Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Francis Marion "Borax" Smith

What do 20 Mule Team Borax, the Claremont Hotel, the Key Route Inn, The Key System, and Idora Park all have in common?  They all owe their existence to the same man, longtime Oakland resident Francis Marion "Borax" Smith.

Francis Marion "Borax" Smith
Though "Borax" Smith was born in Wisconsin, his personal history, and his fortune, were tied up in the American West.  He left the Midwest at 21 to prospect in Nevada and by 1867 had staked a profitable claim near Marietta, Nevada.  He founded a company and built a borax refinery on the site.  The next twenty years were a whirlwind of activity, with Smith opening more mines and consolidating his control over borax production in California.  In 1890, Smith consolidated all of his companies and mines into the Pacific Coast Borax Company.  This founding of this company was also his first avenue into the Bay Area.  The Pacific Coast Borax Refinery was located in Alameda, on what is now the Alameda Naval Air Base.  The building still stands and is actually very easy to find. It is the only red brick building on the base, and sits near the south end of the base proper.  This building has continued relevance today since it, and the grounds that surround it, are included in the Superfund toxic cleanup area that the federal government defined for the Alameda Naval Air Station.  Elevated levels of boron in the soil, as well as the presence of boron in the groundwater, mean that the site of the factory is in need of environmental rehabilitation.  The consolidation of these business concerns also led to the creation and promotion of Smith's longest lasting and most well known project, 20 Mule Team Borax.  The brand takes its name from the 20-30 mule wagon teams that were used to pull massive wagons of borax ore from Smith's mines in Death Valley to nearby railway spurs.
Remains of the Pacific Coast Borax Company
Smith had a great deal of success with his mineral concerns for the rest of his life, and even today some of his mines continue to be profitable.  In particular the Sukow Mine, located between Barstow and Mojave and near Edwards Air Force Base, is the largest open-pit mine in California and produces roughly half the world's borate supply.

Smith is better known in the Bay Area for his rail and real estate companies.  He had a history of developing rail companies in Nevada and Southern California and he brought that experience into the East Bay when he founded the Key System with business partner Frank C. Havens.  Comprising half of a larger business plan, with the other half being a real estate development firm, Smith and Havens were responsible for both the creation of rail lines in the immediate East Bay, as well as determining the location of a large number of neighborhoods and services.  Many major streets still follow the paths that Smith and Havens chose for the lines of the Key System.  Smith and Havens also developed some of the largest recreational attractions in the East Bay during the first quarter of the 20th century.  The Claremont Hotel and the Key Route Inn (formerly located at 27th and Broadway but no longer standing) were among their projects.  Idora Park was the first, and largest, "trolley park" of the East Bay.  The park was built on land that Smith's real estate company owned, on Telegraph Avenue between 56th and 58th, and was served by the Key System.  This pattern, of purchasing land to develop and then running rail lines to the new attractions served Smith and Havens well and resulted in their rapidly increasing personal fortunes as the East Bay developed through the first part of the 20th century.
A mule team hauling borax ore from Smith's mines
Smith lived in the Adam's Point neighborhood towards the end of his life after he and his wife had moved out of a much larger mansion in the Oakland hills.  During the Great Depression a buyer could not be found for the mansion and it was destroyed.  You can still see a part of the grounds in Francis Marion Smith Park on park Blvd. in Oakland.  The land was donated to the city by Smith and his wife before his death.  Smith is buried in Mountainview Cemetery in Oakland along "Millionaire's Row".

Getting There By Bike...
It's hard not to experience some part of "Borax" Smith's contribution to East Bay history if you spend a day riding around the East Bay.  Many of the major streets, including Broadway, San Pablo, Telegraph, and College Ave had rail service from the Key System.  The Claremont Hotel is a local landmark and is a well known site near the base of Claremont Canyon.
There are some specific sites to visit though.  The Claremont Hotel is located at 41 Tunnel Road and is easiest to reach by taking either Claremont or Ashby towards the hills.  The remains of the Pacific Coast Borax Company buildings are near the corner of Main and Atlantic on the west end of Alameda.  The remains of the building are made of red brick and are labeled Building 163.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Key System and the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy, Part 2

