Monday, April 30, 2012

James Lick

In addition to being one of the richest residents of the San Francisco Bay Area in his time, James Lick was also an accomplished carpenter, piano builder, relentlessly acquisitive real estate baron, and a late-blooming patron of the sciences.

James Lick was born in 1796 in Stumpstown, Pennsylvania.  The son of a carpenter, he was pulled into that trade, eventually making the transition to piano building.  After establishing a successful piano manufacturing business in New York he moved to Argentina in 1821 in order to develop the market for his products in South America.  He traveled around in South America, ran his business from various South American capitals, was captured by Portuguese pirates, escaped, and eventually decided to move back to the United States.

From here on, James Lick's personal history in one of either unbelievable luck or incredible business sense.  He returned to the United States in July of 1848.  His personal belongings when he landed in San Francisco included his tools, a workbench, $30,000 in gold, and 600 pounds of chocolate.  In a long-reaching decision, Lick then convinced his former neighbor from Peru, Domingo Ghirardelli, to move to San Francisco where he founded the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.  Lick's first act in his new home of San Francisco was to begin buying land in and around the city.  His timing couldn't have been better since the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill coincided almost exactly with his arrival in the Bay Area.  The California Gold Rush, and the resulting housing boom, meant that real estate was an incredibly lucrative investment.  Though he flirted with going out and mining for gold himself, Lick decided that his fortune would be better served by continuing to buy and develop real estate in San Francisco, and around San Jose.

The long and short of this is that by 1874, when Lick was recovering from a massive stroke and thinking about how to dispense with his enormous fortune, he was the richest man in California.  The last three years of his life were spent trying to find a use for his money and his land that would ensure his legacy in the collective memory of Californians.  In what was a completely logical and non-egotistical decision, his first impetus was to use his entire fortune to build giant statues of himself and his parents, and commission a pyramid bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza that would dominate downtown San Francisco.  He was eventually talked out of this and decided to leave the majority of his fortune to the California Academy of Sciences so that they could establish an observatory on top of Mount Hamilton.  The Lick Observatory housed the Great Lick Refractor, the largest refracting telescope in the world at the time.

James Lick died in 1876 and his body was eventually buried under the future site of the Great Lick Refractor on top of Mount Hamilton.

Fun Lick Facts...
  • James Lick was the first purchaser of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, or at least the giant greenhouse that would become the Conservatory.  The greenhouse was purchased complete and was intended as a gift to the city of San Jose.  However, following the delivery of the crates, Lick read a newspaper article in San Jose that criticized his sloppy dress and generally taciturn attitude.  In a fit of spite he withheld the gift and never opened the crates.  When he passed away the greenhouse was purchased by a group of San Francisco businessmen who donated it to the city of San Francisco.
  • The Lick Mill, James Lick's great complex of buildings near San Jose, was built almost purely out of spite.  As a young man he had been refused the hand of Elizabeth Snavely, a young woman that he had been courting.  The woman's father, Henry Snavely, who was well off and owned a local mill near Stumpstown, Pennsylvania, was indignant that a young and poor apprentice would ask for his daughter's hand in marriage.  Refusing the proposal, Henry told the young James Lick that "When you own a mill as large and costly as mine, you can have my daughter's hand, but not before".  James, who was never known for a smooth and gentle temperament, replied, "Someday I will own a mill that will make yous look like a pigsty!"  The Lick Mill, James' attempt to make good on this promise, cost $200,000, used the most advanced and expensive equipment and machinery of its time, and was finished in mahogany and other expensive materials.  Though Henry Snavely had been dead for years James Lick still commissioned news articles and pictures of the Lick Mill to be sent back to his hometown of Stumpstown, Pennsylvania to show his home town that he was now worthy of the hand of Elizabeth Snavely.  The "Mahogany Mill" was destroyed by a fire in 1882.
  • Though one of the wealthiest men in California, Lick was a notorious miser and eccentric.  He built a 24 room mansion near the Lick Mill, but found that he appreciated the austere comforts of the small cabin that he had originally built for himself.  He never furnished the house and slept on a spare door laid across two nail kegs.  He used the large and empty rooms to dry fruit from the orchards surrounding his property.  Other local residents noted him for his shabby clothes, and his habit of driving a cart from restaurant to restaurant in order to collect bones from their trash so he could grind them into fertilizer for his orchards.
  • James Lick built the Lick House in San Francisco which became regarded as the finest hotel west of the Mississippi.  Its dining room could seat 400 people and was modeled after a hall that Lick had seen at Versailles when he had traveled through Europe.  He cut and installed most of the intricate woodwork and cabinetry himself.
  • The fruit of Lick's generosity to the California Academy of Sciences was the Great Lick Refractor,a large telescope that was installed on top of Mt. Hamilton outside of San Jose.  It is still the third largest refracting telescope in the world and was the largest at the time of its construction.  It took eighteen attempts to cast the huge glass lenses needed for the telescope.  When they were finally cast, safely transported across the country, and installed in the telescope the anxious scientists sighted the star Aldabaran and found that the focal length of the telescope was incorrect and it could not be focused.  Feverish calculations occurred, a hacksaw was procured, and the world's largest refracting telescope, the fruit of years of labor and design efforts, was rather unceremoniously cut down to the proper size.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sidewalk Stamps - City of Alameda, 1958.

