For the past 26 years, the last whaling station in America has sat idle
alongside a burned-out wharf in Richmond. To get to it you have to drive
through the old Point Molate Naval Base, past an abandoned windery and
the crenellated brick walls of an out-of-use air raid shelter, over a pitted
road bordered by spires of yellow gorse, until you come to sleepy little
point san pablo yacht harbor. From there it's just a short walk down the
railroad tracks to the rusting macherinery of the old whaling station where
a crew of forty men once boasted that they could reduce a humpback whale
to oil, poulty meal and pet food in an hour and a half. The station's boats
hauled in 175 finbanks, humpbacks and sperm whales a year; once or twice
they even killed an orca and reflected the the mammal "put up quite
"They whaled out in the ocean, towed the whales in up the gangplank, rendered the meat, and took out the oils," recalls Fred Elm, the 85 year old owner of the yacht harbor. "The odor was terrible when they were cooking the whales." The richmond station was one of only two whaling stations in the country when the Del Monte fishing company opened it in 1956; by the time US Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans outlawed whaling in 1971, it was the last of its kind. There will be no more Ishmaels, no more Ahabs, no men to carry on the traditon of New Bedford and Nantucket, warned the Richmond Independent. About five years ago a big fire took out most of the wharf, leaving behind only a few charred pilings and a collapsing section of the pier studded with rusted nails. Now the site is leaking diesel oil into the bay, and a hazardous waster remediation screw is knocking down the old machinery and pulling out the underground tranks that used to fuel it.
"I use to sit out there and imagine how it used to be with the machinery going and them hauling up the whales," harbormaster Ruben Gonzales tells me. "It reminds me of old America"
The site is dominated by heavy equipment, and most of the old buildings have been knowcked into heaps of rubble, but by concentrating very hard it's just possible to picture men heaving the mammoth carcasses onto the dock, the dun of machinery, and the smells of brine and blood. We stop in front of an immense boiler that's sprouting weeds from a rusting vent. Gonzales looks at it for a long minute and the resolves to get a sledgehammer from the marina toolshed and nab the boiler hatch as a souvenir. "I've got to save apiece of it," he says. "It's a piece of history".