Map of Key Route lines
The high point for the Key System was the 1940s, when the company was maintaining 66 miles of inter-urban rail, a fleet of buses, and had commuter service that extended from Richmond to San Leandro and over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.  The turning point for the Key System, and the beginning of its decline, was in 1946 when a majority of the company's stock was purchased by the National City Lines company.  The history of National City Lines is controversial because it addresses, in a fairly bald and straight forward fashion, corporate corruption in city planning and laisez-faire economics gone horribly wrong.  National City Lines was a very small transit company that began in Minnesota in 1920.  Initially only running two bus lines, the company was nationalized after General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and Phillips Petroleum invested heavily in its growth and development.  Beginning in 1937, National City Lines used a subsidiary company, Pacific City Lines, to purchase and then close down rail and inter-urban transit companies in the western united states.  This practice would eventually lead to the company being indicted by the federal court system in 1947 for conspiracy to control inter-urban transit and monopolize the sale of buses and motor coaches.  The companies would eventually be convicted of unethical business practices in regards to the transit lines in forty four cities in sixteen states and be fined a whopping $5,000 with key executives paying a token $1 fine apiece.  In truth, the company was responsible for the closing of more than 100 trolley and rail lines in the United States.
An old Key Route station
National City Lines, proud new owners of numerous rail and trolley lines, decommissioned those same services and found itself in need of shiny new buses to replace them.  Who better to turn to for those buses than their parent companies, the same people who were in an amazing position to both provide and profit from a monopoly over the manufacture of buses (General Motors), tires for buses (Firestone), and the gas they needed (Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum).  The long and short of it is that the so-called "Golden Era" of inter-urban transit in the U.S. was brought to a screeching halt by companies that had it in their interest to promote individual car ownership, the construction of multi-lane freeways, and the consumption of gasoline, tires, and related automotive products.  In a bizarre tangential side note, you may have heard of this if you've ever seen the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The shutting down of the Los Angeles trolley system, and the accompanying creation of a system of freeways, is a key plot device in that film.

A Key Route train running through Oakland
The local fallout for the Bay Area was that, by 1948, the Key System had been severely reduced, with local rail transit being discontinued that year and rail transit across the Bay Bridge only hanging on until 1958.  The Key System was acquired by a new bus line, AC Transit, and bus service took over where rail transit had once been the norm. 

The Key System is one of those things that, in all honesty, I might rose-tint just a little.  Maybe it's because it's dead and gone, maybe it's because the current transit systems are just so flipping bad, that I can't help and look at the old maps and photos and think that the Bay Area had something that was so right, and well thought out, and well designed, and the community just allowed it to be thrown away.  Truth be told, no one knew what was going to happen to public transit in the East Bay during the '50s and '60s, and no one could have seen how the rise of car culture would blow apart once-cohesive neighborhoods and communities by pushing highways and overpasses through residential areas, or how the new freeways would turn thriving commercial districts into total backwaters, deprived of traffic and shoppers with most people being routed out of the neighborhoods onto the newly bustling highways of California.
The old Piedmont Key Route station
Getting There By Bike...
If you ride a bike in the East Bay, you have ridden where the Key System used to provide rail service.  Telegraph Ave., Broadway, San Pablo, College, Lakeshore, Trestle Glen, and Grand all had regular rail service.  The Key System had car barns on the east end of Lake Merritt near 3rd Ave, at 51st and Telegraph in Temescal, in the Elmhurst neighborhood in East Oakland, and in Richmond.  Many of the streets in Alameda are as wide as they are because they initially included railroad tracks running down the center of the street.  There aren't many visible signs of the Key System left, but it did shape the direction and form of many of the central streets in the East Bay.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Pavement Markers, Neighborhood History, etc.

A habit that I picked up from from the Oakland Sidewalk Stamps blog is looking at all the cement date stamps on the sidewalk as I walk around town.  Every now and again I find one that has an impressive date and I snap a photo of it.  The nice part about walking around Alameda, especially the side streets on the east end of town, is that there are a lot of older stamps.  The island's layout of streets and sidewalks has remained largely unchanged since about 1910 and a lot of the original pavement is still there, just patched every so often.  The above photo is from the east side of Grand Ave., between Lincoln and Union.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Key System and the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy, Part 1

The Key System was a privately owned public transit system that provided electric streetcar service throughout most of the immediate East Bay, and offered commuter service over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.  The Key System operated from 1903 until 1960, when the company was sold to AC Transit which replaced the rail service with gasoline powered buses.

