Bay Area hikes: The history of explosives at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline

One of the most peaceful parks in the Bay Area turns out to be responsible for some of humanity’s loudest booms. Head to Point Pinole Regional Shoreline in Richmond for fantastic views of the water, a cliffside walk dotted with wildflowers and a history lesson in explosives manufacturing and urban ruin.

The Giant Powder Company had an exclusive license from Alfred Nobel to make dynamite — and did so in San Francisco’s Glen Canyon, until the factory got vaporized in a huge explosion in 1869 that shattered windows a mile away. The company reopened in a facility near today’s Sunset District, but that one blew up, too. At this point, locals had had enough and chased the company out of town to a location in today’s city of Albany.

Third time’s the charm… actually, no, that factory detonated in a major way that killed everyone on site and shattered more windows, this time as far away as UC Berkeley. In 1892, the company decided to go as remote as possible and moved to the vicinity of Pinole Point. There, it established the town of Giant to house its workforce, which by this point must’ve had an extreme case of the jitters.

Today, visitors can see remnants of the site’s volatile past in various odd structures and a path called “Nitro Trail.” There are several different ways to walk (or bike, scoot or ride horses through) the park. I choose a loop that begins at the Atlas Road Staging Area and takes about an hour to complete, including a stroll down an extremely long fishing pier.

Bicycle riders venture along a trail at the Point Pinole Regional Shoreline on Thursday, April 7, 2022. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The first thing that hits me is the camphoraceous scent of eucalyptus trees. They line the wide, flat pathway on either side, groaning and creaking in the wind. The factory folks planted them way back when to block the force and noise of explosions. It might not have been the best choice for a place that made dynamite: Eucalyptuses have since inspired fierce debate in California for their tendency to spread flames like crazy during wildfires.

At a bend in the trail sits a hulking black-powder press that once rammed a wet explosive mixture called “wheel cake” into dense, highly explosive material. “And we’d go outside when they started that, because you never know if it was going to blow up!” a worker recalled, according to the informational sign.

A powder press at the Point Pinole Regional Shoreline bears testimony to this region’s explosive past. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

The trail view opens up onto a sprawling salt marsh in which the forlorn foundations of concrete buildings jut out. The marsh is thickly carpeted with pickleweed, a brine-loving plant akin to the “sea beans” you might find at Berkeley Bowl. Hundreds of feet off the shore, fishermen stand in waist-deep water, while huge ships glide silently in the main channel from ports in Stockton and Sacramento.

Nearby, an earthen structure looks as if an asteroid hit the dirt and raised it into a massive doughnut. This weird feature is one of many in the park related to the manufacturing of explosives. (Look at the trail guide, for instance, and you’ll find sites identified as “dynamite blast and burning bunkers.”) One of these circular formations even has a picnic bench inside it, where you can enjoy a hiking snack and imagine you’re in a crater on the moon.

Accidents decreased after Atlas Powder Company acquired Giant in the early 1900s. There was only one “disastrous” explosion and one death by fire — in 1931 and 1938 — and, as Nilda Rego recounts in a 2012 column for this publication, safety considerations became paramount:

Metal tools were replaced with rawhide-clad hammers and wooden shovels. Workers were told not to wear rings.

The same brooms were no longer nonchalantly used inside and out. Instead, there were now separate inside and outside brooms, because of the danger that gritty debris caught in a broom could cause sparks and the nitroglycerin would blow.

Workers were required to wear cuffless pants that could not pick up grit. Pockets were faced with a latticework to discourage employees from carrying matches and cigarettes. Elevated wooden walkways connected the buildings so that grit, nails or any other spark-causing debris would not be caught in shoe soles.

Bosses controlled what workers on the dynamite line talked about. Political and other distracting discussions were not allowed.

The trail’s northernmost point runs along a path where people pull wagons full of fishing gear and portable speakers playing local radio jams. Hollow concrete spheres called “reef balls” lurk in the water to the right; they provide safe habitat for Olympia oyster larvae to grow into plump adulthood. There are also the skeletal remains of the Atlas dock, where workers used a railroad conveyance to roll explosives onto ships bound for South America and the Philippines.

Oyster balls  next to the fishing pier at the Point Pinole Regional Shoreline provide habitat for the sea creatures. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

On the pier itself, anglers fish for halibut, rockfish and white sturgeon, which at lengths of more than 10 feet are the largest freshwater catch in North America. The modern record-holder was snagged near here in the Carquinez Strait in 1983 – it weighed 468 pounds. Joey “Sturgeon King” Pallotta spent more than seven hours landing the beast and it’s still the biggest freshwater fish caught by rod and reel in North America.

A cliff trail at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline runs right along the Hayward Fault. John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group

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The path meanders along a cliff above a cobblestone beach littered with the remains of fallen or washed-up trees. The cliff happens to sit directly atop the Hayward fault, which runs through the East Bay and is due for a tremor. I sit down and wait a couple of minutes – no shakes. But a regular volley of explosions echo across the water, thanks to a nearby gun range.

I return to the parking lot via a quiet and grassy path, thankful to have fed some brain cells historical facts (the broccoli of all knowledge) and wondering, “Who was found legally liable to pay for all those windows?”

Hike length and difficulty: About 3 miles in a loop
Hike rating: 4 out of 5 kabooms
Where to eat nearby: Black Star Pirate BBQ is right out on the water and has killer brisket, ribs and jalapeno cornbread, plus some interesting art installations. They’re only open Friday to Sunday and draw long lines, but the friendly staff is known to accommodate your wait with cans of cider and beer. Another good option is Maya Taqueria in Point Richmond, with classic tacos and vegetarian options such as butternut-squash burritos.

Point Pinole Regional Shoreline: 3000 Atlas Road, Richmond; 888-327-2757, information and other entrance points at https://www.ebparks.org/parks/point-pinole

A loop hike at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline will take you out on the water and through old explosives-manufacturing structures. Google Maps (highlights added)

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