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This is my tenth bike ride on my quest to travel 350 miles of the S. F. Bay Trail – those miles completed so far of the total of 500 miles planned, this time continuing north on the east side of the Bay.
On a November day in 2021, I began my ride at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in west Oakland. It was a sunny day with light, cool winds. Oakland is separated from the Island of Alameda by the Oakland Estuary. The estuary waters flow west through the Inner Harbor channel and then empty into the San Francisco Bay, including the small Middle Harbor slightly to the north and the larger Outer Harbor next to the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The Middle Harbor Shoreline Park is situated on the southeast edge of Middle Harbor. Portview Park sits on the small peninsula along the north edge of the harbor. See Bay Trail Maps 10 and 11.
There is a lot of history in the area of Middle Harbor, demonstrated by the surprising number of interpretive/informational signs posted here.
Riding along the water’s edge of the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, one first comes to a “training wall,” a partial replica of the north training wall, one of two jetties built on either side of the Inner Harbor channel to direct the force of the ebb tide to scour Oakland’s shipping channel and keep it open. Before the training walls were built, vessels had to wait until high tide to sail through the shallow waters of the Inner Harbor. The training walls originally extended about 2 miles into open waters. These walls were designed in 1874 and took 20 years to complete.
In 2001, the northern training wall was demolished during a project to widen and deepen the estuary to accommodate larger container ships. From the park, one can see the shipping cranes at the Port of Oakland next to stacks of multi-colored shipping containers waiting to be loaded. In 1874, the annual cargo coming in and out of the Oakland Harbor was about 154,000 tons. By 1900, it was 3,250,000 tons (a 2000% increase). In 1962, the Port began to admit container ships. Within ten years, it was the second largest port in the world in container tonnage. Ports in southern California have now outpaced it.
As one rides through the park, one sees a 2-story observation tower resting on the top of a small hill. A plaque there commemorates a local hero I had never heard of, Oakland’s community activist and environmentalist, African-American Chappell Roland Hayes (1948 – 1994). Hayes was the driving force behind the Clean Air Alternative Coalition which “successfully convinced CalTrans to re-route the new Cypress freeway away from West Oakland neighborhoods.” He raised the awareness of West Oakland residents as well as the Port of Oakland to work for clean air and environmental justice. A hero I have heard of, greatly admired and voted for often, Congressman Ronald V. Dellums had this to say: “Chappell was an inspiration to so many in his life, one whose priorities were so appropriate and whose humanity was so manifest.”
Looking south from the observation tower, one sees the Port of Oakland with stacks of shipping containers in rainbow colors, tall container elevators, and shipping cranes.
It turns out that the Middle Harbor Park is on land fill covering former mud flats. For over 60 years, this land was off limits to the public, used solely by the Western Pacific Railway and the U.S. Navy. This area, now referred to as the Middle Harbor Habitat Enhancement Area, consisting of 180 acres, is part of efforts to restore more than 60,000 acres of wetland habitats around the Bay.
It is great to learn that the Port of Oakland is now committed to working toward sustainability, which it defines as the “triple bottom line” or three E’s: Economy, Environment and social Equity. These concepts have been incorporated into the maritime expansion surrounding this area in these ways: 6 old Navy buildings were deconstructed to salvage over 2,000 tons of timber, doors and windows; air quality improvement projects lowered the emission levels of dredges (they are now using electric dredges), tugboats, terminal cargo equipment, trucks and buses; the project has been designed to include shallow water habitat enhancement and leverages young adult resources from the Youth Employment Partnership job-training program.
The Middle Harbor Habitat Enhancement Area has been designed to provide important habitat and sustenance to native species: Algae and microscopic animals are a food source for worms, clams, beach hoppers, mud snails, and shrimp. They in turn become a food source for Dungeness crab, starry flounder and bat rays. Least terns, which nest nearby, forage on small fish. Wading birds feed on arrow goby and cheekspot goby.
A variety of birds call this area home: the Forster’s Tern, Western Gull, double-breasted cormorant, brown pelican. Summer visitors include the Caspian Tern, Least Tern, California gull, Canada goose, and snow egret (the one with yellow feet). Those visiting during the winter are the Common Goldeneye, Ruddy duck, Bufflehead, Scaup, western sandpiper, Dunlin, Surf scoter, Western/Clark’s Grebe, and the Eared Grebe.