The Key System has its roots in a collection of smaller rail systems that were serving the East Bay at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  These companies were purchased and consolidated under the ownership of Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, a local businessman who had made his fortune by mining borax.

Initially the Key System served the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont.  At its height, the company operated approximately 66 miles of track in the East Bay and had lines that extended from Richmond to San Leandro.  However, a large part of the development and success of the Key System was dependent on the ferry pier that the company operated.  The Key System's connection to San Francisco would remain one of its most important features for as long as rail service was offered in the East Bay.  Up until 1939 the Key System operated a fleet of ferries that traveled from their pier in the East Bay to the San Francisco Ferry Building.  After 1939, when the Bay Bridge was completed, the Key System offered a trans-bay connection via a dual track that ran through the lower deck of the bridge and connected to the newly built Transbay Terminal.

An example of how much the Key System affected the development of the East Bay and its cities can be seen when you consider that the Key System was never an independent corporate entity, but was always tied in closely with "Borax" Smith's other business concerns, especially his real estate company, the Realty Syndicate.  The Realty Syndicate, a joint project between "Borax" Smith and Frank C. Havens, another local real estate magnate, purchased large tracts of undeveloped land in the East Bay and developed resorts and amusement parks on rail lines that were. of course, owned by the Key System.  The Claremont Hotel was one off these, as was the Key Route Inn, and were served by dedicated San Francisco bound trains.  Idora Park in Temescal, one of the East Bay's first and largest amusement parks in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, was also owned by the Realty Syndicate and was, just like the resorts, served by a central Key System line.  Many neighborhoods in Berkeley that were owned and developed by the Realty Syndicate are still centered around paths and walkways that, in the heyday of the Key System, were designed to channel residents quickly and easily to Key System rail stations.  The two companies were intended to work together, with residential neighborhoods owned by the Realty Syndicate providing the riders the Key System needed to profit, and the Key System supplying easy rail access and increasing the value of the neighborhoods that it served.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Rockridge is another of Oakland's older communities.  The neighborhood has been described as the area east of Telegraph Ave., west of the Oakland Hills, south of the Berkeley border, and north of the Broadway/51st St. intersection.  The neighborhood takes its name from the large rock outcroppings that form a part of the exposed shutter ridge of the Hayward Fault.  Many off these rocks are obscured by development now, but some can still be seen behind the Safeway parking lot at the intersection of 51st and Broadway.  The back part of the parking lot is bordered by a fence and a lagoon that serves as a reservoir for the Claremont Country Club.  The lagoon fills what used to be an active quarry that operated well into the '50s.

Rockridge, similar to Temescal immediately to the west, owes much of its existence to the presence of effective public transit into and out of the neighborhood, and the presence of several major thoroughfares.  College Ave. is the main street cutting through Rockridge and it serves as an important traffic corridor between the upper end of downtown Oakland and Berkeley, specifically with the University of California campus.  The development of the Key System and a number of street car routes that served the area, and the AC Transit routes that took over service after the Key System was dismantled, as well as the presence of the Rockridge BART station, make this a desirable neighborhood for commuters, and this has been true since the neighborhood started developing in earnest in the first quarter of the twentieth century.  Electric streetcar tracks ran down College Ave. until the '50s and it wasn't until 1959 that the tracks for the Sacramento Northern Railway were removed from Shafter Ave., continuing up what is now Highway 13, and over the hills into Contra Costa County.

The neighborhood has historically been one off the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in Oakland.  It also was home to a large number of residents who came from Northern Italy and were a part of the north Oakland "Little Italy" that dominated the area in the 1960s.

One of the features that I particularly like about the area is the Temescal-Rockridge Greenbelt that links the two neighborhoods.  The greenbelt begins at Frog Park at the corner of Redondo and Clarke and follows what was once the bed of the Temescal Creek north, behind the DMV and ends at Hardy Park, on the corner of Claremont and Hudson.  The greenbelt is a nicely restored and maintained area filled with native plants and redwood trees, benches, playgrounds that make me wish I was a kid again, and general green and growing goodness.