This one isn't that old, but I have found stamps from the city of Alameda that look the same, aside from the date, that range anywhere from the '40s through the '80s.  This stamp is on the edge of what I consider an "historic" stamp.  Generally I look for stamps that are pre-1950, but this one sneaks in under the line.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Claremont Canyon

Claremont Canyon is located on the north end of Oakland and climbs to the top of the Oakland hills where it intersects with Grizzly Peak Blvd. and Fish Ranch Road.

Claremont Canyon was a part of the Rancho San Antonio land grant in 1820, but the area around the canyon was not developed until 1858 when the East Bay's first telegraph line was run up the canyon and over the hills into Contra Costa County, linking Oakland with the rest of the country.  Claremont Canyon was not the original name, with the area first being called Harwood's Canyon, and then Telegraph Canyon.  Through the last half of the 19th century the canyon was used as one of the primary means of traveling between Oakland and Contra Costa county.  Pony Express riders used the canyon on the last leg of their route between Sacramento and San Francisco, descending into Oakland and boarding the Pony Express ferry in Jack London Square. Before extensive development took place in Oakland and Berkeley, the land in the canyon was used for cattle grazing, dairying, some minor quarrying, and the development of natural springs to supply water to the city.

Travel through Claremont Canyon decreased after 1903 when the Kennedy Tunnel between Oakland and Lafayette was opened.  It decreased still further when the Caldecott Tunnel was opened in 1937.  With the opening of the Caldecott Tunnel, Claremont Canyon ceased being an effective or easy way to get over the hills and the quantity of vehicular traffic dropped dramatically. 

There are a number of homes towards the bottom of the canyon, but the majority of the undeveloped land in the area is shared between two major landholders; The University of California, Berkeley, manages roughly 150 acres near the top of the canyon, while the East Bay Regional Parks District manages a 208-acre preserve in the middle and lower portion of the canyon.  The history of the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve dates back to the 1970s when local residents campaigned to have the city and the East Bay Regional Parks District acquire land in the canyon in order to prevent its development.  The canyon currently sees most of its use from hikers who use the regional preserve's land as a link between other popular hiking destinations, such as Sibley Volcanic Park and Tilden Regional Park.  The other major users of the canyon are cyclists who use the road as a quick, though tough, road into and out of the East Bay Hills.

