The outline of San Francisco on Google Maps includes a tiny sliver of Alameda Island.  Google Maps
The outline of San Francisco on Google Maps includes a tiny sliver of Alameda Island.  (Google Maps)

Why Is Part of Alameda Island in San Francisco?

Why Is Part of Alameda Island in San Francisco?

11 min

Bay Curious listener Lori Bodenhamer has noticed something odd whenever she pulls up a map of San Francisco online.

"My little shortcut to get to Google Maps is I just type in 'SF Map,' and then Google pops up," Bodenhamer says. "And it outlines S.F. in red, and I noticed there were some bits of red in Alameda."

And it's not just Google Maps being wonky. Maps from the San Francisco Planning Department confirm that a piece of Alameda Island is inside San Francisco's borders.

To understand how this is possible, we have to go back hundreds of years to when California was part of Spain.

A map from the San Francisco Planning Department shows the same geographic oddity.
A map from the San Francisco Planning Department shows the same geographic oddity. (San Francisco Planning Department)

The Peraltas

It starts in 1820 when the Spanish government gave Luís Maria Peralta a land grant of more than 40,000 acres in recognition of his 40 years of military service. Known as the Rancho San Antonio, it covered present-day San Leandro, Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley and Albany.

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Basically, the Spanish government gave him the entire East Bay (even though Native Americans, including the Ohlone and Bay Miwok, had already been living there for centuries).

Peralta never actually lived on the Rancho, but he split the land among his four sons, who settled the land, built homes, raised cattle and fostered the growth of a thriving, Spanish-speaking community.

In 1848, California was ceded to the United States by Mexico, and in 1850, it became a state. For existing landowners like the Peraltas, this created several headaches.

U.S. squatters settled in California without respect to who had owned the land under Spanish and Mexican rule. Squatters were such a problem that Antonio Peralta, one of Luís' sons, was shocked in 1851 to find two men actually interested in buying some of his land.

William Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh bought 160 acres from Antonio in 1851 for $14,000, and they would use the land to found the city of Alameda.

But Antonio still had problems.

The U.S. government made Spanish and Mexican landowners go to court to prove their claims, and it wasn't until 1874 that Antonio finally received a patent from the government affirming his claim to his land, including the piece he had sold to Chipman and Aughinbaugh.

The Navy Pushes Alameda Into San Francisco

The story picks up in 1956 when the U.S. Navy makes an eminent domain claim of about 50 acres of submerged land underneath San Francisco Bay off the coast of Alameda. (The Navy would end up revising their request down to just shy of 40 acres.)

The Navy was looking to expand the Alameda Naval Air Station, which had opened just before the start of World War II and served as the launching site for the first major bombing raid of Japan after Pearl Harbor.

U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Hancock (CVA-19), USS Midway (CVA-41), and USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) berthed at Naval Air Station Alameda in 1958.
U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Hancock (CVA-19), USS Midway (CVA-41), and USS Bonhomme Richard (CVA-31) berthed at Naval Air Station Alameda in 1958. (U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Navy had regularly filled in parts of the bay to expand the air station, but when they did it this time, they crossed over the invisible line underneath the bay that separates Alameda from San Francisco.

Thanks to the Navy, there was now a tiny piece of San Francisco attached to Alameda Island.

A newspaper clipping detailing one of Carol Heche's other legal battles borne out of her claim to submerged land off of Alameda Island.
A newspaper clipping detailing one of Carol Heche's other legal battles borne out of her claim to submerged land off of Alameda Island. (Newspapers.com)

But no one at the time seemed to care much about this border breach. What they did care about was who the federal government would have to pay for taking this piece of land. The state of California said it was the proper beneficiary, but two East Bay women saw it differently.

Carol Heche and Elinor Petersen claimed that the submerged land actually belonged to them, and therefore they deserved payment as the descendants of the founders of Alameda — William Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh. Petersen said she purchased the estate of Aughinbaugh's daughter, Ella, and Heche was Chipman's granddaughter.

