San Benito Lifestyle

NATURALLY: Having a Blast at Point Pinole

Quiet regional park holds the key to California's explosive growth

Not long ago, I shared our Quixotic mission to slowly – very slowly in our case – link together segments of the San Francisco Bay Trail a day trip at a time. When the trail is done, it will be more than 500 miles long, a staggering measure of the scope of San Francisco Bay. But already, more than 330 miles are in place.

Last weekend, we colored in a few more gaps in the trail. One was a circumnavigation of Alameda and Bay Farm islands. The latter came as a surprise. Given the name, we had expected a farm. It’s a high priced condominium ghetto, mostly, but it offers great views of the bay. Alameda, on the other hand, proved a revelation.

The town contains the world’s greatest concentration of Victorian homes and cottages. At its north end, where a Naval Air Station once operated, re-use is in full swing, with a host of interesting businesses. We passed on a floating museum for lack of time, but an old aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, is available for public tours, and we’ll certainly be buying tickets soon.

In short, Alameda’s lively downtown feels like the small town America many of us remember, and it’s perched just minutes from downtown Oakland.

The real discovery during our amble was a few miles to the north, in Contra Costa County. We looked at a blank spot on the map and headed to Point Pinole. Getting there was not particularly promising, as we passed by the fences and razor wire of the West Contra Costa Jail. But pulling into the parking lot promised a good deal more.

Point Pinole offers peaceful bayfront, a fishing pier, more than 12 miles of trails and an enormous portion of California history. Runners, cyclists, picnic groups and fishermen all enjoyed the place on a recent weekday.

Chinese immigrants once lived and fished on the shore, but there’s no visible trace of their presence. There are hints of something else in the chunks of concrete and mounds containing bunkers here and there.

California’s explosive growth through the 19th and early 20th Centuries was built largely upon, well, explosives. The Atlas and Giant Powder companies established themselves to satisfy the insatiable need of miners for materials that could relieve them of the backbreaking work of fracturing rock. First black powder, then TNT and nitroglycerine were their wares.

The business started in what is now the fashionable Glen Canyon area of San Francisco, but a devastating explosion prompted a move to the then-remote dunes at the western edge of the city. Another explosion brought another move, to Berkeley. Still another explosion brought both companies to Point Pinole, a site that offered ready access to a rail line and the bay, but one that was so remote that the next inevitable explosion would scarcely be noticed. A company town sprouted, bearing the name of the larger of the two companies, Giant.  Immigrants, most of them from Yugoslavia, risked their lives working in the factories. Boats pulled into a long pier, to be loaded via narrow gauge rails and brought up the Sacramento River.

It’s safe to say that many of California’s highways, dams and bridges owe their existence to the deadly business conducted at Point Pinole. Careful examination reveals grades for roads and railbeds. A few bunkers remain, but the town of Giant and the industry that spawned it are gone with scarcely a trace.

We kept asking ourselves where that industry had gone, given a continuing need for materials that can render hard rock into dust in an instant. And we both knew the answer before we asked it.

Like any other dirty, risky business, it’s been exported far from California and the United States.

Point Pinole Regional Park can be reached from Highway 880, and then I-80 east to exit 20. Take Richmond Parkway to Atlas Road, and continue to its end, where you will find a parking area.


Mark Paxton

I've been at this most of my life, and it still fascinates and challenges me. San Benito County can be a cruel mistress at times, but we can share in our love for her, even with all her quirks.