CROSS-PACIFIC COMPARISONS: FIELD VISIT TO ANGEL ISLAND,
SAN FRANCISCO

Sydney Uni group with Casey at Immigration Station Angel Island

Sydney University group with Casey at the Immigration Station Angel Island

3 January 2014

Comparisons between former quarantine sites and inscribed landscapes remain a core focus for the Quarantine Project. The value of this approach was reinforced through visits to San Francisco’s Angel Island over 2013. Following Alison Bashford’s initial inspection early in the year, a larger group undertook a field trip at the beginning of December. Comprising Annie Clarke, Ursula Frederick, Peter Hobbins and Peta Longhurst, this joint archaeology-history visit was generously hosted by California State Parks rangers Casey Lee and Ben Fenkell.

All of the Sydney University team were struck by contrasts in preservation and interpretation as we moved through Angel Island’s numerous sites. Ferries arrive at Ayala Cove, yet there is scant indication that this bay was once named Hospital Cove, home to the city’s primary quarantine station. An extensive establishment from 1891 until its closure in 1946, most of the structures were razed in 1957 to create a pleasure ground. Unlike Sydney’s remarkably intact Quarantine Station, little remains of even the footprint of former buildings, let alone markers of individual presence at the site.

Hiking around the perimeter of the Angel Island permitted exploration of its multi-layered military pasts, including the Civil War-era Camp Reynolds, the major twentieth-century station of Fort McDowell, a Cold War Missile site, and several abandoned coastal batteries. All play host to varying levels of historical and contemporary mark-making, although interestingly it was only at Fort Reynolds that such messages were actively overpainted. At most sites interpretive material is minimal, with visitors free to explore spaces and structures.
Immigration is convincingly the primary heritage focus at Angel Island. In particular, the site is closely aligned with the history of Chinese movement into and out of San Francisco over 1910–40. Commencing at the disused wharf and moving up through the footprint of the former administration block, visitors are faced with numerous interpretive features. As at North Head, these messages are literally engraved into the stone face of the site. Unlike Sydney, however, they establish both a physical and emotional journey which visitors are encouraged to follow into the former detention barracks.

Here, the wooden walls are a palimpsest for innumerable inscriptions left by immigrants, emigrants, deportees and prisoners of war. Carved, painted or even rendered in soap, Cyrillic, Asiatic and Latin characters abound, alongside images of buildings, ships, animals and ceremonial objects. New arrivals must have been confronted with a cacophony of these messages, which even multiple layers of official repainting could not efface. Interestingly, although such messages started appearing within months of the Immigration Station opening in 1910, archival research suggested no similar practices occurred at the island’s Quarantine Station, only one bay away.

Importantly, traces of the inscription process have been discovered – notably a Chinese message first brushed on in ink, then carved in outline and finally hollowed out to render full characters. Such finds reminded us that many of the Sydney inscriptions may also have been sketched onto the sandstone before the laborious engraving process began. As at North Head, one is left with the impression of an ongoing conversation between these multifarious inscriptions, recording presence, detention, separation, depression and even tension between internees.

In the coming months our team will be drafting a comparative analysis of North Head and Angel Island not only as historical complexes, but as landscapes marked by their inhabitants, and as heritage venues successively re-interpreted for different presents. In particular, we will interrogate the differing ways in which quarantine, immigration and defence heritage are memorialised at these two spectacular sites at opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.

Angel Island inspection label

Angel Island inspection label

Camp Reynolds Hospital

Camp Reynolds Hospital, Angel Island