Getting There By Bike...
It's very easy to get to Claremont Canyon by bike, it's slightly less easy to get to the top of it.  The ability to climb Claremont Canyon quickly and comfortably can almost bee seen as a benchmark of a cyclists overall fitness and performance, and it is quite a tough climb.  If you feel like trying it out make sure you pack your climbing gears because it's a long, steep way to the top.  The Claremont Hotel also sits at the bottom of the canyon and is a great spot to sit and people watch.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sidewalk Stamps - 1924

 I found this sidewalk stamp under a bush on the corner of pacific and Minturn in Alameda.  It seems to be right in the time frame for the rest of the sidewalk stamps that I've been finding in the neighborhood.  With this find more than any other I had horrifying visions of someone walking out of their house and wanting to know what the hell I was taking pictures of underneath the bushes by their sidewalk.  I suppose awkward explanations are the price I have to pay for this hobby.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Eucalyptus Trees & the Bay Area



Eucalyptus trees are a fact of life for us here in the East Bay, but relatively few people know by whom, how, and why we were swept under a tide of non-native and fast-growing trees.  The stands of eucalyptus trees that cover the East Bay hills and decorate yards and public spaces throughout Oakland and Berkeley are the result of deliberate planting at the beginning of the 20th century and constitute a legacy of poor land management that we are still burdened with.

The eucalyptus tree first arrived in California around 1856 and demand for the trees grew rapidly as the cities and towns of the East Bay developed.  Towards the end of the 19th century, and into the first decades of the 20th century, especially immediately following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the East Bay experienced a housing boom and incredibly rapid growth.  This is the era of widespread land speculation, the platting and development of what would become the core neighborhoods of Oakland and Berkeley, and the spread of the rail network.  Lumber was needed to build homes and businesses and the Bay Area lacked a substantial reserve of naturally occurring hardwood trees that could be converted into building materials.  The 1870 Biennial Report of the State Board of agriculture reported on California's need for hardwood trees and suggested the development of "artificial forests" to meet these needs.  Enter the eucalyptus tree, which grows, as anyone who has one on their property will tell you, at a truly astonishing rate.  And so began the great Eucalyptus boom.  Developers, land speculators, and get-rich-quick schemers planted hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees throughout the East Bay, hoping that they would be able to turn a substantial profit within a few years when the trees were large enough to harvest for lumber.  Chief among the advocates of the eucalyptus trees was one of the most consequential Eat Bay residents that you've probably never heard of, Frank C. Havens.  A business partner of Francis Marion "Borax" Smith, Havens was central to the development of the Key Route, the Claremont Hotel, Idora Park, north Oakland's premier amusement park at the beginning of the 20th century, and was heavily involved in real estate and property development throughout the East Bay.  Havens founded the People's Water Company in 1906 and used his resources to gain control of almost all of the undeveloped watershed property in the immediate East Bay.  He developed a second company, the Mahogany Eucalyptus and Land Company, and began planting the watershed property with eucalyptus trees in the hopes of cashing in on the riches that were available to the savvy tree planter.  His workers planted somewhere between one and three million eucalyptus seedlings across a twenty square mile swathe of East Bay land.

The eucalyptus tree was held to be the most important and valuable economic investment that could be made in the Bay Area during the first decade of the 20th century.  It was claimed that the trees could be used to clear bronchial disorders, the trees could be used to dry swamps and bogs, the lumber was a valuable hardwood resource, and, in a fit of schizophrenic enthusiasm, the wood was described both as fire preventative, and therefore perfect for building homes and businesses, and as a superior firewood, burning clean and without excessive smoke.  However, much to the chagrin of those who had invested heavily in developing eucalyptus tree plantations, there were a number of unsettling discoveries regarding these wondrous trees.  Primarily, eucalyptus wood could not be cured in the same manner that native hardwoods were cured.  Eucalyptus lumber warped and split, and therefore could not be used for construction.  Mature eucalyptus trees would yield excellent lumber, but that would require many, many more years of growth than the decade that was initially predicted by land and resource speculators.  The market for eucalyptus trees dried up, plantations and lumber mills closed, and the residents of the East Bay never saw the expected return on their investment of money and land.

