulbs. [3]

The beginning of the end of this life came in 1772 when Pedro Fages, invested with the governorship of Alta California, and Father Juan Crespi, arrived in our area and began missionizing the native people. The methods of the Spanish Franciscans were harsh, amounting at times to imprisonment in the missions, and torture—whippings and other severe corporal punishment– for escapees [4].  Within thirty years the Indian population was decimated, many dying from European diseases, or missionized. Conditions grew worse throughout the nineteenth century, after Mexican independence from Spain and then United States (and Anglo) possession of California after 1846. The Native population continued to shrink, until a low point about 1900. The last speaker of an Ohlone language died in 1935, but descendants of the Ohlone—and Huchiun—still live among us.

In the meantime, after 1846, people of various cultures—Portugese, Italian, Irish—began to settle around the Bay shore, and between 1865 and 1870 Chinese shrimpers set up their camp at Point Molate.  By 1904 there were thirty shacks, five wharves, and 110 shrimp boats. These boats were of Chinese manufacture and design, with a ten-foot beam. They had a thirty-foot mast and a Chinese sail. The shrimpers were a common sight in the Point Richmond streets; they carried very large baskets suspended from an eight-foot hardwood yoke borne on the shoulders. [5]    Such a yoke and baskets can be seen in the Richmond Museum of History. Cups of shrimps, at a nickel apiece, were sold in the streets. [6] But much shrimp was exported to China.

Efforts were made to limit the shrimp industry after it was thought that methods the Chinese used—bag nets–were decimating the beds. In 1901 legislation was passed closing the Bay to shrimp fishing in May, June, July and August, and the industry began to decline. The Point Molate camp closed in 1912. The industry struggled on; fourteen camps still existed in the East Bay in 1930; but industrial pollution eventually killed it. [7]

The transcontinental Santa Fe Railroad came to Point Richmond in 1900—its western terminal—and soon after the Standard Oil refinery became Point Molate’s near neighbor. On September 14th, 190l, the Company bought 15,000 acres at $18,000,and began constructing the refinery. It was known as Pacific Coast Oil Company until 1906, when the name was changed to Standard Oil of California. For years Standard Oil was the principal employer in the City of Richmond, and a look at old Richmond telephone books from the early twentieth century tells the story. Listings of SOCO occur with frequency on nearly every page: oilworker, oil treater, barrelmaker, electrician, pipefitter, clerk, carpenter, fireman, foreman, warehouseman, bookkeeper, lab superintendent, or just “emp” for employee.  (The Santa Fe Railroad is a not too close second, with brakeman, switchman, fireman, electrician and the like [8  ].)  Acquaintances of this writer, people now in their sixties, remember how, in the Richmond neighborhood they grew up in, all the dads worked for Standard Oil; one woman remembers that when the afternoon whistle blew at the refinery, she knew her dad would  be home in twelve minutes [9 ]. The name Standard Oil was changed to Chevron in 1984.

These were the years, in the early twentieth century, when the huge Winehaven conglomerate , once called “the largest winery in the  world,” flourished. Begun in San Francisco and utterly destroyed by the great earthquake and fire in 1906, it, or its remains, were moved  to Point Molate that same year by the California Wine Association, which bought  48 acres there. The great brick fortress, with its crenellated walls and corner turrets, was thought to be able to resist almost any shake-and bake. It became the biggest winery in the country, though wine was not manufactured at that site until 1911. Wineries from all over shipped their goods in by rail and they were treated, aged and bottled at Winehaven. Grapes came in from the Napa Valley cities, from Sacramento, Natoma, Fulton, Mount Diablo, even Anaheim.  The company town was completed in 1908. It contained a row of company houses (still visible), a schoolhouse, its own post office, and a small hotel. Families lived in the cottages; bachelors stayed on a barge anchored by the pier; children attended the school; tourists stayed in the hotel. With a deep water frontage, the railroad close by, and a sheltered location under the Potrero Ridge, Winehaven had a first-rate location. Winehaven wine went out by rail all over the country, and by ship all over the world. At the peak of the season as many as four hundred workers lived there; shipment capacity was 500,000 gallons, and forty ships sailed every week just to New York [10].