Getting There By Bike...
It's easy to get to Rockridge by bike, or BART, or the bus.   Shafter, Telegraph and College are three of the major streets that cut right through the neighborhood, but I find both Telegraph and College to be a little too traffic heavy at times, and College doesn't always have the best bike lanes.  But there's a lot to check out in this neighborhood.  The homes in this part of Oakland are gorgeous, and it's fun to cruise around and check them out.  As you head up College towards Berkeley the houses get larger and older, and there are a number of large and historic churches that trace their beginnings and their construction back to the years immediately following the 1906 earthquake when thousands of San Franciscans left the wreckage of the city and settled in the East Bay. If you're in Rockridge then you're also a stone's throw away from the Claremont Hotel, one of the great regional landmarks in the East Bay.  Ride up Claremont from College Ave. and you'll see it near the intersection of Claremont and Ashby.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Temescal is a neighborhood in North Oakland.  It's traditional borders are Broadway and State Route 24 to the East and West, with MacArthur to the South and 55th St. to the North.

Temescal is one of the oldest outlying neighborhoods in Oakland.  The area has been known as Temescal since the land was owned by the Peralta family as a part of the Rancho San Antonio.  The named is derived from the Temescal Creek, which once flowed above ground from the hills outside Montclare, down the Claremont Canyon, and then into the San Francisco Bay by way of Emeryville.  The creek still exists, and still flows into the Bay, but it has been diverted into a series of culverts and underground storm sewers.  There are a few sections where the creek still flows above ground.  A large section of the creek was uncovered in Emeryville during the construction of the Bay Street shopping district, and it has been left open as a part of the nature walk and public exhibit concerning the Ohlone shellmound that was once on the site.  There is a memorial to the creek that covers some aspects of local history that is located on the back side of the Post Office along Shattuck Avenue.

The neighborhood owes its importance and its long life to its historic role as a transit nexus, where a number of important thoroughfares meet.  Telegraph Avenue, Highway 24, 51st Street, Shattuck Avenue, and Claremont all pass through the neighborhood.  In many ways, the presence of easy transit between downtown Oakland and Berkeley resulted in the development of Temescal as a residential community in the early part of the 20th century and through the '60s.  The original horse car line from Oakland to the University of California in Berkeley operated out of a barn at the corner of 51st and Telegraph.  When the horse car line was discontinued, the line was absorbed into the Key System and was served by electric streetcars.  The Western Carhouse of the Key System stood on the site until 1948 when, as a part of the reduction in service and the eventual elimination of streetcar service in Oakland, the car barn was removed.  Vern's, a local grocery store, stood on the site until the '80s when a Walgreens took over the commercial space.  Temescal was also the site of the first telegraph line that ran form Oakland to Sacramento.  The telegraph lines ran up Claremont Avenue and over the hills towards the capital.

Temescal is home to a number of distinct communities, the longest lived of which is Oakland's largest Little Italy, with many residents still claiming descent from Northern Italian immigrants that settled in the area in the 1950s and '60s.  There is also a substantial Eritrean and Ethiopian community, as well as a Korean community and shopping district that began to appear on Telegraph in the 1990s.

The area was also the site of several historic attractions and leisure destinations.  Since Temescal was so well served by horse car and street car lines, it made a fitting home for Idora Park, the earliest, and largest, of the "trolley parks" in the East Bay.  Idora Park, along with Neptune Beach in Alameda, were leisure destinations for the masses at the turn of the 20th century.  Located in the suburbs, and served by dedicated trolley or streetcar lines, they served as a weekend destination for families and residents in the days before personal car ownership became common.

Getting There By Bike...
Temescal is totally easy to get around by bike!  In the spirit of total honesty I'll admit that I work in this neighborhood and I spend a lot of time scooting around the back streets of Temescal on my bike, so I may be biased.  But the same features that made the neighborhood a transit nexus for cars and public transit also make it a great place to ride bikes.  Webster Street, a major bike boulevard, cuts right through Temescal and takes you up into Rockridge or down into downtown Oakland. Claremont cuts up through Rockridge to the hills, Telegraph is one of the best and fastest routes from Oakland into Berkeley, and Shattuck is an easy alternative if you're headed north.  To top it off, almost all of the residential streets in the neighborhood are bike friendly; there are lots of speed bumps to keep traffic speeds down, vehicular traffic is limited once you get off the main drag, and most of the streets run parallel to each other so you can move one block off a busy street and keep heading in the same direction, just with less traffic and much more enjoyably.