A is for Angel Island: The Ellis Island of the West


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Maybe this is hard to believe but 10,000 years ago, Angel Island was actually connected to what is now Tiburon in Marin. During the last Ice Age, the island was separated from the mainland and later used by the local Indians, the Miwoks.

Angel Island is the biggest island in the San Francisco Bay and is now a public park which you can reach by ferry. The island offers an excellent outing for a picnic or a bike ride and it offers yet another angle on San Francisco’s alluring cityscape. Unfortunately, the island hasn’t always been a spot where people could laze about with a chunk of bread, a piece of Brie and a glass of wine.

In 1775, the first Spanish ship dropped its anchor near the island and from that time the island received its Spanish name: Isla de los Angeles. When the state was handed over to the Mexicans, the island was used by a Mexican rancher who used the pastures for his cattle. Once it fell into American hands, Angel Island was seen as a potentially strategic spot for the American Civil War, so a fort was built with no less than three lighthouses. No Union or Rebel soldier on active duty would ever reach the island (or California for that matter—not sure what those Rebs and Yankees were thinking but a gps might have come in handy).

After the Civil War, Fort McDowell on the island was used a quarantine station and point of departure for US troops who were on their way home or out to/from the different WWII battle fields. The island would also serve as a prison for Japanese and German prisoners of war.

But the real misery started in the period 1910-1940: as America became a popular immigration destination, especially for Asians, the immigration policy was tightened and more and more questions were asked at the border. To delay the influx of immigrants, Angel Island became a depot for immigrants through which more than one million Asians passed and some of them were stuck on the island for months in what many experienced as a prison. Because of this, Angel Island has also been known as the Ellis Island of the West. Especially among the Chinese, who due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, had a much harder time entering: some were detained for months after which they might be deported home. Anticipating this, many people on the boat would practice questions that might be asked at the border during interrogations that could last hours. In the barracks, people scratched their silent suffering in poems on the walls. One of these poems reads as follows:

There are tens of thousands of poems on these walls
They are all cries of suffering and sadness
The day I am rid of this prison and become successful
I must remember that this chapter once existed
I must be frugal in my daily needs
Needless extravagance usually leads to ruin
All my compatriots should remember China
Once you have made some small gains,
you should return home early
~ Written by someone from Heungshan

In 1940, the immigrant station was closed to make room for an army base and abovementioned prison for POW’s from WWII. During the Cold War, it became storage for missiles. Little remains of the long history of the island but it seems appropriate that this became a National Historic Landmark. I wondered what happened to that tortured soul from Heugshan: did he ever capture his California Dream or was he put back on a boat to China?

What’s interesting is that two islands in the San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz and Angel Island) could have had the potential to become prime real estate and maybe even monuments of how California might do things differently, yet both spots turned into prisons… or maybe it was to remind the inmates that that last frontier, that promised land, that Golden Gate was just outside their door step and that hope springs eternal, even when you’re in the slammer…

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