A podcast about history

That's not stuck in the past


I’m the type of person who keeps their forehead glued to airplane windows during takeoffs and landings. I love the conflicting feelings that seeing the world from several thousand feet up elicit. On one hand, capturing an entire city with a single glance feels almost god-like. On the other, knowing that my home is just one of the countless roofs stretching out in all directions makes me feel insignificant.

I also like to scan the Bay for whales, although I have yet to spot one from the air. 

When Stanley Page (1885-1964) would look down at the Bay from his custom-built “flying boat,” he didn’t have a window to press his forehead against, because the aircraft didn’t have any. The pioneering aviator would simply lean out of the cockpit, swing his camera over the side, and snap away. Page was a local engineer who was inspired to create his own aircraft after witnessing the Wright brothers demonstrating their “flying machine” during a tour of Europe. While working at Oakland’s Union Gas Engine Company, he realized this dream by designing a lightweight six-cylinder aero engine and attaching it to a plane that could take off and land in the water.

Now, about a century after they were originally taken, the photos that resulted from Page’s adventurous journeys are currently on display at the SFO Museum. “Above the Bay: The Aerial Photography of Stanley Page” reveals a Bay Area that’s simultaneously familiar and foreign. Despite lacking the now-iconic Golden Gate and Bay bridges (as well as other prominent man-made landmarks like Treasure Island), the major contours of the shoreline and certain elements of the cityscape are unmistakable. Oaklanders will instantly recognize a cluster of historic buildings in the vicinity of Ogawa Plaza that are now in the process of being dwarfed by highrise construction. It almost feels like looking at Google Maps through a time machine. I could stare for hours…

We’ve all become accustomed to images like this thanks to the ubiquity of Google Satellite View, but seeing downtown Oakland from this perspective must have blown people’s minds in the 1920s. City Hall is the tall white building in the upper-left corner.

Stanley Page’s descendent Charles Page donated the original prints and glass plate negatives to the The San Francisco Airport Commission Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum in 2010. The “Above the Bay” exhibit will be on display through July 12, 2020. The museum is located in SFO’s international terminal before the security screening zone, so a boarding pass is not required to visit. All images on this web page (with the exception of the Key Route Pier postcard) used with permission of the SFO Museum.

This is what the Bay looked like before the arrival of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in the mid-1930s. The island on the upper-right is Yerba Buena (Note that Treasure Island hadn’t been created yet). Although much has changed over the past century, the most drastic proposals (such as a plan that would have filled in much of the Bay) were defeated.
The Standard Oil refinery, a predecessor to today’s Chevron complex, is visible over the hills near Castro Point. This section of Richmond’s landscape is now defined by dozens of massive storage tanks holding petroleum products.
This shot of the Key Route Pier was taken on January 2, 1922. Before the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936, these ferries were the main mode of transportation for people traveling between Oakland and San Francisco. “The dark smudge in the water near the ferries is the shadow of Page’s aircraft,” according to SFO Museum curator Samuel Scott.
This terminal (seen from above in the previous photo) was severely damaged by a fire in 1933 – one of many incidents that hastened the ferry system’s collapse during the Great Depression. “Before the Golden Gate and Bay bridges opened, ferries carried as many as 40 million passengers a year, and San Francisco’s Ferry Building was the busiest passenger terminal in the country,” according to the Carl Nolte. Concerns over traffic and carbon emissions have sparked a resurgence in ferry ridership in recent years. [Image source: Wikimapia]
Stanley Page worked at the Union Gas Engine Company in East Oakland around the time he took this photograph. “The street that the company was located on still exists as Diesel Street and the large white grain elevator still stands,” according to SFO Museum curator Samuel Scott.
This image of Coyote Creek and Mowry Slough was taken while flying over the southeast corner of the Bay. Areas of this marsh have now been incorporated into the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. Around 90% of the Bay’s wetlands were destroyed by the end of the 20th century, but some consider current efforts to restore these ecosystems as “the largest-scale coordinated habitat restoration effort in the world.”

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Up in the clouds, back in time

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