By the 1930’s, Middle Harbor had been dredged to a depth of 40 feet or more. The depth of the harbor is now being restored to its historic shallow depth of ten feet, reusing clean dredged material from the Oakland Harbor Deepening Project. Flat fish, such as starry flounder, use the shallow waters as a nursery, and Dungeness crab inhabit the Bay shallows when young.
From the park, one can see the new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, built in 2013 to replace the old span damaged by an earthquake. The Bay Bridge was built in 1936 and included electric trains travelling on the lower deck. The Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937. Before these bridges were built, the land this park occupies was used as a ferry terminal. Beginning in 1869, ferries left this spot to complete the journey west for transcontinental railroad passengers destined for San Francisco.
This location was also the site of a territory dispute between the Western Pacific Railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1906, track was laid on top of the north training wall by Western Pacific on behalf of the City of Oakland. Southern Pacific considered this and all the land along the waterfront to be theirs. A 1907 court decision ruled in favor of the City of Oakland and against Southern Pacific, allowing Oakland to regain control and possession of the waterfront.
At the end of the training wall, the Western Pacific Mole was built in 1910. A “mole” is a breakwater that juts out into deep water. This was used as the ferry slip and terminus of the Western Pacific’s transcontinental railroad. The Western Pacific Mole remained in use for many years. Between 1957 and 1978, a steel car ferry carried freight cars from here to freight slips around San Francisco Bay.
The loop along Middle Harbor Shoreline Park to Portview Park on the north side of the harbor is 3.1 miles. The Bay Trail then follows city streets north along Maritime Street, dead-ending at Burma Road. One follows the Bay Trail left (west) on Burma Road to a parking area near the trailhead of the East Span Bay Bridge Trail, also part of the Bay Trail. Since the streets did not afford any scenic views of the Bay, I loaded my bike on my car and drove to the parking area.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is actually two bridges: the east span connects Oakland to Yerba Buena Island (next to man-made Treasure Island). The western span connects the island with San Francisco. One drives through the concrete Yerba Buena Tunnel to get from the eastern to the western section of the bridge. The tunnel has the largest diameter of any transportation bore tunnel in the world. The soil excavated to bore the tunnel became a portion of the landfill which created Treasure Island.
From the trailhead in Oakland to Yerba Buena Island (as far as one can currently walk or cycle on the bridge), the distance is 2.25 miles. The ride in the westerly direction on the span is an uphill slope against the worst wind I’ve yet experienced on a Bay Trail ride. Once I arrived at Yerba Buena Island, the view looking east, back across the section of the Bay Bridge I had just traveled, made the effort worth it.
The eastern span of the new Bay Bridge opened September 2, 2013, replacing the old span which was fatally damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta 6.9 magnitude earthquake. Construction of the new span lasted from 2002 to 2013, at a cost of $6.5 billion (shattering the original estimate of $250 million). Today over 100 million vehicles cross the bridge each year. The lanes going east and west on the new span are on the same level, so that drivers going in opposite directions can see each other. This design makes it the widest bridge in the world, according to the Guinness World Records.
Not long after the new east span opened, I walked the pedestrian path while the old Bay Bridge was still intact, to photograph it and say good-bye. By 2017, the old span of the Bay Bridge was no more. For that story with photos, click here.
On my return trip, getting off the east end of the Bay Bridge trail, I ate my lunch on Observation Pier. Including the loop at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, I had traveled 7.98 miles. Observation Pier is built on pilings that once supported the old bridge span. The pier extends out from Gateway Park, next to the Bay Bridge. The park was the vision of Judge John Sutter and was completed in 2020. When the area was still active as the Oakland Army Base in the 1960’s, Judge Sutter was already envisioning a future waterfront park. In addition, the Judge John Sutter Regional Shoreline has been created in his honor.
There is a cyclone fence preventing pedestrians from walking underneath the beginning portion of the east span of the Bay Bridge where it is still on land. But on this day, the gate was open. I followed the service road going under the bridge a short distance and got a few shots of the bridge and the Bay one usually can’t get.
Then I headed back for the parking lot, completing my ride that day at 9.44 miles. My bike’s odometer has now clicked up to 162 miles.
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Note: Information sources: S.F. Bay Trail website; S.F. Bay Trail Maps 10, 11 & 12; interpretive exhibits (information boards) along the Bay Trail; Wikipedia.