"She was very proud of their heritage, and she was the historian of the family," says George Gunn, curator of the Alameda Museum, about Heche. "She claimed that their property extended out into the bay."

This was the women's central argument. According to court records, the women traced their claim through their Alameda ancestors and back to the original Peralta land grant from the king of Spain in 1820, which was, according to them, "bounded on the southwest by the sea."

"In Spanish laws, the lands bounded by the sea, are lands that extended to the deep navigable waters of the sea," Petersen wrote in a court filing in January 1962.

This begs the question of what exactly the "deep navigable waters" included and how far out these women claimed ownership underneath San Francisco Bay.

"I don't know how far out I own," Petersen said in court in August 1962, according to a transcript. "It doesn't really make any difference, because the Federal Government is protecting it for me, and I have a fine Government and I'm not worried."

But she and Heche were certain that they owned the part of the bay the Navy had taken, and they believed fervently that their claim had been confirmed by the 1874 patent, as shown by this exchange between Petersen and Judge Alfonso Zirpoli at a pretrial hearing in December 1962:

ZIRPOLI: The only question involved is whether or not your land comes within this patent.
PETERSEN: It does.
ZIRPOLI: If it does, you are entitled to judgment in your favor.
PETERSEN: Absolutely does.
ZIRPOLI: If it doesn’t, you are not.
PETERSEN: It absolutely does.
ZIRPOLI: I think it is as simple as that.
PETERSEN: It does, absolutely, every bit of it.

But it actually didn't.

While the Spanish land grant may have implied ownership out into the bay's "deep navigable waters," the 1874 patent explicitly described the southwest border as, "... along the Bay of San Francisco, at the line of ordinary high tide."

Zirpoli ruled against the women and denied their request for a new trial. Petersen and Heche appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled against them.

"A boundary line at 'ordinary high water' or 'ordinary high tide' cannot, by any process of interpretation, be located somewhere on or under the surface of the water a mile or more from the line of high tide or high water," the appeals court wrote in its February 1964 decision.

A year later, the federal government cut the state of California a check for $13,619.55 for the submerged land it had claimed nearly a decade earlier. And Heche and Petersen walked away empty-handed.

Who You Gonna Call: San Francisco or Alameda?

A view across the water of San Francisco ... from San Francisco on Alameda Island. It's trippy, right?
A view across the water of San Francisco ... from San Francisco on Alameda Island. It's trippy, right? (Ryan Levi/KQED)

After the Alameda Naval Air Station closed in 1997, the Navy began transferring the land to different entities. In 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to take over 624 acres, including the border-crossing sliver.

"From the VA's perspective, it really doesn't matter if it's Alameda or San Francisco County. It's federal property," says Larry Janes, who's overseeing the development of a new VA hospital and national cemetery on the former naval base.

Neither San Francisco nor Alameda zone the geographic oddity—which spans about 30 acres—and the VA has promised never to develop that part of the land because it's home to an endangered bird species, the California least tern.

There's currently no regular public access to that part of the former base, but our Bay Curious question asker, Lori, couldn't help but wonder what would happen if a crime was committed out there. Whose jurisdiction would it fall under?

Bay Curious listener Lori Bodenhamer talks with Larry Janes of the Department of Veterans' Affairs about the piece of Alameda Island, now owned by the VA, that crosses over into San Francisco.
Bay Curious listener Lori Bodenhamer talks with Larry Janes of the Department of Veterans Affairs about the piece of Alameda Island, now owned by the VA, that crosses over into San Francisco. (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

"We actually have a contract with East Bay Regional Park District police," Janes says. "And we have our own VA police as well, and we work with the Alameda police, so if we needed backup from Alameda, we could go to them as well."

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Janes says the VA is talking to the city of Alameda about putting in a recreational trail that would hug the coastline around the sliver, so sometime in the future, anyone could walk from Alameda right into San Francisco and stand on land that was disputed all the way back to the king of Spain.

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