There are still hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees in the immediate Bay Area and, depending on who you ask, they are either an attractive wind break or a dangerous nuisance, littering the ground with bark, seed pods, and leaves.  One of the primary criticisms that has been offered in recent years was that the trees, along with their abundant leaf litter, comprise a danger in case of wild fires.  The eucalyptus trees in the East bay hills are considered a factor that aggravated the Berkeley Hills fire of 1991, and there are a number of initiatives to control the trees in case of another large fire.  The trees are also intensely competitive and push out native species of trees and shrubs, leading to the creation of a eucalyptus monoculture that displaces native ecosystems.

Fun Eucalyptus Facts
  • Eucalyptus trees "coppice" when cut; that is they develop multiple new trunks from a single cut trunk.  This was seen as a benefit by early plantation owners since they imagined getting increasing returns on their investment in a single tree.  However, in practice, it makes eucalyptus trees incredibly hard to kill, and removing large stands of them is difficult enough that it is not generally seen as economically feasible.
  • During the Great Depression, and in the heyday of Federal work programs, Bay Area work crews were paid by the federal government to cut down and remove eucalyptus trees from the East Bay hills in an effort to control their growth.
  • Eucalyptus trees have been folded into the Bay Area ecosystem and groves of the trees are particularly rich with animal life.  Many different kinds of birds have taken to nesting in the trees, and monarch butterflies winter in the trees since the dense foliage protects them from the cold and wind.
  • The East Bay Regional Parks District has a long-term eucalyptus control plan that has been in place for a number of years.  They advocate slowly controlling and diminishing the eucalyptus groves of the East Bay and have several distinct programs that are intended to reduce the total eucalyptus population on park lands.
Getting There by Bike...
Alright, go outside and get on your bike.  Look around.  Chances are, there is a eucalyptus tree within a block of where you are standing.  If not, or if you would like to see larger stands of the trees, get your bike and yourself up to the top of the hills.  The climb up Tunnel road is lined with large eucalyptus trees, especially near the intersection with Grizzly Peak Road, and Skyline Blvd., and the regional parks that dot it, are home to some particularly large stands of them. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Kennedy Tunnel

The Kennedy Tunnel was a former tunnel that linked Oakland and Lafayette.  It was initially opened in 1903, and was closed in 1947 for safety reasons.

Where the tunnel used to be.
Digging for the Kennedy Tunnel was begun in 1870.  Prior to the creation of the tunnel, Oakland residents and travelers had used steep wagon trails over the Oakland and Berkeley Hills.  Claremont Canyon contained such a trail and any area cyclist will tell you that it's still steep, even with the modern niceties of pavement and manageable turns.

The digging was begun by Chinese laborers and was initially opposed by Lafayette residents, since they believed that easy access to the undeveloped land of Contra Costa would lead to a land rush and widespread increases in real estate prices.  When the tunnel was opened in 1903, it featured a four foot sideways jog in the center of the tunnels length, courtesy of the engineers and diggers who had failed to align the two opposing bores of the tunnel perfectly.  The tunnel was a 17-foot wide, single lane passage that was shored up with timbers along the side.  It was notoriously dark and damp and could only tolerate one vehicle going one way at a time.  There was initially a system of torches that allowed drivers to know whether or not there was already a vehicle in the tunnel, though this was eventually replaced with a more complex system using lanterns.

E Clampus Vitus marker at the site of the Kennedy Tunnel.
Due to the limitations inherent in the Kennedy Tunnel, excavations were begun on a new pair of tunnels.  Traffic at the Kennedy Tunnel had risen to nearly 30,000 cars a weeks, and ongoing maintenance, ant the nature of the tunnel's construction, led to ongoing maintenance issues and periodic closures.  In 1937 the Caldecott Tunnel opened, much more modern, two lanes, and 200 feet lower in elevation.  The Kennedy Tunnel lingered on until 1947 when it was closed for safety reasons.  The entrance was dynamited and the tunnel is no longer accessible.

Getting There By Bike...


