History of the Farallon Islands

Navy Radiomen and Light House Keepers


Human occupation of the island began in earnest with the arrival of Russian fur traders in the early 1800’s. The Farallon islands were administered by the Russian Colony, Fort Ross.  This period began the exploitation of the island wildlife that lasted until the turn of the century. Elephant seals were harvested for their blubber while fur seals, California sea lions and Steller’s sea lions were harvested for their pelts. Eggs from common murres were taken by thousands and shipped to the mainland.  Remnants of some of the structures the Russians left behind are still present on the island today. Learn more about Fort Ross.

EggersThe population explosion created by the goldrush of 1848 led to a shortage of agricultural products because farming was in the infancy stage at the time on the mainland. Newcomers to the area were supplied by murre eggs from the Farallones. Men claimed the island and established the Pacific Egg Company. Records show hundreds of thousands eggs collected each year. After about 20 years and much legal wrangling, an executive order was issued in 1881 which made egging illegal on the Farallons.  

By that time a lighthouse had been established by the Lighthouse Service and light keepers and their families were living on the island. Through the years many projects were undertaken and abandoned. A weather station was erected in 1902 by the Weather Bureau operating on a cable that ran from the island to the Marin coast for the first year. A radio transmitter was deployed in late 1903. The Navy built its own weather station on the island in 1905 as it took over control of the island. The Weather Bureau abandoned the island in 1913 allowing Navy personnel to tear down the Weather Bureau building to improve the Navy facility. Four radio compass facilities were built on the island between 1920 and 1930. The first was claimed by the heavy seas, the second burned to the ground, and the third also burned, claiming the life of Henry Gustafson.

Living quarters, a school, and other ammenities were added as the island developed. In 1939 the US Coast Guard absorbed the Lighthouse Service. The Navy ran a secret radar station from the Farallons in World War II requiring more personnel. In 1942, up to 78 people were living on Southeast Farallon Island. The Navy withdrew from the island and the Coast Guard began automating equipment further reducing the number of sland residents. The last family moved from the island in 1965 and only six men remained to operate the station.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service began active management of the refuge in 1969 and the light was automated the following year. The automated light was judged reliable in 1972 and the last Coast Guard personnel stationed on the island departed. Biologists from PRBO Conservation Science visited the island in 1967 and were permanent islanders by the end of 1968. The US Fish and Wildlife Service entered into a cooperative agreement to manage the refuge at that time.

After becoming a National Wildlife Refuge, the islands were left to the animals and biologists. Naturalists had occasionally visited the island since the 1800’s usually for a few days to make basic observations. By 1968 sealing, egging, and operating a small village on the island had taken its toll on the wildlife. Feral cats, abandoned by former residents, predated on birds. Introduced rabbits competed with nesting seabirds for space. The erection of all the buildings and trails reduced the overall amount of habitat available to the wildlife. Oil spills and other pollution took a toll on wildlife in the waters around the island. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and PRBO were faced with the task of repairing 150 years worth of damage to the natural resources of the Farallon Islands. Great progress has been made by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and PRBO Conservation Science and in 1981 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joined the effort when the waters around the island were protected with the creation of the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary.