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Bay Model

Started: 2017-06-02 12:03:00

Submitted: 2017-06-08 21:40:17

Visibility: World-readable

20 May 2017: In which the intrepid narrator visits a massive scale model of the San Francisco Bay -- with real water

One Friday evening at the end of May, Kiesa tried to find something interesting to do for the weekend. I suggested taking BART to some far-flung location, like the brand-new Warm Springs/South Fremont station (currently the terminus of its East Bay line, but an extension into San Jose is already under construction and scheduled to open late this year). Warm Springs is expected to be the center of a new transit-oriented development, but there's not much there yet; we'd basically take the train to the station, get out, and wait for the next train to take us home. As a minor railfan I would find this amusing, but Kiesa didn't think our children would.

My next suggestion was the Bay Model Visitor's Center in Sausalito. I saw a reference to it while looking for tourist things to do around San Francisco, and put it on my long list of things to visit eventually, but it never quite made it to the top of my list. Kiesa took one look at it and decided it would be a fantastic place to visit and we must to do so immediately.

Golden Gate Bridge in fog
Golden Gate Bridge in fog

We could have driven across the Golden Gate Bridge, but now that we live in San Francisco we're less inclined to want to drive everywhere; we'd rather take some sort of transit where the opportunity presents itself. In this case that opportunity was a Blue and Gold Fleet ferry departing Pier 41; the first ferry of the day left for Sausalito at 11:00, giving us enough time to take BART to Embarcadero Station and take MUNI's F streetcar to Pier 41. (It was only when we got to the pier in Sausalito and had to wait for a Golden Gate Ferry to leave the pier did I realize that I had missed the salient fact that Golden Gate Ferries operates direct service between Sausalito and the Ferry Building, which would have been faster and easier to reach.)

Kiesa, Julian, and Calvin on the ferry to Sausalito
Kiesa, Julian, and Calvin on the ferry to Sausalito

We rode on the ferry's open top deck with a commanding view of the bay. As we pulled away from the pier in San Francisco the light fog enveloped us, lending a slightly mysterious air to the trip. I could see the entire skyline wrapped in a light wispy blanket of fog.

San Francisco skyline in fog
San Francisco skyline in fog

To the west the fog intensified; we could only see the top of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge as we passed through the part of the bay directly east of the Golden Gate.

Golden Gate Bridge tower in fog
Golden Gate Bridge tower in fog

Once we reached the relative shelter of the Marin Headlands and entered Richardson Bay the weather changed. The wind died down, the fog subsided, the temperature warmed up significantly, and we could see almost the entire bridge.

We disembarked at the ferry pier in Sausalito and found ourselves in the midst of a minor tourist trap, with a bunch of small shops selling a variety of tourist kitsch at a range of price points. We walked along the main street to the other end of town, after the tourist shops gave way to cute (and probably expensive) houses, where two- and three-story office buildings encroached on waterfront industry and marinas.

We found the Bay Model Visitor's Center in one of these old industrial buildings along the waterfront. The building had been built as part of a ship-building operation during the Second World War and had been claimed by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the war. They still operated their regional headquarters out of the site and had a dredge and other working ships docked at the pier in front of the building (next to the hull of the Matthew Turner, a tall ship under construction).

The visitor's center started with a short display of the water cycle in California. San Francisco Bay drains the entire Central Valley, including a substantial part of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Then we walked out onto an observation platform over the centerpiece of the center, the very reason we were there: the Bay Model, a giant scale model of the entire San Francisco Bay and Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, with actual water. It was built in the 1950s, apparently to test an audacious scheme to dam the San Francisco Bay and capture fresh water, and was used by the Corps of Engineers for the more prosaic purpose of investigating the impact of dredging and other changes to the bay, and also to study the effects of salt-water mixing in the bay and the spread of oil spills and other disasters. The delta model was added later and included a discussion of the impact of building levees to drain wetlands to become farmland -- including the interesting note that the islands were subsiding without an influx of fresh sediment and many were now below sea level.

Suisun Bay at the Bay Model
Suisun Bay at the Bay Model

The entire model was used until 2000, when it was replaced by computer models.

San Francisco skyline in fog
San Francisco skyline in fog

The model showed a different runway plan at SFO than currently exists: it included an extra set of runways built entirely in fill in the bay, apparently to test an expansion plan.

Calvin next to SFO at the Bay Model
Calvin next to SFO at the Bay Model

The model was amazing. Seeing it was like visiting a temple or museum: it's not strictly my field of engineering, but I recognized the importance of the model and the effort that went into conceiving and designing and building and maintaining it. I walked all around the model in a state of slack-jawed amazement, trying to observe every detail. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and I couldn't believe why I hadn't visited the model already.

Golden Gate Bridge in the Bay Model
Golden Gate Bridge in the Bay Model

We left the model in search of lunch. My phone led me to a taco restaurant on the leafy main street of Sausalito, which seemed to have a long queue. We sought out alternative lunches, and ended up picking up a snack at a nearby health-food grocery store, then returned to eat a proper lunch. After lunch we had enough time to visit the local public library before catching our ferry back to San Francisco.

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