Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alameda Terminal

Located on Alameda Naval Air Station. California Historical Site plaque number 440 is found by the flag pole across the street from Town Hall West on W. Mall Square.

The original terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad was located in what became Alameda Naval Air base. Following the passing of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 the line was constructed by the Central Pacific Railroad to connect their network of rails with the Union Pacific rail company in the eastern part of the United States. Rail lines already existed in Alameda, but they took on an increased importance with the passing of the Pacific Railroad Act.  The San Francisco and Alameda Railroad already ran down Lincoln and out to the west end of the island, but it was purchased by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, who then used Alameda Terminal on the west end of the island as the first terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad.  On September 6th, 1869, the first Central Pacific train reached the San Francisco Bay.

Following the leasing of the Central Pacific by the Southern Pacific railway in 1885, the terminus for the transcontinental railroad was moved to the Oakland Long Wharf, a ferry and railway pier that stretched far out into the waters of the bay and is no longer in existence. The Alameda Terminal remained an important stop for freight and passengers on the Southern Pacific line.

The Alameda terminal is just one of many different hats that this end of Alameda has worn over the last 150 years. The west end of the island, what would become the Naval Air Station, was primarily marshlands and mudflats prior to the arrival of the railway. The construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and the accompanying increase in rail traffic in Alameda, saw large-scale reclamation projects filling in portions of the bay, including the construction of Alameda Mole, another large ferry and rail pier that stretched far past the mudflats near the shore. Alameda Mole would remain an important freight distribution center through the 1930s when the land at the west end of Alameda would be transformed into the Naval Air Station by reclaiming land from the San Francisco Bay.

Getting There By Bike...
The Alameda Terminal memorial is located in the same plaza as the plaque for the China Clipper, by the flagpole in the center of W. Mall Square in the Alameda Naval Air Station. If you enter the base through the north gates, off of Main St., you'll ride right into the top end of the Mall lawn. Follow the big field of grass to the far end and look for the flagpole. The USS Hornet is an easy five minute bike ride from here if you have the time, as is the Croll Building.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Flight of the China Clipper

Alameda Naval Air Base. California Historical Site plaque number 968 is located by the flag pole across the street from Town Hall West, on W. Mall Square in Alameda.

The China Clipper was the name given to the first of three Martin M-130 aircraft built for Pan-America Airways and was the craft that inaugurated commercial transpacific mail and air service. The China Clipper left Alameda Naval Air Station on November 22nd, 1935 and delivered a cargo consisting of 110,000 individual pieces of mail to Manila on November 29th after making stops in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island, and Guam. This flight effectively began the era of ocean airmail service and commercial flight across the Pacific.

If you spend some time exploring the Alameda Naval Air Station it's easy to be overwhelmed by its current state of decay and the trash and broken glass that are filling up the lots. What is hard to keep in mind, but should be remembered, is that this site was a bustling Naval station where lots of important events, such as the inauguration of commercial flight across the Pacific, as well as acting as the staging ground for ships and bombers that would play key roles in battles in the Pacific Theater during World War II, took place.

Getting There By Bike...
The plaque is located on W. Mall Square in Alameda, right in the middle of the Alameda Naval Air Station. If you enter the base by way of the north gates off of Main St. you'll be staring right at the Mall lawn. Follow the lawn straight back until you see Town Hall West at the southern end of the field. There are a few historic sites in the immediate vicinity. Opposite the plaque for the China Clipper is the plaque commemorating the original site of the Alameda Terminal, original terminus for the first Transcontinental Railroad. Next to the China Clipper plaque is a time capsule that was put into place in 1996 when the base was closed. The USS Hornet is a stone's throw away from here and sits at the southern end of the base at Pier 3, approximately a five minute bike ride away.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tribune Tower

Corner of 13th and Franklin, downtown Oakland.

