16-Mar-2010 -- Ignoring numerous “Restricted Area/ Keep Out” signs, one local resident has total free access to stand on the “ten zero” spot of this degree confluence, AND AT LEAST FOR A WHILE LONGER, YOU DON’T! (See Picture #10 for further details…)
This all goes back to 1942, and the beginning of World War II, when the U.S. Navy built an ammunition depot four miles north of 38N 122W. Located near the confluence (there’s that word again!) of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers on Suisun Bay, and named U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, after the nearby town, the facility was rapidly built up to support the heavy explosives demands of the war in the Pacific. To meet the need for additional storage space, a 5000 acre inland area was added to the depot’s tidal area on January 20, 1944. Although it is doubtful many people paid much attention at the time, this addition swallowed up 38N 122W, and brought with it restrictions on public access which continue to today.
By April of 1945, three additional large piers and a number of ordnance storage magazines had been constructed at Port Chicago. In 1957, the depot was renamed the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, Concord. With the advent of modern-day weaponry, the station's mission changed and expanded. The base was re-designated Naval Weapons Station, Concord in 1963. Today the tidal area facilities remain an active and very secure military base. On October 1, 1999, the U.S. Army took over from the Navy operations of the tidal area, now designated as Military Ocean Terminal Concord.
Located in the northeast section of the City of Concord, the inland area contains bunkers used to store munitions and a rail system used to move the munitions to and from the bunkers. However, due to changes in military operations, over the years this part of the old Port Chicago base became less important. In 1999, the year after the first DCP visit to 38N 122W, the base’s surrounding southern section, on which the cp sits, was deactivated. Since that time, several proposals involving the City of Concord have considered using some of that land as a recreational park or open space. This inland area was included on the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list, and in 2007, the mothballed facilities were declared surplus property by the Navy. There followed a three-phase, multi-year process to develop the Reuse Plan for the base property. Just a few weeks before my visit, the Concord City Council, sitting as the Local Reuse Authority, certified the final Environment Impact Report and adopted the Reuse Plan for the Concord Naval Weapons Station at its meeting February 23, 2010. The Clustered Villages alternative was chosen as the adopted plan. Implementation of this plan will bring the first opportunity for the general public to capture ten zeroes at 38N 122W.
But getting back to the most famous event in local history: At 10:18 p.m. on the evening of July 17, 1944, residents in the San Francisco east bay area were jolted by a massive explosion that cracked windows and lit up the night sky. Certainly it would have been a sight for anyone standing at 38N 122W, just a little over four miles to the south southeast. Port Chicago had suffered a massive ammunition detonation. In an instant, the blast destroyed the original pier and two munitions ships docked there, the S.S. E.A. Bryan and S.S. Quinault Victory. As documented in the following press release, I came to Port Chicago to commemorate this event:
Local Press Release:
Shiloh National Military Park Superintendent Woody Harrell recently traveled cross country to Concord, California, to re-complete his “Life List of Parks” with a visit to Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. Port Chicago became the 392nd and newest unit of the National Park System under legislation signed by President Obama this past October. The memorial commemorates the terrible munitions explosion that occurred on the evening of July 17, 1944, during the loading of ammunition ships bound for the Pacific theatre. 320 men, predominantly African-American, were instantly killed in the largest homeland disaster during World War II.
As with the initial finish of his “life list” at the National Park of American Samoa in 2007, Harrell’s trip was scheduled to coincide with his wife Cynthia’s spring break. “Relieved of the pressure to check off the last parks on my list, in the spring of 2008 we spent a leisurely week hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and in 2009 we set our sights a little farther afield with a trek to the Mt. Everest base camp in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park. There was some talk about a trip to Peru’s Machu Picchu in 2010, but the need to once again be current in visiting all the U.S. parks moved a trip to northern California to the top of our list. We lucked out weather-wise with a glorious spring day in the San Francisco Bay area, but even with the sunshine and mild temperatures, it’s hard to stand on the site of such a catastrophe without a somber feeling.”
Harrell says careful pre-visit planning is necessity at the new park, as the memorial sits within an active military facility. In fact, during the Persian Gulf War, 80,000 tons of explosive ordnance, 30% of all ammunition, bombs and missiles expended by U.S. and coalition forces, were shipped from Port Chicago. Visitors must call at least two weeks in advance to request a tour reservation, and provide personal information needed to secure a military clearance. Tours are available Wednesdays through Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; however, no visits can occur when the docking and loading of military ships are planned. “The army has been very good about giving the NPS at least two weeks warning when canceling a tour date, but we held our breath after purchasing our plane tickets, hoping nothing would interfere at the last minute.”
“Park Ranger John Keibel met Cynthia and me, plus two local residents, with an NPS van at the entrance gate; and after clearing security, drove us through the base to the historic waterfront and ground zero. Although fairly new to the Park Service, John is extremely knowledgeable about the entire history of the facility, having authored a very thorough book Behind the Barbed Wire: a History of Naval Weapons Station Concord. The notebook of historic photos he brought along was a big help in visualizing the wide destruction resulting from the 1944 tragedy.”
“At the end of my visit, I couldn’t help think about how much our park system has changed in the six decades I’ve been visiting its historic sites. As the system has grown, we’ve expanded the stories we tell, adding many new sites to better represent the complexity and diversity of our rich cultural heritage. As Director John Jarvis has said, it’s an honor to be involved in preserving such sites, and providing opportunities for visitors to learn more about them.”
Realizing his quest to visit all the parks will never truly be over, as long as other new units may be added to the system, Superintendent Harrell, joked that as the state of Delaware is still without an NPS site, he would “like to see the next ten parks added in the nation’s first state, to make an easy task of visiting them all at once.”