How Red Rock Island became the only privately owned island in San Francisco Bay
The 5.8-acre island near the Richmond Bridge has had many owners and has been for sale many times.
Tessa McLean, SFGATE
Feb. 22, 2023
Updated: Feb. 22, 2023 10:39 a.m.
It really is just a giant rock.
As we round Red Rock Island in our kayaks in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, paddling slowly around the 175-foot-high expanse, the craggy mass juts steeply out of the water. It’s both completely unremarkable and stunningly beautiful, a contrast of vibrant red rock, swaths of poison oak and a spattering of blooming woodsorrel set against the blue sky and deep green water. A calm beach sits on the northern side with driftwood and shells, but also plenty of trash, scattered across the rocky maroon sand — a reminder that no one is taking care of the place.
A light hum of traffic buzzes in the background of the island just south of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, competing with the lapping of waves and the occasional whirring of a passing boat. The 5.8-acre landscape is barren of any structures and is almost never visited, save for the occasional not-so-daring trespasser. Most people wouldn’t know they’re trespassing — there are no signs on the island warning people to stay off — there are no signs at all. Red Rock Island just exists, a neglected orphan in the Bay. It’s had a strange and twisted history, tumbling toward its only remaining superlative: the only privately owned island in the Bay Area.
The mysterious island indeed has an owner, though he allegedly hasn’t stepped foot on the slab of earth in years. It’s perpetually for sale, maybe, but it could never fetch the right price. There have been plans for casinos, hotels, private residences, billboards and much more along the way, all that never materialized both because it occupies three separate Bay Area counties — Contra Costa, San Francisco and Marin — but also because it’s a towering hunk of rock.
SFGATE editor Tessa McLean, left, paddles around the western edge of Red Rock Island with Keith Miller, owner of California Canoe & Kayak and a member of the Bay Area Sea Kayaker (BASK) club, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.
Last advertised for sale for $5 million in 2015, the fate of the island is anyone’s guess. As I stare up at it from my kayak on a recent sunny February morning, it’s surprising this lonely island was ever sought after at all.
Buried treasure, natural resources and a criminal hideout
Russian fur traders were some of the island’s first known early occupants, ravaging the local sea otter population in the early 1800s. Other explorers discovered the island around the same time, and rumors abounded of buried Spanish treasure, though there’s no documentation about whether anyone ever discovered it. That didn’t stop some from dubbing the island “Treasure Rock.”
More often known as “Molate Island,” as it was labeled on an 1850 survey map of the San Francisco Bay area, it’s also been referred to as “Golden Island.” The first recorded resident was former California Sen. Selim Woodworth, son of the famed poet Samuel Woodworth; who allegedly planted a flag, built a small cabin and lived there in the 1850s. Though he desired to make the island a permanent home, he eventually gave up when the U.S. government denied his Homestead Act, claiming the island might be needed for the protection of the country one day.
The red rock from which the island gets its official name is actually manganese, which gives it its signature color. More than 200 tons of the mineral were mined from the island in the 1860s and shipped off to Europe for use in paint pigment. Before it got hacked up, it’s likely the island was once larger.
FILE - In this June 15, 2007 file photo, Red Rock Island with Mount Tamalpais in the background is seen in this view taken from Point Richmond, Calif.
The two mining tunnels still left on the island helped shape its next chapter, as they became an alleged hideout for murderersand criminals in the early 1900s. While investigating the Preparedness Day Bombing in 1916, San Francisco Police Inspector Arthur B. Riehl explored the rocky outcrop searching for dynamite. He didn’t find any clues, but the discovery of mineral possibilities led him to file a mining claim. After it was accepted, he became the first legal owner of the island in 1923.
Riehl’s mining ambitions never materialized, and in 1948 his widow sold the island to a man named Alex Wilson.
Hotel dreaming on Red Rock Island
Wilson had very different dreams for the island — he wanted to create a Bay Area vacation destination. He commissioned plans for a yacht harbor, botanical gardens, a tea house, a wedding chapel, a museum, a hotel and even a heliport. But it never got past the planning phase.
The island’s ownership history then gets as murky as the island’s surrounding waters, with Wilson’s son, real estate agent Alex E. Wilson, inheriting the island at some point, and co-owning the property with a woman named Christine Rogers. The duo seemed to realize development wasn’t going to happen, so they looked to other money-making opportunities; one San Francisco Examiner article from 1956 said the current owners were in talks with “three big corporations and two outdoor advertising firms” to erect billboards on the island, to be seen from the Richmond Bridge. Luckily, those plans never came to fruition.
