Big Guns Defend San Francisco Bay circa 1905

One does not typically affiliate Easter weekend with Big Guns, but when you keep your eyes open for World War 1 era history these things sneak up on you.

My wife and I visited our daughter who lives in San Francisco over the Easter weekend and decided to get out of town and take a short hike.  We headed over the Golden Gate Bridge through Mill Valley to Rodeo Beach.  The sky was crisp clear blue and the wind was really blowing.  After our brief hike and ruined hairdo’s we headed further up the hill to the Point Bonita Lighthouse where the wind was really howling.  My daughter pointed out the concrete ruins of Battery Mendell.  She described it as being an old war time gun post for protecting San Francisco Bay.  For me it was more interesting than a lighthouse, but being from Southern California I had crossed other World War II era gun posts in Ventura and Santa Barbara so I was not expecting much.

No question the skyline of the ruins were significant, dug in at the top of the ridge.

far view

When I got to the Battery and read the fine print on the monument next to it I was surprised to find the construction predated World War II by some 40 years.  The facility was built in 1905.


Digging into the history it became clear that the lineage of the Battery Mendell goes pretty far back. In 1885, after the conclusion of the Spanish American War, President Grover Cleveland must have heard the drums beating across the ocean and was concerned with world war coming.  He appointed a joint army, navy and civilian board known as the Board of Fortifications headed by the Secretary of War William C. Endicott to determine the military readiness of our country to defend its borders.


Harbor defense construction had not been revisited since the 1870’s and advancement in ship design and heavy artillery changed the focus of what systems were required to defend our coastline.  The findings of this board resulted in a $127 million dollar construction program for cannons, mortars, floating batteries and submarine mines.  The San Francisco Bay was considered second only to New York regarding the importance of its security.  Based on the map below, the rest of California was somewhat expendable!

1- US Map

The approach to protecting the bay continued into the 1940’s and 1950’s with a whole series of gun posts and bunkers at a number of locations.  There are a number of websites that identify maps and trails to find these old artifacts from the pre-nuclear era.

The diagram below gives a chilling impression of how serious these strategies were.

2- SF Map

But back to Battery Mendell.  Construction began in 1901, completed in 1905.  It was named after Col George H Mendell, a civil engineer who served in the Civil War and was actively involved in the construction of defenses of the United States on both the east and west coast in the 1860’s.  Eventually he became the President of the Board Public Works in the City of San Francisco where he died in 1902.


The facility itself was designed to be self contained with its own generator to operate motors to raise and lower the guns.  Guns where set down in pits to protect them from return fire.  The theory was that these guns would slow an enemy fleet and allow our navy ships to move in and drive them off.  After the Spanish-American war, planners believed future enemy fleets would have steel armored hulls requiring massive weapons to penetrate the ship’s armor.

4- plan

Here are some historical images of the guns themselves ( as well as perhaps someone else’s Easter visit to the site….).  There were two 12″ guns manufactured by the Bethlehem Steel Company and were over 400 inches long.

5- vintage pics

Here is a preserved set of smaller guns at a different location ( Northern Washington State I believe) that give a better understanding of how the guns work.  The lowering of the guns also made it easier to load the shells from the adjoining deck.

5.2 - canon

When you walk the site it becomes clear why they picked this location.  In the Google Earth images below you can see the Golden Gate Bridge at the top left corner.

5.5 - areal

The battery is pretty much stripped of any hardware, all spalling concrete, rusted doors and anchors, plenty of graffiti.


Incredible 180 degree view with blustery wind that could knock you off your feet if you are not careful. Hard to imagine what it was like up there when they actually fired those guns.

7 - pics

During World War 1 a number of these types of installations where decommissioned so the gun tubes could be reused.  A second battery is visible a little further inland that eventually replaced this installation in the 1940’s.   In some ways this installation involved engineering, politics and military planning that spanned from the Civil War to World War II.

Thankfully on a beautiful Easter weekend,  it was just an interesting walk.