History of Dirt
How My Dirt Got Here

I currently live in the Marina Bay development, which is part of the City of Richmond, California. It is a quiet community built around a large marina on San Francisco Bay. Up until the 1930's the area was a neglected salt marsh and Richmond was a small city of roughly 20,000 people. With the onset of World War II Henry J. Kaiser transformed the salt marsh into a massive shipyard for producing military transport ships and Richmond grew overnight into a bustling industrial city with over 100,000 residents. Seventy years later, with the exception of a few buildings and crumbling dry docks, little remains  of the Kaiser-Permanente Shipyards.  There is a modest memorial to Rosie the Riveter in one of the  parks on the edge of the marina and the SS Red Oak Victory (a restored Victory ship launched at the shipyard in 1944) is birthed nearby.

When I moved to Marina Bay in the summer of 2009, the history of the area was not that important to me, I just wanted to sail and watch the garden grow. It was not until I was out sailing on San Francisco Bay one afternoon in December of 2009 that the history of Marina Bay took on a different meaning. Looking north towards the Richmond San Rafael Bridge I saw an old ship being towed by two tug boats. I had heard that the Navy was scrapping some of the mothballed warships that have been rusting for decades in the Carquinez Strait and assumed the ship I saw was one of them. Curious as to its name and whether it was one of the old Liberty ships from World Wae II, the next day I surfed the Internet for hours to see if I could identify it. I was amazed with what little I found. It seemed like the world had forgotten about the Liberty and Victory ships of World War II and the role they played in the development of the Bay Area and the winning of the war.

Earlham Victory Ship
Earlham Victory on its way to the scrap heap. Note, Richmond and the old Kaiser-Permanente Shipyards (where the Earlham Victory was launched in 1945) are in the background.
It took me several more days to determine that the ship was the Earlham Victory and it was built during the later stages of World War II at the Richmond shipyards of Kaiser-Permanente. Then, as I poured over old maps and aerial photographs of the shipyard, I realized that the Earlham Victory was likely launched a stone’s throw from my home! Shipyard #2 RichmondDrydocks at Kaiser-Permanente Shipyard #2 in Richmond Circa 1945

I love those moments when history makes a bridge to the present, when your life connects (no matter how slight) with your past. My father shipped out of Oakland during World War II to participate in the invasion of Tinian and likely made the journey on one of the ships built in Richmond.

At this point you are likely asking, “So what does this have to do with gardening?” Let’s just say the soil on my property has a bit of a history too. To the left is a picture of the shipyards circa 1945. The future location of my home is off in the distance just beyond the docks. It is difficult to conceive of a more frenetic industrial environment than what existed here in 1945.  Today it is a quiet residential community bordering a well ordered marina.

To get a better idea of the changes, the pictures below show an aerial view of the shipyards in 1945 and  how the area looks today. The red arrows indicate where my home would be/is located.

Kaiser-Permanente Shipyard #2 Then and Now

All of this rapid construction and intense industrialization lead to significant pollution of the land around what would become Marina Bay. While extensive attention was paid to remediating the pollution as part of the redevelopment project, the standard and expedient approach for addressing the problem was to add a top layer of “clean” dirt. So, much of the polluted soil is still there, it’s just buried.

Am I concerned that I may be gardening in contaminated dirt? No… Ok, maybe a little. The experienced gardeners in my complex insist that they will never eat any vegetables or fruit that are grown directly in the soil. When I overhauled the garden after I moved in, I turned over all the dirt and added a significant amount of amendments to counteract the clay. I did unearth some very large pieces of rusted metal and occasionally it seemed that the dirt gave off whiffs of hydrocarbons. But none of the plants seem to be any worse for wear.

The dilemma will come when the Alpine Strawberries ripen. Will I feel lucky?

Alpine Strawberries
Alpine Strawberries