Death by Water

On a recent trip to California I stumbled upon what I’m quite confident is the eeriest place in the entire United States. You can keep your Winchester Mystery House, your Amityville Horrors, your Exorcist steps, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model has them all beat.

San Francisco is one of my favourite cities, so naturally, over time and frequent visits, I’ve become a bit bored of it. On my last trip, I decided to branch out (not terribly far, admittedly) and got on the ferry over to Marin County, disembarking in Sausalito on a typically bright, bracing October morning. I spent a few hours pottering about the shops and eateries, before deciding I would head for the Bay Model, which was pretty much the only non-commercial point of interest included on the tourist map.

I remembered having once seen a model of the Mississippi River on Mud Island in Memphis, a big outdoor thing that you could walk around or take your shoes off and wade through, pouring out into a scale model of the Gulf of Mexico filled with pedal boats. I was expecting something similar.

The Bay Model resides in a large peach coloured warehouse on the waterfront. To get to it from the road you have to walk along a couple of rows of similarly coloured buildings, all of which seem to belong to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nothing about it says tourist destination; on the contrary, if you’re of a remotely anxious frame of mind, much about it says that you’ve probably taken a wrong turn, and are about to be arrested for trespassing on military property.

The Bay Model is free to enter. You’d think this would do wonders for its popularity, but as I was walking to the model, and then wandering around its immediate environs before entering, I did not see another person. Nor did I see another visitor inside the building, though there was a friendly park ranger on reception who pointed out where the exhibition started, and wished me a pleasant visit.

To access the model itself, you walk up a curved ramp which takes you into an ante-room with a short film playing on repeat and a couple of photographs of Bay Area wildlife hung on the wall. Once you’re done looking at them, or studiously ignoring them as you always do when faced with an orientation film, you proceed through a corridor and out onto a viewing platform above the model itself.

The first thing that becomes obvious about the model is that it is absolutely huge. I’m sure if I had sat through the induction video I’d have known precisely how many football fields it is equivalent to, but I’m comfortable not knowing the exact figure, and am happy to settle for estimating that it’s a couple at least.


The second thing to note is that it is overwhelmingly blue. As a working hydraulic scale model of the San Francisco Bay, obviously the thing is full of water, but clearly such differentiation between dry land and wet was not enough, so the damp bits are painted a scorching swimming pool blue that wouldn’t look out of place on a Hockney painting. Although the water is moving, the action of the small-scale tides are too imperceptible to notice, and the impossibility of scaling the wind means that there is no wave action on the surface of the water. Because of this, chunks of brightness sit oddly on the surface, reflected from the fluorescent strips hanging above.

The third most important thing to know about the model is that it is loud. The huge hangar-like space hums with the sound of machinery, pumping and presumably filtering the water, working in miniature the action of the moon upon the placid bay.

Since the model was build to study the likely effects of building two dams across the San Francisco Bay, it includes accurate scale representations of anything that might influence the movement of water around the system. It took me about five minutes of bearings-seeking to figure out where the Golden Gate Bridge was meant to be, only to be disappointed by the dinkiness of it. Because the cities themselves do not matter to the tides, aside from bridges and wharves, none of their other man-made signifiers have been reproduced (which probably explains why it took me a bloody age to get my aforementioned bearings).


Now, while I was standing on the elevated viewing platform, I felt relatively at ease, only assailed by a vestigial scholastic guilt I always feel when I don’t bother to read the information provided about an exhibit. It was then that I noticed the steps at points along the elevated walkway. If you wanted to, you could descend into the beige spaces between areas of the model, hunker down at its level and gaze across the still surface of Suisun Bay, imagining the tiny bulk of the ghost fleet floating there. Of course I had to take a peek.

Down in amongst the channels and contours of the model, the sound of the engine driving it becomes even louder. Over at the far end of the building you can see a couple of large tanks, and one of the elements of the rushing noise separates out into the sound of water crashing somewhere. You are standing in a trench, with vast pools of water either side of you three feet deep. If someone walked up behind you, you wouldn’t hear them until their hand was on your shoulder. If you had to turn and run, you’d either have to follow the path defined by the trench you are standing in, or vault into the model itself, piercing its calm skin. But of course, why would you need to? There’s no one else here.

At the far end of the model is the Pacific. The toy-like bay surges out between the pincers of the Presidio and the Marin Headland, into a vast pool unassailed by landmarks of any kind. Here the water is deepest and bluest and least-disturbed. Immediately behind you are the pumps, turning at their loudest as the diminutive ocean pours out into foam. Crouching down at eye level to take a photograph of the looming expanse, I kept my nerve for about thirty seconds, long enough to shoot a single frame. I cannot explain exactly what configuration of these elements it was that rendered the place so terrifying at that moment, but I turned and scooted immediately for the exit, my skin prickling as if I had stepped into a static field.


There’s no gift shop to speak of when you exit, just a couple of racks of books behind the park ranger on reception. I asked him if anyone else had ever described the model as unsettling, and he looked at me with confusion that bordered on well-deserved contempt. To change the subject we then talked for a while about the recent Olympics, of which he’d been a big fan, and about his history of military service, which was long and impressive. On another day, with a couple of classes of bored school children milling around, the Bay Model would probably have seemed nothing more than a dull curio, illustrating how hard it was to get anything done back before we had computers. But it wasn’t another day, and as I will never go back, I remain convinced that it is the most sublime example of the uncanny I’ve ever experienced.

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