© 2021
1941 - 2021 /// Support the next 80 years.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How Did The Farallon Islands Get To Be Part Of San Francisco?

Jan Roletto
Wikimedia Commons
The South Farallon Islands (Southeast Farallon Island with Maintop Island in the foreground) in Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. Brit Byrd wanted to know, “Why does San Francisco have the Farallon Islands? They’re thirty miles off the coast, but they’re legally part of San Francisco. What’s up with that?” 

The Farallones are these islands off the coast of San Francisco, and Brit noticed them on the internet. One day he was looking at San Francisco and noticed that the county line jutted thirty miles out into the ocean and circled some tiny little dots.

On a clear day you can just make out the islands from the city — they’re like jagged teeth sticking out of the Pacific. To understand why they’re part of San Francisco you first have to understand what they’re like, so I went to the visitor center for the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. It’s at Crissy Field in the Presidio.

These days the islands are protected as a national wildlife refuge, and only a handful of people get to set foot on them. One of those lucky people is Mary Jane Schramm. She’s the sanctuary’s Public Outreach Specialist.

Schramm says that out near the islands deep ocean water drifts up to the surface, “bringing all those nutrients up until, you know, the area just below the surface where sunlight can penetrate and that just bursts into this tremendous productivity. It’s like sunlight on your garden.”

And what’s growing in that garden, as in all gardens, is life. Lots of it.There’s algae and plankton, and they attract fish. The fish attract seals, sea lions, birds and even great white sharks. 

So the water around the islands provides food, and the islands themselves provide a place for the animals to breed and rest.

“They function marvelously as a bed and breakfast,” says Shramm.

Back in the day, all those animals attracted people. In the early 1800s, Russians started coming to the islands to hunt the seals and otters for meat, pelts, and blubber. Then in the middle of the century, the Gold Rush began and, according to Carl Nolte, “all of a sudden San Francisco went from nothing to being a big city.”

Nolte writes the Native Son column for the San Francisco Chronicle, about the area’s history. He says that during the Gold Rush there were so many people flooding into the area that there wasn’t enough to eat. A pharmacist and his brother-in-law had an idea. Nolte says, “They didn’t have any chickens or anything here — so they went out to the Farallones and raided them for eggs from the common murres,” - [one of the many seabirds that nests on the islands - ] “ and sold them in the city for a dollar apiece. And a dollar in 1849 was like $50 now.”

Actually, I checked — it’s closer to $35. But you get the point. Word spread of how much money the two men had made, and others started going out to the islands to harvest eggs. Demand for the eggs was so great that competition turned violent. Historians call it the “Egg War.”

Now, descriptions of the common murre egg don’t sound too appetizing, at least to me. When it’s cooked the white remains translucent, but the yolk turns a bright red. But people ate them anyway. Nolte says there was even a famous dish called the Hangtown Fry. You can still get one today but made with plain old chicken eggs.

Nolte asks, “You ever have one? It’s, not good for ya. It’s got eggs and bacon and oysters… It’s full of calories and fat and everything, but it doesn’t taste bad. You don’t eat two of ‘em!” 

So, all yolks aside, when San Francisco went from a sleepy mission town to a booming Gold Rush city overnight, the population needed something to eat. The Farallones were where they found food, so it makes sense that they would be included within San Francisco’s boundary. 

You could say it boils down to basic 'eggonomics.'

Joshua Sirotiak is a native of Chicago and Cleveland who moved to San Francisco in 2001. He's a working tuba player, a father, and a self-proclaimed nerd who’s worked as a line cook, general contractor’s apprentice, substitute teacher, camp counselor, bar back and bouncer, and has spent nearly a decade and a half working for one upscale natural foods grocer in particular.