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San Francisco, California

Treasure Island

A man-made island in scenic San Francisco Bay. 

When thinking of Treasure Island, images of pristine beaches and lush tropical forests may come to mind thanks to the Robert Louis Stevenson novel it was named after, but the real one is an artificial island built atop a landfill in the San Francisco Bay.

Originally constructed as an airport for Pan Am’s line of Trans-Pacific “flying boats,” Treasure Island has been quietly reinventing itself for decades. While the flying boat airport never quite worked out, the island was a hit as host of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, and still showcases some outstanding art deco architecture from that time period.

This combination of strategic placement and intriguing buildings attracted strange bedfellows during the second half of the century, as the United States Navy used the island for training missions while Hollywood filmed scenes from blockbuster movies. Buildings and sound stages from the island can be seen in films ranging from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” to “The Matrix.”

More recently, Treasure Island has become an emerging residential neighborhood. As the island changed hands from the Navy to the city of San Francisco, new purposes were imagined for it, and any available real estate was quickly snatched up by developers.

Today the island tries to lure visitors with a large and eclectic flea market, warehouse workspaces and stores for artists, and event venues with views of the San Francisco skyline. The island is also used as a workshop and storage area for many Burning Man Festival treasures.

Concern remains, however, for the stability of the island. Its man-made foundation is a combination of silt and landfill, feared to be unable to maintain its integrity during an earthquake. This raises speculation that another large-scale quake along the lines of the one that rocked San Francisco in 1906 may send the island back into the sea from whence it came. Another major concern of today is the toxic (especially radioactive) waste which was inadvertently dumped on the island by the US Navy and even the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. The fair apparently handed out (radioactive) glow-in-the-dark pins to guests, and the Navy contaminated the island during the repair, salvage, and “cleanup” of ships intentionally doused with radiation for training purposes, and others that may have absorbed radiation from Cold War atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. For this reason, many parts of the island are simply off limits.

Know Before You Go

Take I-80 east from San Francisco over the Bay Bridge toward Oakland (or the other way around) and exit to Yerba Buena. Continue on Treasure Island road across the bridge to Treasure Island.