Redwood City Loses a Legend


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West Coast ports and dockworkers start clearing backlog

Redwood City Loses a Legend

Ralph Nobles
Longtime environmental activist Ralph Nobles, 2009. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

This article was in today’s San Jose Mercury-News :


Ralph Nobles dies; Manhattan Project physicist saved San Francisco Bay wetlands

By Paul Rogers


Ralph Nobles, a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, personally witnessed the first nuclear bomb blast in the New Mexico desert, and later led efforts to save thousands of acres of San Francisco Bay wetlands from development, has died.


“Ralph always had a big smile. He was very handsome like Clark Gable. But he did give a damn,” said Florence LaRiviere, a longtime Palo Alto environmentalist, recalling a former national wildlife refuge manager’s quip about him.

Ralph Nobles
This photo originally appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Tideline, the newsletter for the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.



A Redwood City resident for half a century, Nobles died Friday following complications of pneumonia at Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center. He was 94.


Born on a farm in Dexter, Missouri, in 1920, Nobles was a standout student who would eventually earn a PhD in physics. At the suggestion of his physics teacher, he volunteered to work on the Manhattan Project, and with his brother, William, was chosen. The two moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer and other leading scientists of the 20th century built the world’s first atomic bomb in concert with Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and other researchers.


In an article for the December 2008 newsletter of the Los Alamos Historical Society, Nobles vividly remembered standing in the desert on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity Test Site, south of Albuquerque, in a bomb shelter to observe the blast 5 miles from ground zero.


From the standpoint of sheer drama, tension and excitement, nothing else in my life has equaled, or even come close to that night at Trinity,” he wrote, “when, for better or for worse, we let the nuclear weapons ‘genie’ out of its bottle and initiated a chain of events that precipitated and abrupt ending of World War II.”


Nobles’ job was to operate data recorders with eight other scientists in a shelter. When he saw the equipment was working, the 25-year-old walked outside in the final 10-second countdown and watched the nuclear blast through a light shield.


“It was an awesome sight, the likes of which had never been seen before,” he recalled. “There was a brilliant, seething, white-hot ball of rapidly expanding light, now maybe 10 or 20 times the apparent diameter of the sun.


As he watched the mushroom cloud grow, Nobles was knocked to the ground by the shockwave.


“It sounded like the world’s loudest clap of thunder — thunder that echoed back and forth between the surrounding mountain ranges,” he wrote. “It seemed to go on for minute after minute. After the sound had finally faded away locally, I could still hear it rumbling and echoing and re-echoing in the receding distance.”


Minutes later, Nobles and his co-workers sped away from the site in trucks, escaping significant exposure to radioactive fallout.


Nobles lived in Los Alamos for more than a decade afterward, and in 1954 married Carolyn Fisher, an Ohio native who had been working as a secretary on the project. The pair adopted two daughters and moved to the Bay Area.


From the early 1960s until the 1990s, Nobles worked at the Palo Alto research laboratories of Lockheed Missiles and Space. He served as chairman of the Redwood City Planning Commission and was heavily involved in issues from civil rights to preserving the environment.


An avid sailor, Nobles became concerned about the relentless filling and diking of San Francisco Bay.


In 1981, Nobles and his wife sprung into action when Mobil Oil’s development arm won approval from the Redwood City Council to build “South Shores,” a mix of 4,700 homes, offices and a hotel on Bair Island, a 3,000-acre wetlands just north of the port of Redwood City. Nobles and his allies formed “Friends of Redwood City,” collected signatures, and put the project on the ballot, where it was defeated by 47 votes in 1982.


When a Japanese developer came back in the 1990s with a similar plan, Nobles and other environmentalists fought it, and the non-profit Peninsula Open Space Trust bought Bair Island in 1997 for $15 million. Today it is part of a national wildlife refuge.


In 2004, Nobles similarly led a fight to block plans by another developer to build a $1 billion complex of 17 condominium towers next to the property. Redwood City voters rejected it, too.

“The main reason we like to live in the Bay Area is the bay,” said Nobles. “That’s what makes it a special place. The wetlands are at the base of the food chain. They are the lungs of the bay. Without them, the bay would become basically a cesspool.”


For the past five decades, Nobles has been one of a small number of volunteer activists who has written letters, attended meetings and done the often tedious work to preserve open space and the bay, usually with little public awareness.


“I think he’d like to be remembered as a devoted husband and loving father, but also as somebody who participated in life,” said Nobles’ daughter, Elizabeth Nobles Cozart, of Redwood City. “He traveled all over the world. He fought for the environment and for people, and he helped the country win World War II. He touched so many lives.”


Nobles is survived by his brother, William Nobles, of Rio Rancho, New Mexico; his daughters, Elizabeth Nobles Cozart of Redwood City, and Sarah Turck of Lodi, along with grandsons Benjamin Turck, Daniel Cozart and Scott Cozart, and one great-grandson, Sawyer Cozart. A public memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. March 21 at Redwood Chapel, 847 Woodside Road in Redwood City. Donations can be made to Save the Bay or the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge.


Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him



Ralph Nobles at Bair Island
Ralph Nobles  made protecting Bair Island  a personal mission for 14 years. Photo by Christopher Gardner
Full Steam Ahead for West Coast Ports

This article was in today’s Cargo Business News:


West Coast ports and dockworkers start clearing backlog

(Editor’s note: As far as the Port of Redwood City, the impacts of the labor strife that ended with Friday’s settlement were significantly less than the container ports along the West Coast.  The work stoppage did change the arrival of some vessels, for instance, an aggregate and sand ship expected to arrive last Saturday will now arrive later this week).



After the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Association made a tentative deal Friday on a new 5-year contract for West Coast port dockworkers, ports and dockworkers started tackling the cargo backlog with a vengeance.


The parties reached a deal on Friday after nearly nine months of negotiations. U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez turned up the heat on the talks last week, reportedly telling both sides if they couldn’t come to an agreement by Friday, he would move the talks to Washington D.C., a venue that would highlight the damage being done to national trade and the U.S. economy.


Under the compromise Perez brokered, a panel will hear workplace grievances, instead of a single arbitrator. The two sides had been stuck on the issue of how arbitration would work after a contract is in place.

Ports were bustling with activity over the weekend on the West Coast .


“The Pacific Maritime Association will continue to address any future work stoppages by Local 10 through the grievance and arbitration process, and, if necessary, in court,” the PMA said in a statement.


It will take six to eight weeks for West Coast ports to recover from the cargo backlog, according to the Port of Oakland and the National Retail Federation.



CSL Tacoma 2
Full steam ahead


Port of Redwood City  |  675 Seaport Blvd  |  Redwood City, CA 94063

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