June 20, 2007
The re-post of #4 in the new series of pieces for the SFist, San Francisco’s collaborative urban blogging project.
Who knew that one of the five islands in San Francisco Bay was privately owned? Even stranger, “Red Rock Island” is now up for sale, for a paltry $10 million.
The last time we remember one of our islands changing hands was way back in 1847, when Captain John C Fremont bought Alcatraz for $5000.
Fremont was in town, as you no doubt remember, as the head of a surveying expedition. A man of action, he wasn’t satisfied with merely naming the “Golden Gate”, but soon precipitated the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexico, and capped off his year by becoming Military Governor of California!
Alcatraz, then known as “Alcatraces” or “Pelican Island”, was privately owned at the time of the Mexican War. As both surveyor and military man, Fremont quickly sized up the island as a strategically valuable piece of real estate. He bought the Rock in the name of the United States Government.
Did he have the authority to do this? Of course not — and to make matters worse, his plan was to sell the island to the government at a hefty mark-up.
This annoyed the boys in Washington DC. The government invalidated the sale, and seized the island without paying a cent. Fremont was being court-martialed for other Mexican War improprieties, but somehow found time to file a lawsuit to eject the Army from its newly fortified rock.
Unsurprisingly, this attempt failed, and with one notable exception, Alcatraz has remained state property to this day.