The Marin Islands are among the least-known islands in San Francisco bay. Technically, they are located in the San Rafael Bay, a part of the San Francisco bay system, and are comprised of two islands named “West Marin” (the smaller island) and “East Marin.” They are visible from many of the hills in San Rafael, but most do not know the names of the islands or much about their storied past. Once for sale for more than $4 million dollars, they are now part of a 329-acre preserve set aside in 1993 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Marin Islands have an interesting history, as set forth in this account by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service: “The Islands and the surrounding area are thought to be named after Chief Marin of the local Native American Hukueko tribe. It is suggested that he used the Islands, but not necessarily inhabited them. The little known islands were also referenced as a hideout site in Jack London’s Tale of the Fish Patrol. After Mexican ownership of California, the Islands later were ceded to the California when it entered statehood in 1850. In the early 1900s, the state had auctioned several parcels of land, including the Islands. Harbor Tug and Barge Company saw the islands as a logical investment choice with the potential to act as a natural footing for the eventual construction of the Richmond Bridge. However, that potential never came to fruition. Structures were later built by the private owners to provide facilities during their visits to the East Island. The Islands were later sold and purchased by a number of donors to be established as a National Wildlife Refuge and State Ecological Reserve.”
Located about 1.5 miles north of the western end of the Richmond / San Rafael bridge and visible from many homes in the Bret Harte Heights and Country Club neighborhoods of San Rafael, the islands now serve as one of the largest heron and egret colonies on the west coast. Calling the islands home are the snowy egret, the black-crowned night heron, the great egret and the great blue heron. The nearby tidewaters, as shallow as 2-3 feet deep, provide foraging and resting habitat for many species of birds including diving ducks, black oystercatchers and surf scoters. Plant life on the island is a combination of native species like California Live Oak and California Buckeye. Reportedly, the islands are also covered in poison oak and feature sheer cliffsides that make visiting, when permitted, a challenging prospect.
The Marin Islands Were For Sale In The 1980s
According to this 1984 New York Times article, the islands were for sale then for $4.25 million and featured a main house and guest house on East Marin island, along with a barge called “The Ark” inhabited by a caretaker. Reportedly residents and organizations banded together, formed the “Save The Marin Islands” group, and lobbied to have the islands turned into a nature preserve. The Crowley family, who used the islands as a family retreat for more than 60 years, donated the islands to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1990s.
There are many recollections of earlier times on the “I Grew Up In San Rafael” Facebook page. “The dock used to have a garage with a hoist to lift the island caretakers boat completely out of the water. There was also a small workshop right at the bottom of the stairs. This current dock was put in for the bird observers who oversee the island to use,” said Samuel Moore, a ferry captain at Golden Gate Ferry who now lives in San Rafael. Put Merriam, of San Rafael, was original owner Thomas Crowley’s godson and says he spent a lot of time on the islands. He said “Tom Crowley was also the only one that could find his way anywhere on San Francisco Bay in the dense fog… By only listening to the fog horns!” Merriam also added, “We used to go out there every Wednesday night when I was young… The caretaker’s name was Botch.” Imagine growing up and visiting such an interesting place every week!
If you want to experience a night on a small island in the bay as the Crowleys may have, you might want want to investigate the East Brother Light Station Bed and Breakfast, a unique and historic B&B on a very small island just across the bay.
You can also watch a YouTube video of the islands, filmed back in 1984 when they were for sale. I hope one day to visit the islands to see the buildings there and to admire the many species of birds that call it home. The non-profit group Friends of San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge is “dedicated to promoting the conservation of the natural resources of the refuge, fostering public understanding and appreciation of the refuge, and engaging in activities that will assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to meet its mandates.” You may contact them via their website to volunteer or donate.
Death on the Marin Islands in 2018
In December 2018, a construction worker working as a part of a crew was killed when a retaining wall collapsed and crushed him. The wall was a part of a guest house on East Marin Island. The US Fish and Wildlife Service hired a company to demolish the buildings to discourage boaters from stopping by the island to check them out. Read this Marin IJ story to learn more about this tragic event.
About The Author
When I’m not writing about the Marin Islands, I am a Marin real estate agent working in this beautiful area we’re lucky to call home. If I may be of assistance, please text or call me at 415-847-5584. Please also feel free to add your own recollections or knowledge about the Marin Islands to the comment form below.