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The Last Whaling Station
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The Liberty Ship that Could, Can and Will

The Last Whaling Station

A Father’s Day Remembrance

By Mary Swift-Swan

One of the two last whaling stations in America was active in San Francisco Bay until 1971. It was located on the north side of Point San Pablo, just up the railroad tracks from the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor. It was opened in 1956 by Del Monte on a bight near Brothers Island Lighthouse. It sat idle in Richmond for 26 years, slowly becoming an environmental hazard as abandoned rusting machinery began to leak oil into the Bay. It burned and was finally dismantled in 1998, leaving behind only charred pilings of a once bustling whaling station and memories.

When active, the station was manned by a crew of 40 men who boasted they could reduce a humpback whale to oil, poultry meal, and pet food in an hour and a half. I watched them do just that. It was not an empty boast. The station’s boats hauled in an average of 175 finbacks, humpbacks, and sperm whales a year. It was reported that once or twice an Orca was accidentally killed, but none doubted the men worked hard in the classic maritime tradition of Nantuckett or New Bedford whaling men.

They caught whales in the Pacific Ocean along the California coastal migration routes. Whales were brought into San Pablo Bay, dropping off their catch in the shallow bight by the station. Taking one at a time, the huge whales were pulled up the ramp with big grappling hooks, hooked up to winches, and pulled up the gangplank by their tails. As the men worked, that part of the Bay filled with blood and brine. Fishing near by, we would catch more sharks than strippers on those days, which probably was a factor of the speed at which the whalers worked. The whales to be processed rolled in the shallow waters near the gangplank. Watching them from our fishing boat, although riveting because the men worked so unbelievably fast, was sad to me. They carved fat off the whales white underside, marking the slab with a variety of carving knifes; then, what looked like a blade as wide as a floor sweep attached to something overhead, they cut away large slabs. More giant grapples would drag the long thick slabs of blubber to cookers to render them into oil. They continued the pace by next butchering the meat and keeping the useful bone, after the fat was cut away, until all usable parts of the whales were processed. The skeletal remains were dropped off the ramp where bottom feeders waited in the shallows.

As a young girl with a family that loved to fish near the Brothers Lighthouse and Sisters Islands for striped bass, I remember my least favorite days were those when the whales came in. To this day, I can instantly sense a whale nearby, day or night, by the telltale strong cannery-like fishy smell. I did not remember why until I found a picture in the family shoebox. Finding the picture slowly brought back memories of one particularly painful day.

We could not help but watch the action as whales disappeared up the whaling station gangplank as we fished that day. A high-pitched noise caught my attention. I looked among the whales floating in the shallows where I saw one still feebly moving. I asked my father and the other men on the boat to make them stop. They looked so sad as they shook their heads. If they could not save the whale that held to life so strongly, I asked them to do something to make them at least kill it before pulling it up the ramp and not let it lay there in fear and pain. One got on the radio but got no response. The men aboard said its end was too near for them to make it different but surely the whalers would kill it quickly. Pain pierced my heart as I watched it struggle up the gangplank, tears rolling down my face. My Dad was clearly disturbed by the site as well. He put an arm around my shoulders as we watched until I turned into him and tried to remember to breathe. We quit fishing early that day.

After returning the boat to its harbor in the Richmond channel, our drive home was not the usual one. He stopped the car along a road I was not familiar with. Not letting us go with him, he walked a ways to stand on the edge of a hill alone. At the time I thought it was to get a breath of air and take a private moment. A faded memory of seeing my Dad standing on a hill clicked when I found the somewhat faded photo. He hadn’t been in a state of reflection, instead he had been looking at and taking pictures of the whaling station in action.

On the way home, the car game was to think of good products that whales still needed to provided. I protested about why in the 1960s did we continue to use whale oil and make pet food of whales yet restrict Eskimos who actually fed a village with one whale? My "but why’s" were answered with the response that advances in agriculture would replace the need for whale products someday soon. He couldn’t reconcile my sadness and anger at seeing the creature in pain then, but I have no doubt that if he could have, he would have done something. In 1971, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans outlawed whaling. The station in Richmond closed. The Richmond Sentinal bemoaned the loss of a maritime historical connection to New England and Ahab. I was intensely glad.

My Dad was an entomologist who worked as an assistant to the Dean of Agriculture at UC Berkeley and as an advisor to the State of California and Washington, DC regulatory commissions on agriculture, world food and health, fish and game, the winery board, and many more. He produced a newsletter that was read worldwide. People came from all over to work with him. He was listed as Dr. John Edward Swift in Who’s Who, but we knew him as Burly Wolf, as when he’d howl on camping trips getting local wolves and coyotes to sing along with him. An auburn- haired Irishman, who went bald on top when he was in the Aleutians during WWII, and then shaved his head. It did not grow back in that cold clime. I teased that a family nickname of ‘Red Headed Ed’ developed because he was always getting his head sunburned. He said it was his hair color, which made me laugh. We lost him in January of 1983 at the age of 67.

Photo courtesy of Eric johnson, owner of the Marina

I have no idea if he influenced the secretary of commerce back then. It was curious to only find one photo of the Whaling Station. Finding it made me wonder. My father was too like his hero John Wayne to ever speak of his role if he played one. All I know is that when I was feeling very bad, he put an arm around my shoulders, sharing his strength for us both to cope with something we could not change then. It is important to have a hero. On Father’s Day, I will be remembering mine.

Whaling station remains can be seen by passengers on the Vallejo Ferry approaching the Brothers Island Lighthouse by looking east. By car, exit the 580 Freeway just before the San Rafael Bridge, drive through the now quiet Point Molate Naval Base, past the vine- covered, castle-like brick walls of an old air raid shelter. The road is now blocked by security for active operations at Point San Pablo, but it can be seen by staying right at the fork and driving up the hill where my father must have taken the picture. At the end of that road is the quiet, quaint Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor where the final scenes of Blood Alley, with John Wayne and Lauren Bacall were filmed in 1939.s