Remnants of military presence are scattered throughout the city, but many of them are so well integrated into our neighborhoods that it's possible to overlook San Francisco's significant historic role as a coastal defense post.
We have the US Military to thank for many of our waterfront open spaces, and Fort Mason is a park that is well-used by locals and visitors alike. Fort Mason, and many other former military sites, are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service.
Created in 1972, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of the most visited national parks in the country, welcoming over 15 million people each year. In addition to Fort Mason, the national park lands in San Francisco include: Alcatraz, The Presidio (Crissy Field, Baker Beach, Ft. Point), Land's End, China Beach, the Sutro District (Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Park), Ocean Beach and Fort Funston. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Fort Mason is located on the city's northern shoreline between Aquatic Park and Marina Green, and within its 1,200 acres are a wide range of activities and experiences for city residents and tourists. There really is something for everyone here, including bicycling, photography, shopping, picnicking, hosteling, jogging, dog walking, dining, drinking, conferencing, visiting the theater, special events, galleries, museums, educational forums, music, dance, comedy shows or guided history walks. There is so much going on it seems that Fort Mason functions as a small town unto itself, with the backdrop of stunning panoramic bay views and historic military buildings.
The park is divided into two quadrants: Upper Fort Mason and Fort Mason Center (map). Upper Fort Mason is accessed by vehicle from the Franklin Street entrance off Bay Street and by foot and bike along the San Francisco Bay Trail, which traverses the park parallel to the shoreline. The steep rocky outcrop near Aquatic Park known as Black Point, named for the dark laurel trees that historically defined the landscape, is the only unaltered section of San Francisco's shoreline edge. The National Park Service is currently rebuilding an historic seawall near here, and as a result, a portion of the Bay Trail along MacDowell Road is closed until early summer. Signs throughout the park guide bicyclists and pedestrians along a detour route.
Looking out over the Great Meadow, the view of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands is striking. The downtown skyscrapers rise up in the east and the hilltop homes of Pacific Heights stretch along the ridge to the south. As you explore Upper Fort Mason, you can begin to understand the strategic importance of this hilltop promontory, imagining the challenge of protecting the city during a time of seaside invaders.
The Fort was established in 1851 as a US military reservation called Point San Jose. During the Civil War, the fort served as a coastal defense battery and in 1882 was renamed Fort Mason after Colonel Richard Barnes Mason, the second military governor of California. For a brief time, the fort was a temporary relief camp sheltering thousands left homeless by the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Army post hospital, built in the Colonial Revival architecture style, served the wounded since it was constructed in 1902, and today it houses the headquarters for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy as well as a park visitor center.
During World War I the fort transitioned from harbor defense to transport hub and throughout World War II and the Korean War, it was the center of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, orchestrating shipping activities and the movement of supplies throughout the entire region.
Fort Mason Center, formerly known as Lower Fort Mason, encompasses the bayside portion of the park. The parking lot (fee) is accessed from Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, and the Bay Trail connects bicyclists and pedestrians from Upper Fort Mason and the Marina Green. Today, this is where most of the activity occurs in the park. The Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture hosts artistic programming and nearly two dozen non-profit organizations are housed as permanent residents in the historic buildings.
In 1914, this was a busy place in a much different form. The Army launched the construction of piers and warehouses to support the war efforts and the need to move cargo and deploy troops. The next year, a 1,500-foot tunnel was constructed under Fort Mason to extend the State Belt Railroad from the Embarcadero to the Presidio. Freight railroad service ended in 1993 and the tunnel has remained closed since then. In 2013, the National Park Service completed environmental review for an extension of the F-Line streetcar through the tunnel to Fort Mason Center, but the construction schedule is not yet known.