Then, on January 16, 1920, Congress passed the Volstead Act—Prohibition, the Eighteenth Amendment—and brought this great enterprise to a shuddering halt. One hundred men, at least, lost their jobs. The facility, filled to capacity, was caught with twelve million gallons of wine. One account has it that the agents drained 240,000 gallons of wine into the Bay, to stop smuggling.  According to the Richmond Independent newspaper, the vats of wine were sealed closed, and agents walked through them periodically, pounding on each vat to judge whether it was still full.  But the bootleggers, clever fellows, filled the vats up with water  once they had drawn off the wine (wine into water, a reverse miracle?); the agents did not catch on for quite some time. One enterprising rogue fashioned himself an all rubber suit which he wore under his conventional clothing, into which he could load two and a half gallons of port wine.  The Richmond Independent commented: “There was nothing between his body and the wine which must have made the customers wonder about the rare quality of the vintage. Two and a half gallons of port wine would net him about $5 at bootleg prices, and after a few trips back and forth he must have been able to outdo Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ when minus his clothing [11].”

Winehaven struggled on, trying to sell sacramental wine and grape products, but finally gave up. The site became a whaling station for a time, and then a sardine packing plant until 1935 when the sardines disappeared from this locality. In 1941 the Navy bought the property, and on 12 April 1943 it officially became the U.S. Naval Fuel Annex, Point Molate, California. Twenty large concrete tanks were built; thousands of oil drums were stored in the buildings, pipelines were laid, and a new pier built.  The Winemaster’s house (Building 60) became the Commanding Officer’s residence, and military officers moved into the cottages. The school accommodated students up to the sixth grade. As much as forty million gallons of oil and fuel were stored in underground and aboveground storage tanks until May, 1995, when storage ended.  The fuel depot was officially closed that September, and that same month the Richmond City Council initiated the process of taking over possession of the property [12]. 

One more historic activity should be mentioned: Point Molate was the site of the last whaling station in the United States. Whaling had a long history in the San Francisco Bay area, though whales were never hunted in the Bay itself. In the nineteenth Century, one hundred whaling ships or more could be seen off San Francisco, preparing for the long voyages in the Artic and Pacific. Coastal whaling was practiced too, with hunters going out in rowboats seeking gray or humpback whales or the feisty orcas. After World War II whaling in this area was revived, when Del Monte Fishing Company (1956 to 1971) and Golden Gate Fishing Company (1958 to 1965) worked out of stations at Point Molate, hunting sperm, humpback, fin and sei whales in the open sea. [13] The station boats hauled in 175 of these whales in a year. Workers could reduce a sperm whale to oil, poultry meal, and pet food in an hour and a half.  Fred Elm, the owner of the San Pablo yacht harbor, interviewed when he was 85, commented, “They whaled out in the ocean, towed the whales in up the gangplank, rendered the meat, and took out the oils. The odor was terrible when they were cooking the whales” [14]. Friends who grew up in Richmond have told me that the awful odor was the sweet smell of money to the teenage boys nearby; they knew that if they hustled down to the station they could get work [15]. The whale oil was important to the nuclear industry, where its ability to withstand extreme heat was important in processing weapons and working with electricity. Whaling in the United States ended in 1971, with the passage by Congress of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of that same year.

In the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, there is a transcript of an oral history taken from a whaler and fisherman, Pratt Peterson, who worked out of Point Molate. Born in 1923 and raised a Mormon in Utah, he came West to California during the Dust Bowl years and got work in the fishing industry.  When he began whaling—he was a gunner—he saw his activities as a job and a day’s work, and the politics didn’t affect him. He liked the work because of the freedom: “Your whole life was determined by the weather and the whales,” he said. [16] He thought of his life as “out of the ordinary, always with an element of surprise and adventure.” A whaler was a rare breed, he said; he knew men that could not get past the Golden Gate Bridge without becoming miserably seasick. “If you could bet maybe ten American whalers, you would be lucky,” he said. “Out of the ten, you would get four or five that shot.” [17] He got the job because he was known as a strong fisherman. But it was not especially good reliable money; some years he made as much as 10,000, others as little as 3,000. His wife always worked outside the home to supplement their income. It was dangerous work; whalers commonly lost fingers or parts of hands. But they took accidents in stride, because they were paid only for what they caught, so the work continued. At the time of the interview one of Mr. Peterson’s hands was still numb, and he had braces on both legs, from his knees down to his feet.  He remembered having to shoot his gun when his finger was broken.

