Moffet Field

Moffet Field looms large in my childhood, from the P-3s returning from their submarine patrols past my bedroom window to watching airshows on the base (often times from my roof). Although I did not visit or see the Navy Base very often, it’s presence was felt (and heard) every day.

The 1920s saw the rise of the airships, the dirigibles. These lighter than air, airships where being used to transport passengers and also as a means to keep an eye on the enemy’s fleet. They seemed to have a bright future both for civilian and military applications.

Germany was the true innovators with their Zeppelins. These are the airships that bombarded England during World War I but were also victim to antiaircraft fire. 71 % of German Zeppelins were lost in combat and 40% of their crews lost their lives.

Between the World Wars the US Navy was looking for a new base of operations on the West Coast for the ZRS-5 USS Macon. The Macon was built in 1929 and launched on August 8, 1931. The Macon was 785 feet long with a displacement of 7,401,260 cubic feet. It had a top speed of 75 knots (86 mph) and a range of 6,840 miles. The Macon, and her sister ship, the Akron, where just 20 feet shorter than the more well known Hindenburg. While the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen (with disastrous results), the Macon and the Akron where the largest helium filled dirigibles ever built.

A base site was chosen in the farmlands of the southern Bay Area at Sunnyvale (my home town). Construction on the Navy base started in October 1931 and the centerpiece of the base was, and still is, Hangar No. 1. The hangar was built to house the Macon and other dirigibles. Hangar 1 is considered the largest freestanding structure in the world. The hangar is 1,138 long, 308 feet wide, and is 210 feet tall. The internal area is 351,000 square feet, that is just over eight acres! To give you an idea of the massive size of this hangar, three RMS Titanic ships can fit, side by side, in the hangar, with room to spare!

Hangar 1 is now striped of it’s siding and is currently being restored.

The Navy base was originally named Naval Air Station Sunnyvale but was later renamed after Rear Admiral Donald Moffet who was the Director of Aviation. He was the Captain of the USS Akron (ZRS-4) when it was destroyed in a thunderstorm on April 4 1933 while cruising off the coast of New Jersey. Moffet, along with 72 others perished in the crash, making it the deadliest airship crash in history. As a comparison, in the Hindenburg disaster, 36 people lost their lives, when she burst into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937.

The USS Macon was christened on March 11, 1933 by Rear Admiral Moffett’s widow. The Macon flew from Lakehurst, NJ on October 12, 1933 to her new base on the other side of the country: Moffet’s Field.

The golden age of the great airships was relatively short lived. The USS Macon first flight was on April 21, 1933, and her final flight was on February 12, 1935. A whole two years of service after about 50 flights. She was only at Moffet Field for four months.

Why only 50 flights? Like the Akron before and the Hindenburg afterwards, USS Macon crashed.

On February 12, 1935, The Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Big Sur. The cause of the crash is debated but her upper fin was damaged in a storm and the airship lost helium causing her to plunge into the ocean. The Macon was fitted with life jackets, unlike like her sister ship and out of 83 crew members, only two perished.

The wreck of the USS Macon now lies on the ocean floor at 1,500 feet below sea level, where it has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Macon’s final resting place is within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

With the crash of the USS Macon, the Navy put an end to the airship program and the short era of the Great Airships in the United State was over. The Macon was the last of the great airstps built by the United States Navy.

Sketching Notes: I sketched the framework of Hangar 1. I was more focused on shape and form than the individual details. I sketched in Grasshopper in the foreground for scale. He was sketching the water tower to the left of Hangar 1.


Southern Pacific Water Tower: Coyote

There are two Southern Pacific water towers remaining in the Bay Area, one in San Jose (near the passenger station) and one further south on the Coast Line in Coyote.

I headed to Santa Clara County, the county of my birth, to the Valley of Heart’s Delight (Silicon Valley). The small, blip of a town that is Coyote is south of San Jose and just north of Morgan Hill.

Coyote is on the Coast Line, a 470 mile route that connected San Francisco and Los Angeles. SP’s famous passenger service, the Coast Daylight, blew through Coyote. A resident of Coyote wishing to catch the Daylight to Los Angeles had to either head to San Jose or Salinas. Coyote has a passenger station that was in service until December 10, 1958. The building still exists but is now abandoned and boarded up. At one time it was a private residence.

The abandoned Southern Pacific water tower and the double tracks of the Coast Line on the left. To the left of the tracks is the Metcalf Energy Center.

