There was a time when San Franciscans had more to fear than trans fats, luxury condos, and a playboy mayor's sexual indiscretions. In the runup to World War II, the threat of an invasion of the U.S. mainland via the Pacific seemed so severe that heavy armaments and concrete bunkers were built up along the Bay Area coastline.
Three batteries intended to house 16-inch guns — capable of firing munitions weighing more than two tons over a distance of 25 miles — were built in Marin County and San Francisco. Two of these installations are still open to the public: Battery Richmond P. Davis at Fort Funston and Battery Townsley, near Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands.
But it is the third battery — never fully built, since American success in the war overtook its construction schedule — that attracted more fascination and controversy than its brethren. Known simply as Battery Construction 129, it consists of an extensive bunker that has been formally off-limits to the public for decades.
Yet a growing cult of explorers has flocked to the battery over that time. Candles, tables, empty beer bottles, and a whole lot of graffiti all found their way into the pitch-black recesses of the underground facility. A film crew from the History Channel even visited the site, broadcasting a show on it in 2009. All this attention led National Park Service officials, who now control the land in which it was built, to permanently seal off the bunker by shoving massive chunks of concrete and other debris into its secret entrance two weeks ago.
Alexandra Picavet, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), said the entryway to the area, a long air vent down which visitors descended, was an accident waiting to happen. "The air vents were never meant to have people climbing in and out of them," she says. "It was a very unsafe entry." (The doors to the facility were long ago sealed off.) While Picavet says she had no information on injuries specifically related to Battery Construction 129, she asserts there have been multiple head injuries and broken bones related to bunker exploration in the GGNRA.
The closure of the bunker has prompted complaints on various online forums among Bay Area residents, some of whom say they recall visiting the space as long ago as the 1970s. But another unfortunate Park Service action linked to the site has attracted less attention. Picavet says the bunker is being sealed off now because it will soon become more conspicuous to visitors: The Park Service plans in December to raze the Monterey pines that now spread thickly across Hawk Hill, where the battery is located.
Picavet says these trees are "not native, and they're not historic." But they sure are nice to look at, lending a serene atmosphere and fragrant blanket of pine needles to the area surrounding Hawk Hill. Come the end of this year, it appears that the Marin Headlands will actually be losing two nonnative attractions.