Many in Marin are not aware of the name Lime Point, a significant feature of the Marin headlands made less conspicuous today by the presence of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Point is that bit of land framing the north side of the passage through the Golden Gate. Together with its counterpart to the south, Fort Point in San Francisco, it forms the doorway to one of the world’s great harbors. Lime Point was for many years intended to be a key player in the protection of San Francisco Bay. That such a prominent point of land has in recent years become almost invisible is the theme of this article.
Why the names Lime Point and Golden Gate? The source of the term Golden Gate for the strait forming the Bay’s entry is not a historical mystery. John C. Fremont, in his 1848 Geographical Memoir upon Upper California addressed to the U. S. Senate, compared the beauty of the entrance to the Bay to another harbor: the Golden Horn of the Bosporus in Istanbul. He named the entrance Chrysopylae, a Greek term for Golden Gate. He explained “The form of the harbor, and its advantage for commerce…suggested the name to the Greek founders of Byzantium. The form of the entrance into the Bay of San Francisco, and its advantages for commerce…suggest the name which is given to this entrance.”
How Lime Point emerged as a name is less clear. Jose de Canizares in 1776 drew the first map to identify the point. Canizares was the sailing master under Captain Juan Manuel de Ayala of the Spanish ship San Carlos, the first European vessel to enter San Francisco Bay. On his Plan del Gran Puerto de San Francisco Canizares named the northerly edge of the entry to the Bay as the Punta de San Carlos. Lime Point was named Punta de Santiago on later Spanish maps. The Spanish maps made no reference to limes or limestone.
The first mention of lime appears on a map based on the surveys of San Francisco Bay by Capt. F. W. Beechey of the Royal Navy. In his 1831 Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific Beechey described the entrance to the Bay, “The port of San Francisco does not show itself to advantage until after the fort [Point] is passed, when it breaks upon the view, and forcibly impresses the spectator with magnificence of the harbor.”
The map entitled The Entrance of San Francisco Harbor, based on Beechey’s 1828 survey, identifies the point of land forming the north edge of the Bay’s entrance as Lime Rocks. The English surveyors of the Bay, it seems, believed the rocks that formed this point were of the same white chalk limestone that forms the cliffs of their island nation. Lime Point in fact, often covered in white bird droppings, is dark in color and mostly composed of pillow Basalt. Over time Lime Rocks on Beechey’s map became Lime Rock Point. In future references to this most significant segment of the Marin headlands it became simply Lime Point
President Millard Fillmore in 1850 established the Lime Point Military Reservation. In 1853 Congress gave further recognition to the importance of Lime Point by designating it as one of the three locations to be fortified for the defense of San Francisco Bay. A March 3rdcongressional action provided $500,000 (over $15 million in 2018 dollars) to fortify Alcatraz Island, Fort Point and Lime Point.
The Daily Alta California described the proposed fortifications for each of the three sites. On Alcatraz Island the newspaper noted “There will be about twenty ‘Columbians’ [guns] of the heaviest metal, at each end [of the Island]….Fort Point will be a strong casemated fortification of three or four stories, and will contain about 110 of the heaviest guns….Lime Point is opposite Fort Point.…It is intended that this fortification shall contain eighty guns of the heaviest calibre [sp.].”
The government in 1853 did not own the land at Lime Point. The debate and court challenges over the purchase of Lime Point dragged on for over ten years and became known by some as the Lime Point swindle. From the Sacramento Daily Union of August 1, 1866, “Lime Point has been at last purchased by the United States. It is rumored that the price paid is $165,000.”
Finally in 1867 work began on the fortifications long promised for Lime Point. The largest blasting operation in the country up to that time was used to create a level site for the proposed multi-tiered casemate fort. However, the work was stopped almost before it began due the expiration of funds. The concept of a single large fort was soon abandoned by the military. By 1876 a series of smaller batteries located near Lime Point were completed at Gravelly Beach (today’s Kirby Cove), Point Cavallo and on the bluff above the Point.
While the fortification of Lime Point was completed, heavy fogs that blinded ships attempting to enter the Bay made clear the need for a fog signal at the Point. Of particular note was the wreck of the steamship Costa Rica in September 1873. Headlines in the Daily Alta California read: “The ‘Costa Rica’ Ashore. A Magnificent Steamer Wrecked for the Lack of a Few Barrels of Water. The Vessel Runs on Lime Point While Seeking for the Fog Whistle.” In a heavy fog, the ship’s Captain attempted to enter the Bay proceeding cautiously expecting to hear the fog signal. Unfortunately, the steam powered fog siren, recently installed at Point Bonita, was inoperative because no fresh water was available to make steam. It seems the system was dependent on rainfall and by September of 1873 its cisterns were empty. The Costa Rica was heavily damaged but fortunately the incident caused no loss of life and most of the cargo was eventually salvaged.
In 1882 the importance of a steam fog signal at Lime Point was stressed in a statement to Congress by the Lighthouse Board: “When the sound of a signal on Lime Point is once picked up anywhere outside the harbor, it can be steered for directly and with confidence, and it is so close aboard that it can be made in the thickest of weather, and then the vessel’s position can be determined with such accuracy that a straight course can be laid either to the city or to sea.”
In September 1883 twin twelve inch steam fog whistles, powered by coal fired burners, were placed in operation at Lime Point. A reliable fresh water supply was constructed from springs near the top of the bluff, some 1,800 feet from the fog station. In 1902 the system was converted from the coal to more efficient and less polluting oil.
In 1961 the Lime Point Station was automated and all structures except the decaying fog signal building were removed. The Station still serves today as an active aid to navigation through the Golden Gate. However, since the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, the Station located just east of the base of the Bridge’s north tower, goes mostly unnoticed. It has been largely obscured by the great structure above.