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There’s More than Meets the Eye at Alameda Point

The area that is now Alameda Point came to life long ago with the Ohlone exploring and taking advantage of the wildlife and natural resources on the marshland and in the Bay. The Europeans made their first stamp on this landscape with a pair of trains. In 1864 the San Francisco & Alameda Railroad extended a wharf from the shoreline near today’s Pacific Avenue and Main Street built carbarns on it. In 1878, the South Pacific Coast Railroad crossed the marshland along today’s Main Street to reach its wharves. These wharves and ferries opened Alameda to the rest of the Bay, especially to San Francisco. Farmers improved some of the marshland. Others opened their property to hunters. George Bird built a hotel to accommodate them.

Alameda Post - a wide group photo at Alameda Point of assembly and repair workers with an aircraft
Naval Air Station Alameda’s aircraft repair facility was established in 1941 as the Assembly and Repair (A&R) Department. January 1941 marked the A&R Department’s first induction: a dual-wing, single engine SOC-1 “Scouter” airplane. Photo courtesy Alameda Naval Air Museum.

Alfred A. Cohen and friends created a town they called Woodstock. In 1867, they filed a map of “Alameda Point Homestead” with Alameda County. They hoped to sell land in a place that they were convinced would grow with the railroad.  This marked the first mention of the area as “Alameda Point.” These hopes buoyed when the first transcontinental railroad train arrived in 1869, but died on the vine in 1872, when the Central Pacific Railroad stopped using the wharf in favor of bringing their trains into Oakland.

The area did attract some important industries, with soap, coconut oil, kerosene, bricks, pottery, and borax among them. Francis Marion Smith’s borax plant and the Clark family’s brickworks were still turning out their products when the airplanes arrived. The Army Air Corps opened Benton Field just west of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Big Red trains operations in 1927. The field bore Lt. John W. Benton’s name. An Army Air Corps pilot and Shasta County resident, Benton died in an airplane crash in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the same year Benton Field opened.





Alameda Airport began operations to the west of Benton Field as a commercial enterprise on March 2, 1929, with one runway and three hangars. The builders beached 11 World War I destroyers and a merchant ship to create the breakwater for a yacht basin that did double duty as a “seadrome.”  The following July, Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company merged with Wright Aeronautical.  That company operated Alameda Airport, which was also called “Curtiss-Wright Airfield.” The company extended the airport’s property further into San Francisco Bay.

Alameda Post - an aerial view of Alameda Point when China Clipper took flight
Spectators line the shoreline at Alameda Airport’s seadrome to witness the historic takeoff of the first China Clipper flight to Manila. The flight lasted six days with layovers in Honolulu, Midway, Wake, and Guam. The plane was in the air for 59 hours and 48 minutes. Photo National Geographic.

In 1935, the airport’s yacht basin—its seadrome— began serving as moorage for Pan American World Airways. Pan Am used Alameda Airport as the California terminal for its Clipper trans-Pacific flights, which began in 1935. Its fleet consisted of three M-130 flying ships that their builder, the Glenn L. Martin Company, called “Martin Ocean Transports.” In keeping with a Pan Am tradition, the planes had the word “Clipper” in their names. The airline dubbed Alameda’s M-130s Hawaiian Clipper, Philippine Clipper, and China Clipper. While China Clipper was the last of the three flying boats off the Martin Company’s assembly line, it was the first to take to the skies.

China Clipper calling Alameda . . . China Clipper calling Alameda.”
—Humphrey Bogart as co-pilot Hap Stuart in ‘China Clipper,’ 1936

On November 22, 1935, just after 3:30 p.m., Alameda Airport made history when the China Clipper ascended from the seadrome and delivered the first airmail cargo across the Pacific Ocean. The Oakland Tribune described the journey as “the longest airmail flight ever scheduled—8,000 miles over (the) ocean from Alameda to the Orient.”

In 1936 Warner Bros released the film China Clipper with Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart’s line in the movie, “China Clipper calling Alameda. China Clipper calling Alameda,” reminded movie-goers that the famous plane’s flight did not involve San Francisco, as the press had widely reported.

Alameda Post - an aerial of the Naval Air Station
This aerial view of Naval Air Station Alameda sweeps south from the Main Gate to the Seaplane Lagoon and the aircraft carriers beyond. One carrier is underway at the right. Carriers based at the Naval Air Station included USS Ranger, USS Midway, USS Coral Sea, and USS Hancock. The Army Air Corps’ Benton Field once occupied the bottom left of this photo. Nearly everything else is on sand dredged from San Francisco Bay and the Oakland Estuary. Photo courtesy Alameda Naval Air Museum.

On June 1, 1936, Curtiss-Wright deeded the property to the federal government. Like Benton Field, Alameda Airport became part of the Navy’s new air station on November 1, 1940. The Navy raised all but one of Alameda Airport’s beached World War I destroyers. Historian E. R. Kallus says that the last destroyer stayed in place covered by sand, asphalt, and concrete in the infield between the Naval Air Station runways near the Main Gate.

When the Navy took over, it closed the Alameda Airport and Benton Field. The new owners made use of the Army’s dredging and filling work at Benton Field, as well as a railroad spur there, as a starting point for the development of their air station. The Navy paved over Alameda Airport when it created its runways.

Alameda Post - a man reading an exhibit at the Naval Air Museum about the China Clipper
Naval Air Museum Curator Larry Pirak reads about the China Clipper’s first flight in 1935. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday. The $10 admission fee helps support the museum’s mission. The museum is located at 2151 Ferry Point, Building #77. Look for the red-and-white checkered tower not far from the new Seaplane Lagoon Promenade. Photo Dennis Evanosky.

The Navy called Alameda Naval Air Station “the most important new air station constructed on the West Coast.”  Most of the construction was done on hydraulically filled ground. The Navy’s contractors dredged sand from the bottom of San Francisco Bay, transported this material in water through pipelines, and deposited the material after draining off this surplus water. On this made land, the Navy built:

  • A flying field on the western half of its new creation, with five runways ranging in length from 3,500 to 6,000 feet. The Navy planned these runways to send planes in four directions.
  • Shops, hangars, administration, and personnel structures in the area east of the flying field.
  • A seaplane area with hangars and a lagoon enclosed by a breakwater and a jetty
  • Two aircraft carrier piers.
  • Storage areas to the east of the pier.

On April 15, 1941, the Navy began building 600 housing units for married civilians: 447 one-story frame buildings; 153 accommodated two families and the remainder one family. Exteriors were stucco-finished except for 100 single-family dwellings made of prefabricated wood siding. By the end of 1942 the station also had clubs for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, housing for bachelor enlisted personnel, a chapel, and a theater. The Navy would continue to improve the station as World War II progressed.

The Alameda Naval Air Station closed in 1997. The City of Alameda, the U.S. Veterans Administration, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service each have a hand in governing Alameda Point’s future.

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Dennis-Evanosky.

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