Views of Red Rock Island—including caves along the western shore, upper right—as seen on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Charles Russo/SFGATE)
In 1964, Rogers and Wilson sold the island to eccentric 34-year-old San Francisco attorney David Glickman for $49,500. “When we first went to the island by boat, I was the first one out of the boat and ran along the beach on the north shore and my friend said I looked like a kid with his first island,” Glickman told the San Jose Mercury News about his decision to buy the land.
Glickman, who was the son of Frank Lloyd Wright engineer Mendel Glickman, told the Examiner that year that he planned to build a clubhouse, restaurant and cocktail lounge on the land after leveling it. Later reports said he was considering building a 25-story high-rise on the site with “community apartments” (four apartments per floor) and a “sea-going hotel,” topped by a restaurant and cocktail lounge.
But Glickman never got very far on any development plans. While he continued to collect odd real estate holdings, he eventually moved to Thailand and became a gem dealer, abandoning the island completely. Somewhere along the way, his business partner Mack Durning was given partial ownership of the land, possibly in payment of a debt. Ultimately, Glickman and Durning decided to try and sell the land.
Private island for sale in San Francisco Bay
Advertisements for the sale of the island have regularly appeared in Bay Area newspapers over the decades. In 1955, it was listed with no price. In 1979, it was listed for $1.5 million. Real estate agent Rosemarie Delson held the listing in 2001, and said it was the most unique listing she’s ever had. The starting price was $10 million, but she got it down to $6 million during her time representing it. “Even though I spent a lot of money on advertising it all came back to me,” Delson told SFGATE on the phone. “I got other clients. I don't resent having spent all the money on it.”
She said she loved showing the island and, while she envisioned someone like Larry Ellison being the ultimate buyer, the only serious offer she remembered was from an environmental group. Even that “was way off the figure of what the owner wanted to get for the island,” she said.
There was one alleged high-profile prospective buyer. Durning told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009 that infamous former Oregon commune leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh planned to purchase the island until he was deported in 1985. His organization poisoned hundreds of people with salmonella in order to influence local elections and faced allegations of an attempted murder plot. Rajneesh’s story was retold in the 2018 hit Netflix series “Wild Wild Country.”
Red Rock Island is seen in front of Mount Tamalpais from Point Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, June 9, 2009.
Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Steven Higbee, another real estate agent who once represented the island, said extremely wealthy people are always going to be its most viable buyers. “It’s only going to be sold to someone who doesn't care what it costs and they just want to have the bragging rights,” Higbee, now retired, told SFGATE by phone. “It has to be someone with more money than sense.”
Higbee said there was plenty of interest in purchasing the island when he was selling it. People who came to see it had all kinds of ideas for what to build on the property, from private homes to restaurants to a solar farm. But some detail would always halt the sale, whether it was how deep the water is around the island, how complicated it would be to navigate the planning approvals of three counties, or a too-low offer.
“Anytime you get a weird listing, you get the weird people coming up. But it also could be the next genius. It wasn't my job to judge. I'm just the broker. If they will buy it, I will sell it,” Higbee said.
Even as the owner, Glickman, speaking with NPR in 2007, called the island “ugly” and “not something that has to be preserved as a great beauty of nature,” he acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t be fit for a rich person’s getaway. “I don't think that's very practical, frankly. It's not the sort of thing that has palm trees on it,” he said.
Durning, the island’s other owner, also didn’t seem to have a real affinity for the island. "People always ask me what I'm going to do with the island," Durning told the Chronicle in 2009 with a chuckle. "I tell them I'm going to get back at my kids by giving it to them."
A lone gull stands on the beach along the northernmost edge of Red Rock Island, near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, as seen on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.
Durning’s ex-wife Mona told the Oakland Tribune in 2008 that she owned 25% of the island after divorcing from Durning. She seemed to relish the bragging rights of owning the island. “It’s really good. You can drive over the bridge and tell people, ‘I own that.’ And they say, ‘Yeah right. Sure you do.’”
Durning did “get back at” his kids eventually — he died in 2012 and his sons inherited the property under the Brock Durning Trust (Glickman passed in 2011). Brock Durning still owns the property, according to Contra Costa County records, but he could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts for this article.