The iconic Tribune Tower is a 21-story, 305 foot tall, office building located in downtown Oakland. It was completed in 1923 and was officially opened for business as the home of the Oakland Tribune newspaper on January 1st, 1924. From the date of it's opening, the image of the tower would appear on the masthead of the Tribune. The building currently houses offices and condominiums since the Tribune moved to new offices in Jack London Square in 2007.

The Tribune Tower is one my favorite landmarks in downtown Oakland. My route to and from work cuts through Chinatown and there are always some great views of the tower between buildings. As long as I have lived in Oakland the Tribune Tower has been an important landmark that helps me center myself in the East Bay.

In the 1930s Gertrude Stein returned to the United States for a lecture tour and, when she visited California, took some time to try and find her childhood home in Oakland. Unable to find her home she later wrote in her book Everybody's Autobiography that "the trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn't any there there". As commentary on that quote, the Tribune Tower has occasionally flown a banner from the top of the building that reads simply "There".

There are lots of other sites to visit in the neighborhood as well. Preservation Park is just down the road, there are loads of historic buildings in the Old Oakland District, Jack London Square has a number of historic sites, and Lake Merritt,with it's many distinct sites, is just down the road.

Getting There By Bike...
You can't miss this giant, iconic building in the heart of downtown Oakland. The usual caveats regarding bike safety in downtown Oakland apply, with special emphasis on riding through China Town. Early in the day there are a lot of produce and delivery trucks that can take up two (or three) lanes. As an added bonus, the original site of the College of California is located catty-corner to the Tribune Tower. There is a plaque and some information regarding the site on the side of the parking garage that now stands on the site.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt is located smack in the middle of downtown Oakland.

Consider this a crash course on the history of Lake Merritt in general before I move on to particular sites surrounding the lake. Originally a tidal estuary called San Antonio Creek, or the San Antonio Slough, it served as a point of access for ships to carry supplies between San Francisco and the East Bay. Beginning in 1852, with the incorporation of the city of Oakland, various improvements changed the size and nature of the lake to its current state. The lake was formally created in 1867 when Mayor Samuel Merritt donated 155 acres of privately owned tidal marshland to the city in order to create a public waterway. At this point the estuary was an uncontrolled tidal flat that experienced significant daily tides and was surrounded by mudflats. In 1869 Samuel Merritt donated money to begin the construction of a dam and bridge across the estuary at 12th st. This bridge replaced an earlier toll bridge between downtown Oakland and the Brooklyn township and served to control the tides and isolate the lake from the San Francisco bay. The construction of the dam also included a 3.18 mile long cement retaining wall surrounding the lake.

In 1870, Lake Merritt became the first national wildlife refuge, both to protect the migratory birds that nested there as well as protect the residents from the dangers and noise of hunting firearms being used within city limits. By the 1890s, as the city continued to grow, the lake was being used as a public sewer with approximately 90% of the city's sewers draining directly into it. Throughout the 20th century the city would deal with occasional problems related to health, foul odors, and water pollution. The lake was filling with sewage and runoff from the city so quickly that the city had to begin a program to regularly dredge the lake and remove excess material. In 1907 the material dredged from the lake was used to fill in the mudflats surrounding 12th street, further isolating the lake from the waters of the bay. In 1922 the material removed from the lake was used to create the first of five bird islands near the bird sanctuary. The city continued to develop park land and features surrounding the lake throughout the latter half of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the 1980s that effective solutions to water pollution and raw sewage leaking into the lake were put into place. Since then, the cleanliness of the water has improved significantly and the overall health of the lake has improved.

I like Lake Merritt a lot and, on a sunny morning, there's really not a better way to cut through central Oakland on my bike ride to work. The parks surrounding the lake see heavy recreational use and there's always herds of joggers and walkers out on the paths. There are dozens of great local historical sites within an easy ride of Lake Merritt and they're all worth a visit. Children's Fairy Land, the El Embarcadero promenade, the Alameda County courthouse, and the Bellevue-Staten Building are all prominent landmarks. The Tribune Tower, all of the site in Jack London Square,and the historical homes surrounding Preservation Park are an easy bike ride away as well.

