Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Alameda Estuary

The Alameda-Oakland Estuary is a tidal channel that was separates the island of Alameda from the Oakland Shore.

The East Bay in 1844.
The channel was dug in 1902 in order to better control tidal flow and sedimentation within the Oakland Harbor.  Prior to the creation of the channel, Alameda was a small peninsula that defined the southern curve of the Oakland Harbor.  Shipping traffic, in the first half-century of commercial and shipping development in the East Bay, entered the Oakland Harbor near where the Port of Oakland currently stands, and traveled through the San Antonio Slough, docking along the Oakland waterfront near the 5th Ave. Marina.  The map to the right shows the Oakland shore, including Alameda, in 1844, well before the California Gold Rush and the incorporation of either Oakland or Alameda as proper cities.  As shipping increased, and the waterfront continued to develop, the decision was made to dig a channel that would simultaneously sever Alameda from Oakland and use a combination of backfill and landfill to turn Bay Farm Island, originally an island, into a peninsula.  The map below shows the current state of the channel.  The map dates to 1908, and it's important to note how little Alameda has changed in over a century of development following the creation of the channel.  The majority of the streets were already laid out and, chances are, you walk and drive along exactly the same roads and sidewalks, and in some cases exactly the same pavement, that Alamedans used over a century ago.

Alameda, circa 1908.
The Oakland Waterfront and the Estuary have a significant role in the development of the shipping industry in the East Bay.  Access to the Oakland and Alameda waterfronts through the channel allowed heavy ship traffic to use warehouse and docking space along both sides of the water.  Alameda became one of the favored winter docking sites for some of the last whaling fleets on the west coast, specifically for the Star Fleet of the Alaska Packing Company, the last large sailing fleet in the west.  Easy access to shipping facilities tied in neatly with the continued development of rail service throughout Alameda and the East Bay.  The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which had its first terminus in Alameda, and the growth of rail service throughout the Oakland Waterfront, made it only logical for shipping companies to establish facilities in the area. The role that shipping and manufacturing played in the local economy can be found in the creation of the Webster and Posey Tubes that connect Alameda to Oakland by running underneath the channel.  In 1923 when the Alaska Packers Union, who were heavy users of the channel, declared their intention to build a new $2 million processing facility in Alameda, but only if the Webster Street swing bridge, which they felt interfered with shipping traffic, was demolished and a new underwater tunnel were created, the Alameda city council almost fell over themselves trying to dismantle the bridge.  On a side note, the creation of the Webster and Posey Tubes contributed to the development of the modern Port of Oakland by prohibiting deep-draft shipping traffic through the estuary.  It's interesting that a project that was intended to encourage the development of shipping facilities in the estuary ended up, after the development of containerized shipping methods and massive container ships (pioneered in Alameda!), limiting the use to which the Alameda and Oakland waterfronts could be put.
A view of the estuary from the Park Street Bridge.
The waterfront currently houses numerous docks and warehouses in various states of decay.  Much of the waterfront has been re-purposed, with medium and light industry occupying a prominent place along the waterfront, though there are significant stretches where the buildings have been turned into commercial and office space, parks, and residential areas.  An unfortunate side effect of the years of heavy industry is that Alameda now contains significant numbers of so-called "Brownfields", otherwise usable land that has been contaminated, to some degree, by industrial waste.

Getting There By Bike...

An antique shipping crane near the Alameda ferry station.
The Estuary is problematic for cyclists, especially those that live in Alameda.  If you live in or near Alameda or the Oakland waterfront then you doubtless have tons of real world experience with the Estuary.  To get there by bike I would suggest either riding along the Oakland Embarcadero, which gives a great view of the Estuary though the road itself is not at all scenic, or getting over to Alameda and riding along the portion of the Bay Trail that follows the course of the channel.  This is actually a very underutilized trail that has some great views of the East Bay Hills and the marinas that line the channel.  There is some very visible history there as well, since the remains of many old docks and warehouses remain along the waterfront.  If you are in East Oakland or you want a slightly longer bike ride the best way to get to the Bay Trail is by crossing the Park Street Bridge and then heading west on Buena Vista.  Make a right turn on Hibbard St., immediately after Grand, and follow this little neighborhood street around until you find a small park.  The Bay Trail picks up in this park and follows the water all the way up into the remains of the Alameda Naval Air Station.  If you don't want to ride down Embarcadero I would normally tell you to ride through the tube...But not any more!  There have been significant recent changes and the city of Alameda now offers the Estuary Shuttle, a free bus service that runs from Laney College, in downtown Oakland, to the College of Alameda.  This shuttle is totally great, and, though it's not a perfect solution, it's better than riding your bike through the Webster Tube.  The west end of the Bay Trail picks up directly in front of the Pasta Pelican Restaurant at the far western end of Mariner Square Dr.


  1. Another great post! I knew about Alameda not originally being an island, but I didn't know about the story behind the tube.

    I think riding a bike through the tube is one of those things most people do at most once, then quickly find an alternative. The shuttle bus is great for that, if it's during the hours you need.

  2. And on the Oakland side there are new estuary-side bike trails between the Park, Fruitvale, and High Street bridges.