Landscapes of Point Molate By JOHN KENYON Special to the Planet

Friday December 23, 2005

Driving home on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge after a day at Stinson Beach or a stroll around the Point Reyes Station, few returning East Bay residents cast more than a tired glance at the long stretch of natural-looking shoreline ahead, glimpsed at best through the crowded steelwork of that strange “erector-set” bridge. 

Even among folks enterprising enough to have discovered the charms of Point Richmond, its magnificent bay views, toy downtown, and winding streets of restored Victorians, relatively few have taken the easy-to-miss 580 off-ramp, just before the bridge tollgates, to the Point Molate Road, that strange little-known five-mile stretch ending at a picturesque harbor on San Pablo Bay. 

Hardly more than half an hour from North Berkeley, the trip is well worth the effort. Not as pretty as Tilden, it makes up for that by what’s now called “industrial archeology.” The rusted rails of the Richmond Beltline that once served the Contra Costa Winery and the Standard Oil Refinery over the ridge, snake along the reedy shore, over a lagoon on an ancient trestle, round Point San Pablo and past the yacht harbor, to disappear behind the gates of Chevron. 

En route, two public destinations make this trip a potential family outing. Approaching Point Molate, a public beach park of the same name offers the usual picnic facilities along with splendid views across the bay to the undulating edge of Marin County. Nearing Point San Pablo and the little Brothers Islands with their handsomely restored Victorian lighthouse, now a celebrated B and B, a bumpy rural road takes you over the hill to Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor in its wooded cove. After the over-designed respectability of Richmond’s developer-named “Marina Bay” with its fancy railings and gated docks, it’s a joy to step down between friendly looking houseboats, and stroll along old wood gangways past touchable boats, lovingly restored or falling apart, some for serious fishing, some serving as funky live-aboards. There’s even a 1940s-vintage cafe, called, appropriately, “The Galley,” and immediately below it a dockside from where, if you book ahead for a visit, you can be taken by motor launch to the East Brothers Light Station. 

So make tracks soon to this hidden demi-paradise, before the developers, those prosaic bottom-liners who never saw a rusty hull they could love, come bursting out of the wings to change everything. The wooded promontory of Point Molate, long occupied by the U.S. Navy Fuel Depot, is now up for grabs, and unlikely to remain abandoned. Chevron has made a bid for it, but the chronically troubled City of Richmond seems fatally attracted to the instant glamor and fast returns of a hotel-casino-resort complex. Personally, I have always seen this remote scenic edge as a natural extension of residential Point Richmond, shared with the East Bay Regional Park District. But enough of visualizations, for here’s a chance to enjoy the fascinating old before it is swept way by the all-too-predictable new. 

My own involvement in this obscure shore began 33 years ago as a professional happenstance could never have designed. Employed as an architect-planner for Richmond’s Redevelopment Agency, I was borrowed, thanks to some unknown supporter, by the Planning Department to illustrate a study of the city’s coastline. As a displaced landscape painter, it was the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever been paid for! About three days a week, armed with camera and sketchbook, I cruised the water-edges of industrial Richmond in search of strong compositions that carried the message “gutsy but interesting.” At the end of 10th Street, alongside the grand old Ford Plant, I drew the River Lines tugs and the “Oregon Bear” in its pre-container dock. I recorded the Santa Fe channel with its fascinating yacht-repair yards, and tackled the splendid bay-panoramas from Point Richmond’s Potrero Hills. 

But in the end, my most precious find was Standard Avenue north of the bridge—the Point Molate Road! Technically, it was private, casually patrolled by Navy trucks, but at that happy time, security was minimal. Standard Oil’s great green hillsides were not yet fenced-off, and outside the Fuel Depot you could park almost anywhere. For three undisturbed sessions, I sat on the road-edge above Castro Point, and drew dense, disreputable Red Rock Marina, a confusion of sunken-barge breakwaters, floating cranes, and ancient motor cruisers in the shadow of the great writhing bridge. 

A mile north of Castro Point, the road passes right through the middle of the ex-Navy Fuel Depot. During the 1970s, lingering hereabouts to draw of photograph was strictly verboten, but today you might wish to stop and admire the brick castellated-listed-building surviving from the Contra Costa Winery, a sad casualty of Prohibition! 

While Point Molate’s striking landform is more conventionally scenic, I have grown to prefer, as subject matter, the melancholy stretch of flat shore immediately north. Hugging the reedy water-edge, narrow road and rusted tracks weave and cross, back and forth, before parting company at a lagoon, where the tracks pass single-mindedly over a derelict trestle, while the road goes obediently around. The great hills of Marin across the water, the East Brother lighthouse just offshore, white tanks on the nearby bluffs, and the ever-passing tugs and tankers, create a strangely romantic setting that begs for a human focus. Not too surprising that 30 years after my original sketches and photographs this novel landscape should finally become domesticated by a family “Picnic by the Tracks,” with eldest daughter, first grandchild and dog. 

Thus a body of work begun as part of a matter-of-fact planning survey has continued over the years to provide unending and novel subject matter. Not even Mill Valley or Tiburon possess such strange and special poetry. 


Painting By John Kenyon:  

Thirty years after the original studies on Page 12, the artist’s favorite location becomes the setting for a more personal painting.l