Trending in West Marin: The cypress tree tunnel

04/27/2017

Yielding a host of comments and images on social media, the cypress tree tunnel is among the places currently trending in West Marin. The tunnel, which has made a multitude of appearances in car commercials and whizzed by in the recent basketball championships, was first planted around 1929, on property owned by the Radio Corporation of America. 

Monterey cypress are native to the Monterey peninsula. They can withstand the cold and salt-filled northern winds of the Point Reyes peninsula and were planted as windbreaks around many of the 19th-century ranch buildings in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Now the trees are a distinctive presence in the grassy plains of the peninsula, serving as a respite for migrating birds blown off course during their annual trips to Central America and back.

The tunnel leads to a wireless telegraph station where operators tapped out Morse code messages to ships sailing the thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean. Before it housed the radio station, the land was known as the original G Ranch, established in 1869, and passed through a number of sales and names, from Flat Ranch to McClure Ranch. 

Similar to the other tenant dairies on the peninsula, G Ranch was home to cows whose milk was made into butter for the growing San Francisco population. Milkers, many Portuguese and Irish immigrants, made about $30 a month, plus room and board. They would hand milk a “string” of cows—usually about 25 animals—twice a day. By 1919, the McClure family, which owned the ranch, replaced the butter-making business with a milk operation and cream was taken to Point Reyes Station for sale.

In 1929, the Radio Corporation of America purchased the ranch in a tangle of legalities. The corporation had acquired the Marconi Wireless Company, which had West Marin telegraph stations in Bolinas and Marshall. Plans were underway to retire the Marshall station and replace it with the G Ranch site, but that idea was abandoned and the Point Reyes station joined its two West Marin sister stations. The art deco-style building was constructed between 1929 and 1931. 

Wireless transmissions and ship-to-shore communications were growing rapidly on the West Coast, especially after the wreck of the Titanic in 1912, which underscored the need for wireless technology as a way to save lives and property. Radio operators could tap out emergency messages to shore stations and nearby ships—a massive safety net of messages spinning through the air.

The Point Reyes station was the first trans-Pacific wireless station and inherited the call letters KPH from an original station at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Wireless operators read up to 15 words per minute, all from dot and dash code. The Marshall station—now the Marconi Conference Center, a California state park—received the first transmissions about the attack on Pearl Harbor, which were then relayed across the nation. 

During World War II, the Point Reyes station went to work for the effort. A barracks was built for the Coast Guard to patrol nearby beaches; just northwest of the station, the Coast Guard operated a listening post for ship communications over the north Pacific.

As technology improved, the need for a location close to the ocean—and the dots and dashes of Morse code—were replaced with new ways of communicating and both the R.C.A. and Coast Guard stations closed. The National Park Service took over the property and a partnership was formed between the volunteers of the Maritime Radio Historical Society and the seashore to protect and maintain the transmitting equipment. The society opens the station to the public on field days, when volunteers operate the antique equipment. For details, check radiomarine.org. 

 

Loretta Farley, a Point Reyes Station resident, spent 30 years as a ranger. She is always interested in imagining, and then studying, the stories behind the scenery.