Holiday Angel Lights: The Story Behind the Christmas Light Atop Angel Island

At 788 feet, Mt. Livermore is the highest point on Angel Island, which is the largest island in San Francisco Bay. The entire island is a California State Park. You can see Angel Island and its Mount Livermore from much of Tiburon, Sausalito and Mill Valley; as well as from Highway 101 when approaching or exiting the Golden Gate Bridge.

So you’d think a holiday light shining atop Angel Island in December for the past 70 years would have a clear-cut historical story line. Think again. An early account dates back to the Army having a presence on Angel Island and some enlisted men, with nothing better to do, covered a large wooden star with red, white, blue and yellow lights and placed it at the peak of what was then known not as Mt. Ida, not Mt. Livermore (adding to the mystery, no one seems to know where the name Mt. Ida originated).

Another popular version dates to the 1950s and a crew of electricians being sent to Angel Island in December to deactivate the island’s Nike missile transformers. Unable to finish prior to the holidays, they went ashore after leaving a crew member behind to guard the job site. Naturally, with not much to do, the guy got lonely so he jerry-rigged a string of lights, fastened them on a pole and stuck it atop Mt. Livermore. One telling has not just a string of lights on a pole, but many strings of lights cascading down to form a Christmas tree. Whatever.

Then, with the founding of the Angel Island Conservancy in 1975, a form of holiday lighting on Mt. Livermore became traditional. Until, that is, 2001. That’s when 15-feet of soil — which had been diminished by the Nike missile site — were bulldozed to the top of Mt. Livermore, thus restoring its original profile. That’s the good news. The bad news is the pole and its holiday lights were lost in the process.

And what’s a holiday story without a Santa Claus? In this story, Santa is George Lucas, then of Industrial Light and Magic in San Rafael, who, after only one dark holiday, restored Mt. Livermore’s holiday brilliance. But the hellish Angel Island fire of 2008 destroyed all of Santa’s (err, George’s) work. However, in this well-documented happy ending, in 2009 the Angel Island Conservancy, with significant help from PG&E, installed an energy efficient solar-powered LED beam that has been shining over southern Marin ever since. And this year, for sure, the light will flash on Friday, December 1 and every night thereafter until 2024 arrives.