“The blue whales were the biggest thing that ever lived on the face of the earth, “he said. “Shooting one of them is like shooting twenty elephants in one shot, because they weigh up to a hundred and ten tons.” He deplored the Russian and Japanese factory ships, the “killer boats” that took whales in huge numbers. “The whales didn’t have a chance.” [18]

When the station was shut down the workers were told nothing about it. One day Peterson came to work and saw news reporters and TV cameras waiting in the dock to interview returning whalers; this was the first any of them knew that they had lost their jobs.  How did he react? “Well, I got kind of an empty feeling.  But it was a shock, the way they did it” [19].  Mr. Peterson commented, though, that if the laws were changed back and he had his youth and health and strength, he probably would not take it up.  “I could see the whaling  population going downhill,” he said. “I figured that sooner or later they would have to do something if they were going to preserve the whales. They’re a very beautiful animal and powerful . . . Blue Whales are the biggest thing that ever lived on the face of the earth” [20].

In 1994 a Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee (BRAC), with 45 members, was formed just as plans were being made for the Navy to transfer title to the city. A ReUse Plan was developed, to try to take into account the exceptional site and historical attributes, to enhance the economic base and regional presence, expand open space and recreational possibilities, and create a new mixed-use “village” [21]. Since then cleaning up has been an eighty million dollar job.  The city continues to invite citizens to express ideas about uses for Point Molate: recreational, cultural, educational (including research) and commercial. A shoreline trail; a hostel; restaurants (on the pier); bed and breakfast facility; shops and boutiques; boating; swimming; fishing; reopening the beach; Asilomar-type conference center; Performing Arts Center; Nature Interpretive Center; shoreline hospital for the Marine Mammal Center; Teaching/Training Center; Museum; completely open parkland; these are only a few of the ideas that have been suggested at one time or another for this special space.


Special Thanks: The Richmond Museum of History: Staff Members Inna Soiguine, Melinda McCreary, and (former staff member) Matt Walker



[1] Bruce Beyaert, quoted in Chiori Santiago, “Betting on Point Molate: A Contested Prize on Richmond’s Shore,” Bay Nature, http://baynature.org/articles/betting-on-point-molate/, p. 6

[2]  Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 1978

[3] Margolin, pp. 36—50.

[4] Margolin, pp. 157—167.

[5] George C. Collier, “Point Molate,” unpublished manuscript, archives, Richmond Museum of History, September 11, 1976

[6] Collier, ibid.; Richmond Museum, Chinese Shrimp Fisheries Exhibit.

[7] Collier, “Point Molate”; see also “Betting on Point Molate,” Bay Nature, p.3

[8] Richmond Telephone Directory, 1914-15, 1930, passim.; archives, Richmond Museum.

[9] Karla Steele, former Richmond resident, interview

[10] “Winehaven (Point Molate) World War II in the San Francisco Bay,” National Park Service http://nps.gov/history/travel/wwiibayarea/win.HTM, p. 1 

[11] “New Vistas,” The Richmond Independent, August 25, 1969.

[12] The Oak Leaf newspaper, Naval Supply Depot, Oakland, June 28, 1946; “Winehaven (Point Molate) World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area,” NPS, p. 1; “Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot,” KCRT Information Network, wwwkcrt.com/specialfeatures/pointmolate/ pp. 2-3; 

[13] Bay Nature Staff, “Whaling from San Francisco Bay,” in Human History, January 1, 2003:http://baynature.org/articles/whaling-from-san-francisco-bay

[14] Slater, Dashka, “The Lost Whaling Station,” http://www.lakata.org/arch/whaling html

[15] Karla Steele, interview.

[16] Pratt Peterson, “A Fisherman and Whaler: Recollections of the Richmond Whaling Station 1958—1972,”: an oral history conducted in 1986 by Judith K. Dunning, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley,1990

[17] Peterson, “A Fisherman and Whaler”

[18] Peterson, ibid.

[19] Peterson, ibid.

[20] Peterson, ibid.

[2l] “Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot,” KCRT Information Network, p. 3; Hector Rojas, “1997 Point Re-Use Plan,” hector rojas@ci.richmond.ca.us 

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