History geek activities and tours in San Francisco?
November 2, 2006 2:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeking your brilliant ideas for cool behind-the-scenes history/military/engineering tours in the San Francisco Bay Area.

My husband and I recently relocated here from the midwest, so I'm far from a Bay Area expert. I'm looking for a cool surprise for him along the lines of the Flashlight Tour of the USS Hornet we took this summer.

He's a software engineer in his mid-20s and loves history, especially military and engineering topics. He's also an avid climber (gym and outdoors), so natural history is also an interest.

There's so much great stuff out here that I'd love to find a cool behind-the-scenes opportunity for him to see something up close and learn about it. For example, a tour of the US Mint would be perfect -- but the San Francisco US Mint doesn't offer tours. Another example of a neat area is the old blimp hangers and giant wind tunnel on the NASA site down near San Jose, but I've not been able to find any info on public tours (and it's probably unlikely, to be fair).

I searched through some other San Francisco-related threads, but they weren't really providing exactly the type of information I'm looking for. Thus, mefites, I respectfully seek your help and advice. The closer to home (San Mateo) the better, but anything within a day trip is fine.
posted by handful of rain to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Bay Model has always been a huge hit with engineering-minded visitors from out of town. It's a great way to get a sense of how the Bay works and where things are in relation to each other. And it's in Sausalito, which is an easy drive from San Mateo.
posted by ambrosia at 2:54 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: Stuff like the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brian? Or somewhat less militarily-oriented (but run by the Army Corps of Engineers, natural-history-related, and cool as hell) the Bay Model?

on preview: gosh darn you ambrosia. gosh darn you all to heck.
posted by harkin banks at 2:57 PM on November 2, 2006

I'm not able to help with a physical tour, but here is a great set of modern SF military ruins from Flickr's Telstar Logistics.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 2:58 PM on November 2, 2006

The last Nike missile silo is in the Marin Headlands. Classic Cold War!

Also, I know that the Lawrence Livermore Lab has a "family day" open house every year, so there may be something there for random people as well.
posted by rhizome at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2006

The San Francisco cable car museum is neat, though touristy. You can see how the cables work (underground windows, ooh), and the museum has stuff about the system's history and engineering.
posted by dreamyshade at 3:15 PM on November 2, 2006

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Cable Car museum!

Also, see here for info on the Nike missile site (not really a silo) mentioned by rhizome.
posted by autojack at 3:16 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: Oh, and someone just recently told me that the Stanford Linear Accelerator gives tours. I totally want to go see that! I drive by it on 280 every day - beautiful drive in itself.
posted by autojack at 3:18 PM on November 2, 2006

There are several abandoned bunkers and other military structures in the Marin Headlands, including this massive turret that was intended to hold a 16" gun that could shoot a 2,200 pound shell 27 miles aimed out over the Pacific.
posted by trip and a half at 3:28 PM on November 2, 2006

Oh yeah - those turrets and stuff mentioned by 'trip and a half' are at Rodeo Beach. The Nike site is right there as well. Beware those driving directions; the "after about 0.3 mile" part is more like 0.1 miles.
posted by autojack at 3:48 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: USS Pampinito
posted by blue_beetle at 3:50 PM on November 2, 2006

You can tour the USS Hornet which is parked at the Former Alameda Naval Air Station. If you are really slick, figure out how to get out on the runway and watch Mythbusters do some filming.
posted by Big_B at 3:57 PM on November 2, 2006

You could visit Fort Point in the Presidio.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:03 PM on November 2, 2006

Also: there is a very easy hike along the San Andreas Fault with representations of how the earth moved in the 1906 quake.
posted by ambrosia at 4:43 PM on November 2, 2006

Best answer: I was going to suggest the Nike missile silo.

Also there are old gun emlpacements all along the cliffs throughout the city. In the Presido you can find several dozen. There are some near the bridge on the east side which date to the Spanish era; most are from the early 20th century. They are a ton of fun to explore.

And if you go to Baker Beach there is an Artillery Museum at Battery Chamberlain I believe. You can see artifacts from WWI and WWII and, best of all, you can talk to the veterans who manned the guns during WWII. I did, and found out all kinds of fascinating stuff:
- there was an anti-submarine net that they stretched across the bay to protect the harbor
- the bottom of the bay and channel were covered with around 300 mines. they regularly ran drills and were able to detect friendly subs about 98% of the time
- they never fired the guns in battle, but fired them all the time during drills. the citizenry must have become quite used to hearing the booms.
- a Japanese sub was sighted on the far side of the Farallon Islands (30 miles out) in 1942.

Also consider Mission Dolores for some Colonial history. Don't forget the Computer History Museum in Palo Alto. Oh, and have you done the Alcatraz tour yet?
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:19 PM on November 2, 2006

Response by poster: You guys are awesome! And all the Marin/Nike stuff is right on -- because that's like the one thing we've already done a bit of on our own, and visiting some more sites is a great idea.

I know I said it was supposed to be a surprise, but I showed my husband this thread and I'm going to mark a few best answers based on what he said, "Oh, no way!!" to out loud. But they're all really great, and I appreciate the suggestions very much. It's hard being new out here and figuring out all there is to see and do.

And please keep suggestions coming!
posted by handful of rain at 6:36 PM on November 2, 2006

now would be a great time to go to SLAC actually. the beam is off until january for some major construction, which means that some areas that are normally inaccessible (for radiation safety reasons) are open. you may or may not see them, depending on who your tour guide is and the tour office's policy on such things, but there's a chance you might see things that most groups don't see.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:34 PM on November 2, 2006

the old blimp hangers and giant wind tunnel on the NASA site down near San Jose

There are three large hangars visible from the 101. Although the smaller two were in fact built to shelter blimps, it's historically ignorant to refer to the larger Hangar One as a blimp hangar, since it was built to house a single vehicle, the Macon, which was an airship like the Hindenburg, not a puny blimp.

Anyone with a driver's license can get into Moffet Field now, since the NASA part (Ames Research Center) has been isolated behind a second security perimeter. (That's where the wind tunnels are, but the big one's been closed for several years.) Also closed is Hangar One but you can visit the Moffett Field Museum right across the street, open 10AM to 2PM Wednesday thru Saturday.
posted by Rash at 9:28 AM on November 3, 2006

Hubby works at the aircraft maintenance facility at SFO and can give you a tour if you like - it's engineering geek nirvana with some really big machines and airplanes all around. Email me if you're interested and maybe we can arrange a meetup of sorts (maximum 9 adults, no kids).

Sorry for the late reply - he had to check whether they're still allowing people on the base after 9/11. War on terror, and all that ...
posted by Quietgal at 10:11 AM on November 3, 2006

I really enjoyed looking through the large telescopes and hearing the astronomy lectures at the Lick Observatory. This 19th-Century observatory is located in the mountain range at the very edge of San Jose, which makes for a hilly, yet scenic drive. The program only offers tours during the summer; I recommend signing up for the email/ticket lottery now. Tickets for the summer visitors program are only $5.
posted by JDC8 at 7:59 AM on November 5, 2006

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