Getting There By Bike...
Lake Merritt is located in central Oakland and it's hard to miss. Since it's shoulder-to-shoulder with the downtown business district there's any number of ways to get to the lake proper. Remember that the streets that surround Lake Merritt can be filled with heavy car traffic at rush hour. There are excellent bike lanes surrounding the entire lake, but if you're at all hesitant about riding in traffic then it might be best to consider riding on the multi-use path that runs along the water. If you're going to use the multi-use path, invest in a bell for your bike since you'll be calling out to pass joggers and walkers very frequently. The neighborhoods surrounding the lake bear exploring, but the lake is close enough to downtown Oakland that it's best if you invest in a proper bike lock before you leave your bike unattended.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jack London's Cabin

Located in Jack London Square, at the foot of Webster St.

The cabin in front of Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon was once lived in by Jack London during his career in the Klondike. Jack London staked his claim in the Klondike on October 6th, 1897, and built this cabin on the banks of Henderson Creek, using it as his headquarters while he was working the claim. In the late-1960s the cabin was re-discovered and authenticated based on handwriting samples and a carving of Jack London's name above one of the bunk beds. The Port of Oakland, and a group of local historians, suggested that a request be made to the Canadian government to move the cabin to Oakland and preserve it as a historical site. Since the cabin was of historical interest to both the Port of Oakland and the Canadian government, a compromise was made to create two identical preservation pieces, each using half of the lumber from the original cabin. While this seems like an odd and backwards way to preserve an historical building, this was the course of action that was taken and half the materials were sent to Jack London Square, while the other half was sent to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.

This is a neat little cabin with some interesting history and it's fitting that it takes it's place in the Port of Oakland with all of the other Jack London memorabilia. I question the decision to literally split the cabin in two and ship it across the continent, but I suppose that desperate times must make for desperate measures when the cabin of your shopping district's namesake is up for grabs. I also wish that passers-by wouldn't throw trash through the grate on the front window, but what are you going to do.

Getting There By Bike...
The cabin is located towards the southern end of Jack London Square proper, right next to Heinhold's First and Last Chance Saloon. If you're coming from downtown Oakland, be aware that the streets that pass under the highway, Broadway in particular, are full of fast-moving cars and they have no discernible bike lanes. If you were feeling ambitious the cabin could be a stop on a more involved tour of the many historical sites that line the Oakland waterfront. Heinhold's, the USS Potomac, the US Coast Guard lightship Relief, and the Jack London history walk are all a stone's throw away. The cabin can also be viewed very favorably, beverage in hand, from the patio at Heinhold's on a summer evening.
These sites are also close to downtown Oakland and there are some more great sites within spitting distance. The Tribune Tower, Lake Merritt, Preservation Park, and the Old Oakland District are all an easy ride from Jack London Square.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Carnegie Libraries of the East Bay

Carnegie libraries are public institutions that were built using money donated by Scottish-American millionaire and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929 Carnegie's charitable endowment funded the creation of over 2,500 public libraries, with over half of them being built in the United States. Carnegie's endowment was incredibly generous and few cities that applied for these funds and agreed to his terms were denied.
Carnegie believed explicitly in the power of the individual and the meritocratic nature of American society, where ambitious individuals would have the means to improve themselves and their lot in life. As a young immigrant he knew all too well the struggles of the poverty stricken and the working class and his desire to create these libraries was fueled by his belief in the democritization of knowledge and the right of an individual to pursue personal development and fulfillment. Of particular importance is the fact that these libraries were conceived of as public facilities and were open to all patrons. One of the requirements of the Carnegie Formula, the guidelines that cities were required to meet in order to receive the endowment, was that these libraries provide free service to any resident. Central to Carnegie's personal philosophy, and based on his experience as a young immigrant to the United States, was the idea that these libraries and their materials were to be made available to the underserved.

