Agnes Moore didn’t mean to be an agent of social change when, at 21, she applied for work as a welder at Richmond’s Kaiser Shipyard. A month earlier, Pearl Harbor had been bombed in a surprise attack and, like the entire nation, she was incensed about it.
So, when Moore heard on the radio, “Women! Do something for your country. Go to the Richmond shipyard and be a welder,” she thought, “Wow! Now I can do something,” and went to apply.
Dressed in her finest black suit, and wearing a white shirt, gloves, black patent leather pumps and a hat with a veil on it, Moore was – in her own words — the picture of high fashion. She had no idea what a welder did, but she knew it contributed to the war effort and wanted to look her best.
The hiring hall receptionist gave the smartly dressed young woman the once-over and suggested an office job, but Moore retorted, “No, I want to be a welder. That’s an important job, and that’s what I want to do.”
Assigned to the graveyard shift, Moore would spend a little short of four years bent over the blue arc of a welder’s torch. She and thousands of other shipyard workers arrived at work, often greeted by the popular song, “Rosie the Riveter” as it played over the shipyard’s loudspeakers, reminding them that they were making history, as its verse inspired, “That little frail can do, more than a male can do.”
Moore and her fellow Rosies didn’t think they were doing anything grand at the time. She said, “It was just what you did. We knew the men on the battlefront had to have supplies to fight with and we were the only ones left at home to take those jobs and learn how to do it.” Her desire to do something would not only help win the war, but open employment opportunities for women and minorities.
This story is retold at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond on the site of an old Ford Model-A Assembly Building that was re-tooled during World War II to make General Purpose vehicles (Jeeps) and process tanks for shipment. Today, thousands of window panes along the plant’s south wall illuminate Craneway Pavilion, a 45,000-square-foot event hall with some of the best bay views of San Francisco’s skyline. In its boiler room next door is Assemble, a “Victory Garden to Table” restaurant that serves updated American favorites.
You see, Rosie the Riveter NHP is just one of many surprises found on a visit to Richmond. There, at 94, Moore, along with several other “Rosies” who welded, riveted and assembled transport vessels (called Liberty Ships) at Richmond’s Kaiser Shipyards, continue serving their country as National Park Service docents by recounting their experiences as home front defense workers. The park’s visitor center includes interactive exhibits that explain their accomplishments and a riveting orientation film describes how industrialist Henry J. Kaiser built ships often in as little as 28 days (his record was 3.5 days).
Ranger-led bicycle tours (bring a bike) pedal three miles of shoreline along the SF Bay Trail stopping at shipyard landmarks. A self-guided auto tour travels routes past interpretive sites and the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, which employs the shape and scale of a Liberty ship being constructed to visualize the War’s timeline and what was happening on the home front.
World War II reshaped Richmond from a sleepy town of 23,000 surrounded by open farmland, railroad tracks, a refinery and automobile plant, to a bustling community of 130,000. Following the war, the shipyard and auto plant closed, leaving Richmond with many more residents, many fewer jobs and a growing reputation of being down on its luck. That’s turning around as the new national park shines a light on Richmond’s many attractions.
Principal among them is the S.S. Red Oak Victory, docked at Kaiser Shipyard No. 3. It’s the last survivor of 747 ships built by Kaiser in Richmond. Self-guided tours visit the ship’s decks, gun tubs, quarters, mess areas, bridge and peer below decks, providing a look at what a merchant seaman’s life was like aboard a Liberty ship, quite a contrast to the many yachts that sail past from Richmond’s marinas.
Richmond’s nautical history continues at the late-1800s East Brother Light Station, an active U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse off Point Molate that doubles as a B&B accommodating its guests in Victorian splendor. Its keepers serve gourmet dinners and breakfasts to overnight guests and sound the station’s old fog horn to the delight of day visitors and the fright of seagulls. Richmond’s other historical property is the 1911 Hotel Mac in Port Richmond with 15 thematically decorated rooms, a restaurant crowded with café chairs and a tin-ceilinged bar populated with cultured locals.
Point Richmond is the Bay Area’s best example of an unspoiled, turn-of the-century (19th to 20th, that is) village. Its tiny (10-by-20 feet) history museum is the starting point for a walking tour. On Park Place, is Masquers Playhouse which has presented musicals and plays since 1960. The 40-seat arthouse cinema, Magick Lantern, is operated by one man (on weekends) who sells tickets, runs the projector and pops the corn. And, Port Richmond’s first tavern, The Baltic (1904), serves tantalizing German-American fused dishes, including to-die-for käsespätzle (German Mac ‘n’ Cheese) and lineup of German beer. Just south of Port Richmond is the Golden State Model Railroad Museum, with 10,000 square feet of O, HO and N scale layouts depicting California railroad history.
Downtown, the Richmond Museum of History showcases the city’s history, including the first, glistening-black Model A off the Ford Assembly line. Richmond has the most public art of any city in the East Bay and 32 miles of shoreline trail, more than any other bay city.
Richmond is one surprising destination that embodies this line from Rosie’s song: “There’s something true about, red, white and blue about”… Richmond. For more, go to VisitRichmondCA.com.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.