The only man that cared
While the majority of the island’s owners seemed mostly to care about the payday that could come from owning something so rare, one man’s love for the island was so strong he’ll spend eternity there. Avid sailor Malcolm Sowers, a Castro Valley resident, stumbled upon the island in 1948 and felt an instant connection with the land. He visited often in the years that followed, taking friends and his wife and children along with him.
The Chronicle reported that he “planted a Monterey cypress tree on the western slope in 1974 because, he said, ‘it needed a tree.’” He later added amaryllis around the tree and would come back to water everything, lugging gallon jugs across the bay and up the rocky ledges to his plants.
Sowers loved the island so much that he scattered the ashes of his family members there when they died, including his mother, aunt and aunt’s husband — all without permission. When the former psychiatrist had a stroke that led to his death in 2014, his family knew where he would want to lay his remains.
Malcolm Sowers, right, holds a snapshot, left, that he took of friends in a boat who helped him water a Monterey cypress tree on Red Rock Island, in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday, June 9, 2009. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle Via Getty Images)
When photographer James Martin was publicizing his book “The Islands of San Francisco Bay,” he met Sowers. Martin said Sowers told him about his tree, and when he found out Martin was also a rock climber, enlisted him to help water the tree when his health was degrading. Martin said he went out to the island five times, exploring the caves and climbing to the top at least three of the times.
When Sowers passed away, Martin helped family and friends get to the small memorial on the island, assisting those who wanted to visit Sowers’ tree and help spread his ashes. Martin said he gained permission from the island’s owner, though he doesn’t remember how they got in touch with him.
What can you actually do with the big hunk of rock?
As cool as it may sound to own the only private island in the San Francisco Bay, it comes with lots of baggage. For starters, any large-scale development would have to pass through three different levels of bureaucracy, as 4.1 acres of the island lie in Contra Costa County, 0.09 acre is in Marin and the remaining 1.58 acres in San Francisco. The city of Richmond, likely to endure any consequences of a noisy island casino, organized to oppose development in the past.
The island has also been advertised with “mineral rights included,” implying a future owner could tap into its natural resources. Former owners and a 2005 newspaper ad promoted “oil drilling” possibilities. But everyone interviewed for this story was dubious that any mining or drilling would be approved anymore, due to environmental concerns.
SFGATE editor Tessa McLean, front, paddles towards Red Rock Island with Keith Miller, owner of California Canoe & Kayak and a member of the Bay Area Sea Kayaker (BASK) club, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.
A private home is a more likely option, given that an owner could build on just the Contra Costa land, avoiding interactions with the other counties. Even that, if approved, would likely take years if not decades to complete, since almost none of the island is level.
If not a wealthy buyer, another realistic option would be a nonprofit or governmental agency becoming a steward of the land. A nearby example is the 17-acre Aramburu Island in Richardson Bay; Marin County has enlisted the Richardson Bay Audubon Center to preserve the island for wildlife since 2007. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife also reportedly tried to purchase the property in 2001, together with a “consortium of agencies” to “protect the birds,” according to an Associated Press report.
The East Bay Regional Park District also reportedly tried to secure the island. “We have had a long, long history of trying to identify the actual property owner, trying to contact the property owner, and trying to negotiate with the property owner,” former land acquisition manager Liz Musbach told Mansion Global in 2015. “All to no avail.” She said their “low, six-figure bid in 2010 was rejected.”
The property is currently valued by the Contra Costa County Assessor’s Office at $99,529 (with taxes at $1,000/year).
Located just south of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Red Rock Island spans three Bay Area counties: 4.1 acres of the island lie in Contra Costa County, 0.09 acre is in Marin and the remaining 1.58 acres in San Francisco.
Most people who enjoy the island these days are Bay Area fishers, who float nearby, catching striped bass and halibut with the island as their backdrop.
The future of Red Rock Island
While it’s not legal to explore the island, California law states that it has ownership of all land below the “ordinary high water mark,” a tidal marker, so visitors are often spotted on the island’s beaches. Keith Miller, owner of California Canoe & Kayak and a member of the Bay Area Sea Kayakers club, helped guide me around the island. He told me it’s a popular destination for boaters. He first went to the island in the ’80s when he had no idea it even had an owner. He climbed to the top and sat for hours looking out at the bay before kayaking home. He told me he thinks it’s best left as it is. After my tour, I tend to agree.