The East Bay was lucky enough to receive a large number of Carnegie library donations in the first quarter of the 20th century. Alameda, Berkeley, Richmond, Antioch, San Mateo, Concord, Hayward, Vacaville, San Rafael, Monterey, Livermore, Mill Valley, Vallejo, San Anselmo, Redwood City, Walnut Creek, and Palo Alto all received grants to create city libraries. San Francisco opened seven Carnegie libraries, and Oakland has four. Many of these libraries are still open in the original buildings.

It's easy to ask, "why libraries?" Of all the charitable endowments that were possible, why on earth did Andrew Carnegie spend nearly forty years of this life opening public libraries in small towns across the English-speaking world? The simple answer is that Carnegie, along with the residents of the cities that were lucky enough to receive the endowment, believed that libraries offered concrete and definitive benefits to the city and it's people. The fact that these libraries are still open, still offering the same services, and are still heavily patronized, beloved, and publicly supported institutions, in many cases after over a century of continual operation, should tell us a thing or two about the importance, the power, and the long-standing benefit of a small town library. Carnegie's philosophy centered on an individual's potential to empower themselves with knowledge, and generations of American citizens have embraced this perspective by using public libraries to work, play, learn, and grow.
We're at an unfortunate crossroads in the history of public libraries and many people are asking if these institutions are relevant or sustainable. It's not my place to politicize the topic, or stand on a soap box and convince anyone that these institutions are vital to the intellectual and social life of our communities, but I would ask where we would be without the services that are offered daily, free of charge, to all comers, at these libraries, and if we would not be poorer if we lacked them.

Fun facts about Carnegie libraries
-Carnegie libraries were the first libraries to be built around the open stack model, encouraging patrons to browse the shelves and to find materials for themselves, as opposed to having librarians page materials from closed stacks. This tied in with Carnegie's belief that his libraries were to benefit the ambitious and were created to serve those who would make the effort to do for themselves.
-All Carnegie libraries incorporated several key design features. The library floor plans were all laid out around a central reference or librarians desk to encourage patrons to come ask questions and get help finding materials. The buildings were built in a variety of architectural styles, but all of them included a flight of steps up to an arched front door. The entrance to the library almost always included a lamp or a lantern to symbolize enlightenment and the light of knowledge.
-The vast majority of Carnegie libraries are still in use as public libraries! While some have been converted into museums or town meeting halls, there are many, many more that still see daily use in their originally intended capacity. San Francisco's seven Carnegie libraries are all still active branches, and Oakland's four Carnegie libraries are still open to the public. Of the thirty-nine Carnegie libraries that were built in New York City, thirty-one of them still offer local library service.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Key Route Plaza

Located on the corner of Piedmont Ave and 41st, directly across the street from the Piedmont branch of the Oakland Public Library.

This plaza was the site of the first transit station in the Key Route interurban transport system. The transit station operated from June 1st, 1904, through April 19th, 1958. The Key System served the towns of Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, and Richmond. It also had tracks that extended across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco. During its peak years, the Key System maintained over 66 miles of tracks throughout the Bay Area. Local electric streetcar service was discontinued in 1948, as a part of the general effects of the Great American Streetcar Scandal, and the commuter trains to San Francisco were discontinued a decade later in 1958. Many of the main streets in Oakland and Berkeley have, at one time or another, seen rail use.

The Key Route Plaza is located on Piedmont Ave., at the corner of 41st St. There's a great mural depicting the history of the Key System, complete with a giant image of the system's developer and chief advocate Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, a borax magnate turned public transit guru. The plaza is located in a fun little corner of Piedmont. Check out the Piedmont branch of the Oakland Public Library across 41st st.

Getting There By Bike...