Before heading down to Coyote I stopped off at the town where I grew up: Sunnyvale. As I exited off Highway 280 and headed north on Sunnyvale Saratoga Road, I reflected, as I always do when I’m in Sunnyvale, on how much it has changed from the 20 odd years I spent here.

Along the road, there were things that where very much the same, such as the Longhorn Restaurant on the right (I don’t think I every ate here), and to the left is Fremont High School. The 1925 main building looks very much the same but according to a family friend, who is an assistant principal at Fremont, a lot of renovations are happening on campus.

The reason I turned off the highway was to see another water tower in the South Bay. This tower was not built by Southern Pacific, although it sits just north of the Coast Line. Before Silicon Valley, this area was known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight and the valley was covered in apricot and cherry orchards.

According to the Sunnyvale orchardist, Charlie Olson, there used too be “eight to nine million” fruit trees in Sunnyvale. Now there are eight to nine hundred.

To process all the fruit, canneries where built along the railroad line. My father, after coming home from work, would put me one the back of his bike and he would ride on the same route he had just come from. He spent his working career at Westinghouse which was also right next to railroad.

During the harvest season, a favorite destination was a pedestrian bridge over the railroad. From this vantage point we could watch commuter trains come and go and also we could look down into the yard of one of the canneries. Here forklifts moved at a frenetic pace and I can still recall the persistent din of the processing plant as workers canned ripe fruit to be shipped, by rail, to the nation. At this time, in the mid to late 1970s, Sunnyvale very much had one foot in the agricultural word.

This cannery was the former Schuckls Cannery which was later bought by California Canners and Growers in 1963. It was in operation until the cannery was demolished in 1984. The year 1984 was a auspicious year in the valley, it was in this year that Apple introduced the Macintosh computer.

This was about to change as the valley and it’s orchards were slowly replaced by Silicon Valley. It is interesting that one of the valley’s sons recognized the beauty of this area but was also one of the catalysts for it’s demise. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, said, “Silicon Valley for the most part at that time was still orchards-apricot orchards and prune orchards-and it was really paradise.”

Can we say that Sunnyvale is now a paradise? Well I guess it depends on how you define “paradise’.

As I crossed over the railroad tracks as South Matilda Ave. become North Matilda, the water tower came into view.

The Libby Water Tower is all that remains of the largest cannery in Sunnyvale. Libby, McNeill and Libby opened it cannery in 1907 and by 1922, it was the largest cannery in the world.

The current water tower was built in 1965 and is shaped like a can of Libby’s Fruit Cocktail. This is all that remains of one of the biggest canneries in the valley. It is now surrounded by a business park with buildings occupied by Walmart and Raytheon.

Looking up at this water tower I can recall the sounds of the cannery working at full capacity, to can the bounty of the Valley of Heart’s Delight.

The Libby Water Tower in Sunnyvale. It has been repainted as a can of Libby’s “Fancy Fruit for Salads”.

Railway Depots of San Mateo County

I’ve been wanting to do a sketch project of the passenger railway depots along the current Caltrain line; at least the stations that are architectural and historically interesting. Caltrain runs passenger service from San Francisco to San Jose (and further south to Gilroy). I wanted to narrow the project down to the existing depots in San Mateo County, the county where I am employed.

My own interest in railways and railway depots comes from my own childhood. I have very vivid memories of being on the back of my dad’s bicycle as we went down towards to the Southern Pacific tracks after work. My dad was a huge rail enthusiast having grown up riding the streetcars and trains of San Francisco. We would watch trains from the pedestrian walkway as they came in and out of the Sunnyvale Depot, dropping off commuters. We also took the train north to Palo Alto or San Francisco and I always loved the all too brief visits to each station. I also noted that not all stations were alike. Some depots have architectural merit while others were merely weather shelters where you can buy tickets.

I wanted to start in the north and head south towards the Santa Clara County line. But I would not be starting on the current main line that runs along the eastern part of San Francisco and the Peninsula but the starting point for this project is a marooned station that is west of the main line. This station has been moved a short distance from its original location and now does not have any trains that stop at its platform. It is now part of a historical museum. This is the passenger depot in Colma.

The original mainline passed further west as it headed around San Bruno Mountain than it does today. The second stop, south of San Francisco County, which is in San Mateo County, was then called School House Station because of its proximity to the local one room schoolhouse. At the time this was one of 21 stations built between San Francisco and San Jose. The station was later renamed Colma.

