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California \ Farallon Midland

The Farallon Midland.

By Andrew Brandon

J ust 26 miles from San Francisco and visible from the shore on a clear day, the Farallon islands stand at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. Humans first set foot on the Farallones after they were sighted by Sir Francis Drake on July 24, 1579. “Farallones”, Spanish for “Pillar" or "Sea Cliff”, was given to the island by Vizcaino in 1607. The islands close proximity to the entrance of the San Francisco Bay put them in the position to be an important stopping point for shipping and a natural location for a lighthouse. In 1853 the United States Lighthouse Service began construction of a lighthouse on the highest peak of southeastern Farallon. The steep rocky shoreline rises 30 feet above sea level, making traditional mooring impossible. To supply the facility a landing was constructed on the northern side of the island for smaller landing craft where a stiff-leg derrick was constructed to unload the craft below.

In 1877 the Lighthouse Service began upgrading the facilities on Southeast Farallone. In 1880 this included a steam powered fog horn. To supply station a strap-iron tramway was constructed from North Landing to the lighthouse keepers’ houses. A spur was constructed to the fog horn coal bins at the facility. Rolling stock on the line consisted of a single four-wheeled flatcar initially pulled by a donkey named Jerry until his death in 1892. Jerry’s replacement, a mule named Patty, arrived on the island shortly thereafter and served the island line faithfully until her death in 1913. The original strap iron was replaced in 1887 with standard T-section rail. At this time the East Landing was constructed to provide an additional supply point. In 1896 the rail line was extended to East Landing giving the line a total length of 3995 feet. In May 1905 the derrick at North Landing collapsed while unloading a boat and East Landing then became the primary landing for the island, a role it continues until this day.

In 1902 the United States Weather Bureau established a weather station on Southeast Farallone near the Jordan Channel (which separates Southeast Farallone from Maintop Island). Initially staffed by two meteorologists, weather reports were sent to the mainland by undersea cable, completed on April 4, 1902. The undersea cable was beset with trouble from the start and was replaced by the first Radio The message was sent by radio to the mainland on December 30th 1903, but it was not announced to the public until a month later for security purposes. During 1904 the United States Navy proposed taking over the weather station for their needs, but found the Weather Bureau equipment incompatible with their naval standards and constructed their own facility near East Landing in 1905. Left nearly obsolete the Weather Bureau’s station remained staffed by a single meteorologist until it finally ceased operations in 1913.

The U.S. Government discontinued the Lighthouse Service in July 1939 and the role was assumed by the Coast Guard. Civilian lighthouse keepers were replaced with Navy staff in 1941. During WWII the island served as a radar beacon and in 1942 was home to 78 residents, the maximum population. After the war the island's population began to decline, during this time unused structures were dismantled. In 1965 the Coast Guard removed the families from the island altogether. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1969 and the original Fresnel lens was replaced with a rotating beacon. By 1970 navigational systems aboard passing ships had become technologically advanced to the point the fog horn was no longer necessary and the facility was torn down On December 1, 1972 the beacon was automated and the last light keeper left the island.

In 1969 the islands became protected with the establishment of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge and are currently managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) Conservation Science. Today the Farallones are closed to the general public and currently the subject of long term ecological restoration and research. A portion of the Farallon Midland still serves the researchers stationed on the island, performing the same duty it was constructed for, over 130 years later.

Revised: March 7, 2016.
White, Peter. The Farallon Islands - Sentinels of The Golden Gate. San Francisco, California: Scottwall Associates, 1995.
Tiney, Richard T. "The Farallones Midland.", Narrow Gauge & Shortline Gazette, Jan-Feb 1988 18-21.
Fickeworth, Alvin A. California Railroads. San Marino, California: Golden West Books, 1992.

Reference Material Available Online:

Equipment Roster.

Hayburning Locomotives.

"Jack" - Mule - 1855 - 1873 - Pre-Tramway.
"Jerry" - Donkey 1873 - 1892
"Patty" - Mule - 1892 - 1913

Rolling Stock.

"Push" car - 4 wheel.
The line’s sole piece of rolling stock is a 4 wheeled cart. The cart has a 5’ wheelbase and 14” wheels. After the death of Patty, the cart was powered “by hand”, over time handrails were added to the opposite ends to ease in it's use.


The Route of the Farallon Midland for Google Earth.
by Andrew Brandon.


Collected Farallon Midland Photographs.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.


Beyond the Golden Gate - Oceanography, Geology, Biology, and Environmental issues in the Gulf of the Farallones
U.S. Geological Society, 2002. Courtesy Prelinger Library and Archive.Org.

Oral History.

Observations of San Francisco Bay 1900 - 1970. Ernest William Winther; tape recorded interview conducted by Ruth Teiser in 1970.
Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California, 1972.
Courtesy Archive.Org

California \ Farallon Midland
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