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Goats on Goat Island in San Francisco

by Susan Saperstein

Goat Island – now called Yerba Buena Island – is located halfway between San Francisco and Oakland. This piece of land has had a number of names, most referring to its inhabitants.

José de Canizares, believed to be the first European to sail through the Golden Gate, named it Isla del Carmen in 1776.

Apparently that name never stuck, because the locals referred to it as Sea Bird, Wood, and Yerba Buena (for the mint plant growing all over the island). When people started settling in California after the Gold Rush, there were a large number of goats brought to the island by squatters – hence the name Goat Island.

The first California legislature, when passing an act establishing the limits of San Francisco County in 1850, officially named the island Yerba Buena. This was changed in 1895 by the U.S. Geographic Board to Goat Island. Then in 1931, that same board changed it back to Yerba Buena Island.

The island contains Army and Navy installations and a lighthouse. In 1861, fearing a Confederate ship might sneak by Fort Point and Alcatraz in the fog to invade San Francisco, the Navy recommended that the island be used as a garrison. However, that never happened. But in 1866 the Army established a post consisting of 12 people; the Navy opened a training station in 1898.

In 1872, Emperor Norton proclaimed that “a bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island and thence to Telegraph Hill.” Although somewhat delayed, that bridge was later built and opened in 1936.

In 1873, the Lighthouse Service moved the district's depot from Mare Island to the southeast side of Yerba Buena Island. From the depot, a lighthouse ship was dispatched to the light stations up and down the coast. Food and other shipments were brought up a goat trail path that connected the station to the depot. The cliff face in front of the lighthouse was painted white to help mark the island. The importance of the lighthouse changed when the Bay Bridge was built and most people began using cars or trains to cross the bay rather than boats and ferries.

By 1886, both logging and the goats had cleared the island. Spurred on by a campaign led by poet Joaquin Miller, California celebrated its first Arbor Day on November 27, 1886, by replanting Goat Island. The trees there today are the result of this effort.

This year, goats were invited back to clean up by grazing on the steep hills because the dense eucalyptus trees and their dropping leaves had created a fire hazard. A company called Goats-R-Us located in Orinda, California, was recruited to provide environmentally friendly weed and vegetation removal. The goats were set loose on the steep hills and went to work.

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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