From lifesaving station to marine lab


The ghostly College of Marin marine biology lab stands across from the Bolinas Lagoon, on Wharf Road. The shabby appearance of the buildings belies their important and colorful history, beginning as the United States Coast Station No. 321 from 1917 to 1947. Later, from 1964 to 2005, the buildings served as a vibrant educational facility: the marine biology lab for the College of Marin. 

The story of the Coast Guard station in Bolinas starts in 1848, when the Gold Rush brought busy ship traffic—and shipwrecks—to the rugged Northern California coast. Only two sea-rescue stations served the entire coastline, at Humboldt and Ocean Beach, until 1881, when the fully equipped Bolinas Bay United States Lifesaving Station was built over the lagoon. It was located where the wildly decorated Waterhouse Studio stands today, next to the Bolinas Rod & Boat Club.

Sea rescues were dangerous and grueling as men rowed heavy boats through violent winds and waves to reach a vessel in trouble. In Bolinas, station keeper Thomas Johnson relied on volunteer crews. The keeper’s job was endless routine, punctuated by occasional desperate drama. Unfortunately, Johnson, a well-known local shipwright, took to drink, neglected his duties and was dismissed in February 1885. On April 16, the station burned down. It was arson and Johnson was suspected. 

By 1899, coastal Marin had lifesaving stations at Ten Mile Beach and Bonita Cove, but they were too distant for vessels in trouble near Duxbury Reef. Among the many ships to wreck upon that reef was the Western Shore, the largest full-rigged vessel built on the Pacific coast and the fastest clipper ship of her time. In 1878, the Western Shore was splendid in full sail, traveling at 10 knots and headed south to San Francisco when she hit Duxbury Reef and sank within hours. In 1914, the ship Polaris was slammed onto the reef in a storm, within yards of the 1909 shipwrecked R.D. Inman. 

But it was the terrible wreck of the Hanalei in 1914 that finally motivated the government to build a new rescue station at Bolinas. Headed for San Francisco in dense fog and raging surf, the Hanalei hit the reef just below today’s Commonweal. For 16 exhausting hours, rescue attempts failed. Night fell as rescuers waited for another lifesaving team and equipment from San Francisco. Then, in the hours before dawn, rescuers heard the dreaded sounds of the ship ripping apart and the screams of children, women and men who were thrown into a cold sea covered in engine oil, ship debris, and a cargo of heavy railroad ties. Twenty-three lives were lost. 

That same year, 1914, the United States Coast Guard was established by combining the federal Lighthouse Service, Lifesaving Service and Revenue Cutter Service. The newly constructed Coast Guard Station No. 321 opened in Bolinas in 1917. Its two-story main building housed guardsmen, a kitchen, a dining area and offices. A large garage stored the boat and rescue equipment. Behind the station, a steep stairway led to the top of Little Mesa, where a Coast Guard lookout tower, with its panoramic view, still stands on the bluff. Because this station had a motorized boat, it was referred to as Bolinas Bay Life Boat Station. Guardsmen who performed rescues at sea were called “surfmen,” a term still used today. Many of the men who served in the early United States Coast Guard, including in Bolinas, were new immigrants to America. 

The station bustled with activity as guardsmen ran drills in the lagoon and ocean, helped locals and taught kids to swim. The guardsmen also responded to many dangerous emergencies, including in 1927, when they struggled in a roiling sea near the rocks below the Point Reyes Lighthouse to attach a line between a tugboat and the floundering ship Yosemite, which was filled with 827 tons of dynamite. 

In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war. Fears of attack on the West Coast sent convoys of military trucks, equipment and soldiers into coastal Marin, and the Coast Guard Station became a hub of activity. But after World War II, in 1947, new technology and silt buildup in the Bolinas Lagoon were among the factors that led to the deactivation of Coast Guard Station No. 321.

The College of Marin purchased the buildings in 1955, including the dock and Waterhouse studio, intending their use as an educational facility. In 1963, marine biology teacher Al Molina presented a plan to an enthusiastic board of directors to convert the buildings into a learning and research center, with the former garage serving as a laboratory. Half of the funds were provided through the National Defense Education Act, and Molina and fellow teacher Gordon Chan found grants to generously equip the new lab, which opened in 1964. 

Classes at the lab, which sat at the edge of one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world, included hands-on field experience in diverse habitats. It was an era of growing public interest in understanding and protecting the environment, and students recognized the visionary leadership of Chan, Molina and later Joe Mueller, among others. Many students went on to become activists, teachers, authors, researchers, professors and scientists, including at the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California. 

For 42 years, the lab continued as a robust learning center. Molina shared his knowledge and undiminished enthusiasm with thousands of students during his 37-year teaching career. He died in 1997. Today, two engraved stones still lie by the steps of the marine lab, honoring this important teacher. In the 1960s, Chan, who grew up in Marin, led his students in an intense study of Duxbury Reef. The result was irrefutable scientific evidence that the unique reef and its dense population of marine life needed protection. His work led to establishing the Duxbury Reef State Marine Reserve in 1971. Now the reef is part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. A plaque at the entrance to the reef honors Chan. 

Mueller, a student of Molina’s, has been the College of Marin’s leading marine biology professor for 30 years, sharing his broad knowledge of many scientific disciplines. He and his students used the lab from 1995 until 2005, and he facilitated its use for a local summer camp, providing children with indelible experiences of science and natural history. Today Mueller continues to teach at the college and is an important adviser on local ecology, including the health of the lagoon.

The lab, the only one of its kind in the nation to be run by a junior college, served tens of thousands of students, from grade schools to universities, and biology researchers. But in 2005, concerns for structural problems, contaminated building materials, and potential earthquake danger led the college to close it. The neglected buildings have become a visual blight at a time when many of the town’s storied buildings have been restored or renovated, preserving the town’s historic architectural face. Highly qualified Bolinas residents presented the college with viable proposals to purchase the property for community use, but were declined. 

Finally, after continued public pressure, in 2017, a public meeting was held at the Bolinas firehouse led by the college’s president, David Wain Coon, and supervisor Dennis Rodoni. Community members, former and current college students and representatives from Bay Area educational and scientific communities discussed the future of the buildings. Arguments for revitalizing the lab included concerns that the college has in recent years cut back its once-exceptional marine biology program in a time of environmental crisis and need for a science-educated populace. Mueller also reminded the college president of existing funds earmarked for the lab. 

On May 19, 2019, the college held another public meeting in Bolinas to introduce a proposal for a $3 million project that would include demolishing the historic buildings and replacing them with a sleek structure for classrooms, a lab, equipment storage and faculty offices, along with seven off-road parking spaces and public use of the dock. The proposal should undergo much public discussion and will surely be refined. For now, as you walk past the historic structures, imagine them when Coast Guard men, college students, children, researchers and visitors enlivened their rooms. Whatever the fate of the buildings, they deserve to be recognized and appreciated for their history and service to the Bay Area community.


Elia Haworth, a coastal Marin resident for 46 years, took marine biology classes from Al Molina in the 1980s.