Piedmont Ave. is a fairly easy ride up towards Key Route Plaza, but it tends to be a little traffic-heavy. Riding up Howes St, one block to the north of Piedmont Ave., is probably a better decision. I would avoid this area on the weekends as there tends to be a lot of shopping traffic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Preservation Park, Oakland, CA

Preservation Park is a tiny little island of perfectly restored and beautifully landscaped calm in the middle of downtown Oakland. It's located between Martin Luther King and Castro St., and 12th and 14th streets. There are sixteen buildings in the park, but only five of them are standing in their original locations. The remaining eleven buildings were moved to their present locations from elsewhere in Oakland to prevent their demolition. The buildings were arranged to resemble a 19th century neighborhood. The houses are a mix of Queen Anne, Italianate Villa, Colonial Revival, and Craftsman style architecture. The centerpiece of the park is the Latham-Ducel Fountain. Made of cast iron and forged in Paris, the fountain depicts Diana, the moon goddess. The park benches surrounding the fountain are some of the best seats in town on a sunny afternoon. If I worked in downtown Oakland I would eat lunch here a lot.

The park is open to the public during the day, but the buildings are not open to the public. You can rent the buildings for classes or events and there is a handful of organizations and companies that are based in the park. The park itself and the buildings in it are managed as a non-profit partnership between the tenants of the buildings and the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation.

There are a handful of other historical sites in the immediate vicinity, chiefly the First Unitarian Church of Oakland and the Pardee Home. There are also a number of privately owned buildings that have historic significance in the surrounding blocks. A bit farther afield there is the Tribune Tower, Lake Merritt, and the original site of the College of California. All of these are very close together so it's easy to link them into a single ride.

Getting There By Bike...
If you've ever ridden your bike through downtown Oakland then you know that it's never great. Scenic, lightly trafficked roads these are not, but if you avoid Broadway and head towards Preservation Park on either Jefferson or 12th Street then it's slightly easier. I've never tried it, but I doubt that the maintenance staff would appreciate it if you locked your bike to the wrought iron fences that surround the park. Best to plan on either pushing the bike, or locking it up outside the park proper.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The U.S.S. Hornet (CV-12)

The USS Hornet is an Essex class aircraft carrier that was constructed in 1942. Originally named the Kearsarge, it was rechristened the Hornet in honor of the USS Hornet (CV-8), which was lost in October of 1942. She played a major part in many naval battles in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and as a part of the Apollo Program, where she was used to recover astronauts as they returned from their mission to the moon. There is no way to do justice to the history of this vessel on this page. If you want a more full explanation of the history of this ship than I suggest you read it's Wikipedia page.

I am not normally a huge fan of military historical sites, but there is something very impressive about standing next to a full-sized aircraft carrier. The best part about this site is that you can ride your bike right up next to the ship. There are no security gates and only some staggered barriers to keep cars from driving out onto the dock. The only item of slight concern is a large sign that says "Backpacks Prohibited", which I can only assume is a remnant of post-9/11 security concerns. They offer tours of the ships on a regular basis and the docents are all retired enlisted men. They also offer on-board sleepovers to local Boy Scout troops, and if you head out there on a weekend you might find yourself hip-deep in a crowd of kerchief-wearing youth and their parents.

The ship was registered as California Historical Site No. 1092 in 1999, and became a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

Getting There By Bike...

The USS Hornet is docked at Pier 3, North, in what was the Alameda Naval Air Base. The base is on the far western end of the island, and the ship is docked at the far south-western corner of the base. You can either take surface streets through Alameda, or if you're feeling a little more adventurous, you can follow the Bay Trail west towards the Naval base from Crab Cove in Alameda. The Bay Trail will get you there in one piece, and you get to see some neat parts of the Alameda shore that are not easily accessible except by this trail, but it's full of twists and turns. Do yourself a favor and get a good map of the Bay Trail, or just plan on riding around until you get to the ship. It's hard to miss. One last word on the base; since they closed the doors in 1996 the primary use for the base is as a place for teenagers to drink. There is broken glass absolutely everywhere, so make sure you either have good flat-preventative tires or know how to fix a flat.
The U.S.S Hornet is located near a bunch of other historical sites. At the other end of the base there are two memorials, one for the Alameda Terminal, which was on the grounds prior to the creation of the base, and another for the maiden voyage of the China Clipper, which flew out of Alameda Naval Air Station on her first trans-Pacific flight. The Croll Building is also just down the road if you feel like riding a bit further.

