Out West student blog

A Whale of a Time

On the hunt for some concrete.


By Jaclyn Marcatili
B.A., International Relations, 2016
Historic Preservation Intern at Golden Gate National Recreation Area

My first week on the job was a great crash course in heritage documentation. I got to see three methods of documentation in action in the Citadel at Alcatraz and observe how they all worked on certain scales: laser scanning for an entire building, photogrammetry for an object, and photographing and recording smaller features that are 2D. My supervisor and I were working on this smallest scale, as we were documenting graffiti in the citadel from both the days when it was a military prison and more recent markings from the Indian Occupation. Meanwhile, I got to pick up some tidbits about laser scanning and photogrammetry from the folks at the Historic American Buildings Survey who had gotten a grant to do this rigorous documentation. Though I didn’t get to run the laser scanner, I did try my hand at photogrammetry which is essentially taking a bunch of photos of an object in a systematic way so that when they’re thrown into a software program you get a 3D model in return. I have yet to ask HABS for the data I created so that I can try my hand at post-processing.

My commute for that week consisted of taking the ferry to Alcatraz. The employee ferry which leaves Pier 33 at 8:20 is an entirely different experience from taking the ferry with tourists. Because all of the employees sit quietly inside the boat drinking their coffee, the deck is completely empty. I got this vantage point to myself every morning to unsuccessfully search for whales in the bay.

Now my commute to the Headlands is equally lovely. Some mornings are gloriously sunny, and some mornings are so foggy that I cannot visibly see that I am on the Golden Gate Bridge. After waiting at a 5-minute red light to drive through a one-way tunnel, I reach my office by the beach. While most of the cultural resources team (including historians, architects, and archivists) work at Fort Mason in San Francisco proper, the archeologists are housed in the building that was the former Enlisted Men’s Club at Fort Cronkhite. What used to be the dance hall now has rows of shelving with archeological artifacts stored within. What used to be the stage for USO entertainers is now the library. I share this drafty building, the largest of the fort, with only three other employees and some raccoons in the attic.

I usually spend at least half of my day in the field, though, as my main task now is to find and record anti-aircraft positions from WWII. It is hard to imagine, even as I wander through batteries and find fire control stations on various ridges, the state of military readiness that San Francisco used to be in. I feel such a profound sense of calm in the rolling hills of the Marin Headlands, listening to crashing waves and foghorns and buoys clanging in the distance. But the San Francisco Bay and harbor has been an incredibly strategic point for anyone who has held it, and it has certainly been fortified as such for centuries. I feel like this contradiction – natural beauty juxtaposed so heavily with a military history that includes a restored Nike missile launch site – is the great problem this park poses for the NPS. There are so many layers to this natural and cultural landscape that are not only difficult to retain but also difficult to convey to the average park-goer.

While the Bay has been fortified since the Spanish built a fort at the Presidio in 1776, the height of coastal defense was certainly during WWII. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military was afraid that San Francisco would be next. To try to get a handle on the hasty fortifications made during this period, I’ve taken maps from a Harbor Defense manual for Forts Baker, Barry, and Cronkhite. After georeferencing and rectifying them in ArcMap, I have digitized their features that delineate sites for 40 MM anti-aircraft positions, 50-caliber anti-aircraft positions, search lights, batteries, radar, and more. For now, I am focusing on attempts to find the remains of these 40 MM anti-aircraft positions in the field. It is proving to be difficult. Not all 40 MM positions appear to be constructed in the same way, and sometimes I cannot find a single piece of cement on a ridge that should have supposedly had two positions. I feel like the more I learn, the less I know, but I am attempting to be comfortable with this ambiguity that professionals call archeology.

I really do relish that fact that I get to go clambering all over the Headlands for my job, though. The best memories from these outings has been getting to watch whales on three separate occasions! The most spectacular was when I spent about an hour at Battery Spencer watching twelve or so whales file under the Golden Gate Bridge and make their way toward the ocean. There was nothing ambiguous about that.

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