In 1907 the Bayshore Cutoff came into service which straighten out the line to where the main line runs to this day. This new line left Colma off of the mainline like a rerouted highway, taking all the traffic away, leaving a ghost town in their wake. That may be appropriate because Colma is known for all it’s cemeteries. The number of dead in Colma, estimated at 1.5 million, outnumber the living. Hence the town’s motto, “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

So I set up a sketching chair, readied my supplies, and started to frame in the railway depot. Here I really tried to get the perspective correct before I added pen or paint. This starting part of the sketch takes the most focus and concentration.

Another reason the Colma Depot was a good starting point for this project is that it was the oldest depot on the line, built around 1863, beating out the actual oldest station on the Peninsula mainline at Menlo Park, built in 1867.

Starting with the Colma Depot was a bit of a cheat, because it is no longer an active depot nor is it on the main line. But because the river of rails have been diverted to the east leaving a pool that no longer flows to the sea, I felt it was important to start here, at least to get my feet wet. It was also helpful to start to learn the visual language of Californian train depots. It helps the eye see repeated patterns and forms when I move on to sketching other depots.

My next plan was to ride Caltrain from San Francisco down to all the historic stations in San Mateo County and sketch each one.

Sketch number one of this project is nearing completion. The rusted tracks in front of the station are just a short section. They go from nowhere to nowhere. Just like many of the visitors to Colma. Once they come here, they never leave.


The Valley Part 1

Silicon Valley is probably a good, in many ways. The Valley of Heart’s Delight was a glory. We should have found ways of keeping the one from destroying the other. We did not. . .

-Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist

 The children’s book of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein was a popular birthday gift at many birthday parties when I was a child growing up in the 1970s. But in the Santa Clara Valley where the sidewalk literally ended, the apricot and cherry orchards began.

Sunnyvale in the 70s was in a state of transition. It was the struggle between the Valley of Heart’s Delight and Silicon Valley. When I was a kid, it seemed that the Valley of Heart’s Delight had the upper hand, but the lone apricot tree in our back yard, told that the ascendancy of Silicon Valley was clearly underway. The apricot orchard had made way to the track homes that housed the families that fueled the early industries of Silicon Valley, and this lone tree, which my brother and I posed in for family Christmas cards, was the last reminder. My family, on Cormorant Court, was one of those early Silicon Valley families.

After work, during the final warm days of summer and fall, my father would put me on the back of his bicycle and we would retrace his route to work along Fair Oaks Ave. We ascended the pedestrian walkway over the Southern Pacific train tracks. Here we would look down into the Schuckl Cannery on the side of the tracks. To this day I can recall the din of the conveyor belts, the frenetic energy of the forklifts bringing in the valley’s harvest, and the smell of the burning train brakes as a commuter train eased into Sunnyvale Station down below.


Blenheim Apricots at the Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard. This preserved orchard is on ten acres and contains about 800 trees. At it’s height Sunnyvale’s orchards included eight to nine million trees.

Then there was the oft-told story of the day my dad drove to work along Fair Oaks Ave  and he saw a cherry orchard  being uprooted, with fruit still on the trees. “What a waste” was the phrase that usually concluded the story. Those orchards are now rows and rows of condos with names like Cherry Orchard and Orchard Gardens Apartments.

Gone are the millions of apricot and cherry trees, the canneries, and the migrant workers that picked fruit each summer and fall. What is left are like islands of preserved orchards in Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and Los Altos, a mere shadow of the agricultural area that once attracted motorists each spring to view the millions of blossoming trees.


In 2001 the Sunnyvale Orchard Heritage Park Interpretive Exhibit was opened. It was built along side the Heritage Orchard with interpretive signs that told of the rise and fall of the Valley of Heart’s Delight. My father’s name is immortalized on one of the signs in the Hertitage Park. He helped to create the park so future generations would remember the valley’s past. 

On a recent returned to Sunnyvale on a May morning, that was already starting to feel like summer, I sketched a few apricot trees at the Orchard Heritage Park. On my way I drove down De Anza Boulevard, past the ghosts of my childhood, past unrecognizable buildings and storefronts, past the Apple Campus. So much was physically gone. An orchard, a favorite restaurant, a father. What does it mean when your past no longer physically exists?

Over the next few blogs I will explore the changing face of The Valley.