The Croll Building

Located at 1400 Webster St., on the corner of Central and Webster streets in Alameda, California, the Croll Building was built in 1879 and is significant in the history of Alameda and Bay Area sporting events. Originally the site of Croll's Gardens and Hotel, the building was associated with Neptune Beach and the heyday of Alameda as a resort town. From approximately 1890 through 1910, the hotel housed many of the worlds best boxers as they trained for local fights. Jim Corbett, James Jeffries, and Jack Johnson all stayed here at one point or another. The building is one of the few remaining structures in the area that was connected with the Neptune Beach Resort. The stained glass, etched windows, tile floor, and carved bar are original and worth the trip to see.

The building currently houses Croll's Pizza and formerly housed the New Zealander Bar. When I went by there was construction going on in the building and it was being prepared for a new bar to open soon. The building is registered as California Historical Site No. 954, and though I looked for it I was unable to find the official plaque.

The Croll Building was also the Neptune Beach stop on the South Pacific Coast Railroad line that ran up Encinal and Central to the San Francisco ferry pier that used to be on the west end of the island.

Getting There By Bike...
The Croll Building is on the corner of Webster and Central in Alameda, CA. You could ride through the Webster Tube from downtown Oakland and come straight down Webster, but that's a pretty terrible idea. The Tube is a nightmare on a bike, and Webster has moderately heavy traffic without the benefits of a bike lane. It's a far better idea to ride over either the Park Street bridge or the Bay Farm pedestrian bridge and come up Central Ave. Central is one of my favorite streets in Alameda, with huge trees that meet over the center of the street along most of it's length.
The Croll Building is a short bike ride away from the Alameda Naval Air Station, where you can visit the U.S.S. Hornet, the memorial to the maiden voyage of the China Clipper, and the site of the Alameda Terminal, original terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad.

The U.S.S. Potomac (AG-25)

The Potomac was Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential yacht, and is currently maintained as a national historic landmark in Jack London Square, in Oakland. It's one of only three presidential yachts that are still in existence. It began life as the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Electra, and was converted into a yacht for presidential use in 1936. Roosevelt used the yacht extensively during World War II for informal political meetings.

I would have believed that presidential yachts, like most presidential items, would become instant museum pieces after the death of the related president. However, following President Roosevelt's death in 1945 the Potomac was returned to the Coast Guard's possession and was put into use by the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission. Purchased by a private owner, Warren G. Toone, in 1960, the Potomac was used as a personal ferry boat between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In 1964 the yacht was purchased by none other than Elvis. Elvis attempted to donate the yacht to various charitable organizations for fundraising purposes, eventually giving it to St. Jude Children's Hospital who sold it for $75,000. By 1980 the ship was being used for drug smuggling and was seized by the U.S. Customs Service. After the ship was seized by the U.S. government it was towed to Treasure Island, where it sank. She was re-floated by the U.S. Navy within a matter of weeks and sold to the Port of Oakland, after which she underwent an extensive restoration. The ship is open for daily tours.

Getting There By Bike...
The U.S.S. Potomac is located at the far northern end of Jack London Square. Keep the water to your left and follow the boardwalk up the shore and you can't miss it. While you're in the neighborhood check out the U.S. Coast Guard lightship "Relief", docked right next door to the Potomac. Jack London's Cabin is also in the area, down at the southern tip of Jack London Square, by Heinhold's First andLast Chance Saloon.