The dark winter sky is illuminated with color and light each year in December, when the Angel Lights are turned on at the top of Mount Caroline Livermore. This 788-foot mountain, known more commonly as Mount Livermore, is the highest point on Angel Island, the largest island in San Francisco Bay. The strings of lights that make up the Angel Lights form the shape of a Christmas tree, a beacon which can be seen throughout the Bay Area. The lights on top of Angel Island during the month of December are part of a tradition that goes back more than 50 years to the time when the Army was still on the island. One story tells of a group of enlisted men who placed a large wooden star decked with red, white, blue, and yellow lights at the top of what was then known as Mount Ida. Another account is a sad tale of a lonely electrician who put up a lighted tree to chase away the holiday blues.
Mount Livermore was originally known as Mount Angel Island and then later as Mount Ida, although nobody seems to know who Ida was. One theory looks for answers in Greek mythology, in which there are two sacred mountains known as Mount Ida. One of them is outside the ancient Greek city of Troy, and the other is the highest mountain on the island of Crete. It is possible that a classically educated Army mapmaker named the peak after the nymph Ida, who dwelled on the mountain of the same name. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, much as Angel Island is the largest island in San Francisco Bay. The Mount Ida on Crete is sacred to the Greek Titaness Rhea, the “mother of gods," who gave birth to Zeus in a cave on this mountain. The view from the top is certainly divine and worthy of Zeus, the “god of the sky.”
Mount Ida was renamed Mount Livermore in the 1950s, after Caroline Livermore, one of four women who founded the Marin Conservation League in 1934. She was a strong advocate for conservation, and became an activist when the soon to open Golden Gate Bridge threatened to overrun the county with an influx of development. She foresaw the big changes coming and stated that "...it was time to forget our own gardens and start working to keep Marin from becoming a string of hotdog stands." In 1954, Mrs. Livermore was an important force in persuading the State Park Commission to acquire 37 acres of Angel Island around Ayala Cove to create the beginning of Angel Island State Park. "These parks don’t happen by accident," she declared at the time, and today her hard work is commemorated in the name of this outstanding mountain.
Mount Livermore has played an important role in the history of Angel Island. In 1954, when a Nike missile station was installed at Point Blunt, the Army placed a control center for it at the top of the mountain. To make way for the facility, the top part of the mountain was sheared off and flattened, changing the appearance of the island for several decades. The station was decommissioned in 1962 when Nike missiles became obsolete, and at that time Mount Livermore was added to the state park. The top of the mountain was restored to its natural state in 2002, based on historical photographs. This added 16 feet back to its elevation and gave its appearance a more natural look.
The hike to the top of Mount Livermore is one of the most popular attractions on the island. It offers a spectacular 360-degree panoramic view looking out across the Bay to San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais, and out to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. It is a little over two miles to the top, taking the North Ridge Trail from Ayala Cove. A loop hike can be done by taking the Sunset Trail back down, for a total distance of 4.7 miles.
In October of 2008, a massive fire swept across the eastern and southern parts of Angel Island, all the way up to the top of Mount Livermore. The fire damaged the Angel Lights and they were not lit up that winter. They were restored for the following winter, with a new power system that made use of solar panels that were placed around the top of the mountain. The limited number of solar panels had to be tweaked the first year, since they only generated enough power to keep the lights on for 17 minutes out of each hour. A system was worked out to have the lights turn on and off, signaling "A" and "I," for Angel Island, in Morse Code. Ingenious as this was, it proved to be annoying to the neighbors across the Bay who would normally enjoy the sight of the Angel Lights. A new system was employed after that, using a combination of solar power and electricity from the grid, keeping the lights on throughout the night.
The Angel Island Conservancy sponsored a special event to commemorate the Angel Lights on November 29. The event was a fundraiser, held at the Mill Valley home of Robert Eves and Marcine Engel, with a sweeping view of Angel Island. The fundraiser featured a live auction in which park related items were auctioned off to the highest bidder, including guided tours of Angel Island, camping trips, and overnight stays in historic buildings on the island. In a nice gesture of cooperation among state parks, there were also items from Mount Tamalpais, such as overnight stays at the Steep Ravine Cabins and the West Point Inn. In a grand finale, Park Superintendent Amy Brees put up her ranger’s hat for auction, initiating a raucous competition. The evening ended with a countdown to turning on the Angel Lights at the top of Mount Livermore. The annual event was a big success this year, and Angel Island Conservancy Board President Gail Dolton described it as "the best one ever!"
The Angel Lights, which will be shining from dusk until dawn through the end of the year, can be "adopted" by people and organizations who want to support the state park. They can also be adopted to honor the memory of a loved one or pay tribute to someone who has made an impact on the community. Lights can be adopted for as little as $35, while larger donors can become Partners for $1,000 and up. More information can be found on the Angel Island Conservancy website, where Angel Light adoptions can be made online. A commemorative certificate is sent out to donors, acknowledging their contribution and adoption of a light or lights. But the biggest reward is seeing these beautiful lights shining like a beacon across the Bay Area.
The Angel Island Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that works to support Angel Island State Park. Together with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, they raise money to fund historic renovations, environmental restoration projects, and interpretive programs on the island. The Marin Conservation League continues to champion preservation issues throughout Marin County. They are one of the most influential organizations in the county on issues related to the preservation of parks and open space, land use planning, and the restoration of tidal wetlands and watersheds. Their annual Holiday Party will be taking place this year on December 14.