Traffic island at the tunnel entrance.
The east entrance to the Kennedy Tunnel is located on Tunnel Road (which gets it's name from the Kennedy Tunnel).  A quick climb up Tunnel Road will get you to a turnout on the left side of the road.  There is a flag pole and a pair of markers in the turnout, along with a small traffic island.  If you're on the lookout this is a fairly easy landmark to find. The Claremont Hotel is near the bottom of Tunnel Road and is a great place to take a look at on your way back home.  Plus, there's a Peet's coffee there for post-ride caffeine, always a winning option.

 


Friday, April 6, 2012

Sidewalk Stamps - Alex LaPlant, 1919

Alex LaPlant, Contractor, 1919
On the block surrounding Grand Station, on the corner of Lincoln and Grand in Alameda, there are patches of terracotta colored pavement in the sidewalk and the curbs.  All of this pavement was poured in 1919 by the same contractor, Alex LaPlant, and is heavily marked with his stamp.  I think that this is kind of cool for two reasons:

1. This is the oldest stretch of pavement that I have found in Alameda so far, and I really like that there is a lot of it, patched though it may be, surrounding what was once a rail station.  This is neat because...

2.  Alameda was apparently filled in by small neighborhoods that were initially centered on local rail stations along Lincoln and Encinal.  The oldest pavement that I've found so far centers around these rail stations, while the surrounding neighborhoods have pavement that is newer by a decade or so.  Does this mean that streets, sidewalks, and pavement spread out from thes stations and gradually filled in the city?  I don't know, but I'm intrigued.

I plan on riding out to some other Alameda train stations and look for other pavement stamps to see if my theory holds water.  Now I just need for it not to rain...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Claremont Hotel

The Claremont Hotel is a historic resort located at the bottom of Claremont Canyon in Oakland, CA.  It was suggested as a nominee for the National Register of Historic Landmarks, but was not included in the list due to property owner objection.

A view of the Claremont Hotel as you come up the main drive.
The Claremont Hotel opened in 1915 and was built by a group of wealthy local investors, notably Francis Marion "Borax" Smith and Frank C. Havens.  These two men were heavily involved in local real estate development and were instrumental in several other historic East Bay developments, including the Key System, Idora Park, and the Key Route Inn.  Supposedly Havens won the land that the hotel is built on from "Borax" Smith in a game of dominoes.  Havens began building the hotel in 1906, but stopped due to a brief economic downturn.  In 1910 he began construction again with the help of an investor named Eric Lindblom, a prospector who had returned to California after striking it rich in the gold fields of the Klondike.  The site that the hotel was built on was ideal at the time of its construction since at the beginning of the twentieth century Claremont Canyon was one of the primary means of traveling over the Berkeley hills and the hotel was convenient for travelers and tourists visiting the East Bay.  The hotel was also tied into the city rail networks, with the Key Route "E" line pulling up to the front of the hotel where the tennis courts now stand.  Though this lacked the pizzazz of the Key Route Inn's train tracks that ran through the center of the hotel building, it was still convenient for guests.

The postal location and city of residence of the hotel has been an area of confusion in the past.  The hotel is technically located in the city of Oakland, though portions of its property do cross the official Berkeley city border.  The hotel has also had problems in the past with its proximity to the University of California campus.  A Berkeley City ordinance dating to 1876 prohibited the sale of alcohol within one mile of the campus.  The hotel fell within this one mile radius and it was only due to some geographic sleight of hand, essentially relocating the center of the campus as defined by the ordinance, that placed the Claremont Hotel barely outside of the alcohol-free zone.  Even after the passing, and then repeal, of Prohibition the hotel continued to have problems with the Berkeley ban on alcohol near the campus.  In 1936 a Cal student determined that, rather than consider the ban as consisting of a mile radius from the center of the university as the crow flies, the mile distance should instead be considered as the distance required to travel on foot or by car over surface streets.  Through judicious mapping the student determined that the shortest practicable route from Cal to the Claremont Hotel over surface streets was a few feet over a mile.  The Claremont Hotel immediately opened a bar based on this evidence.

 Getting There By Bike...

The hotel entrance.

It's pretty straight forward to get to the Claremont Hotel by bike.  The most direct route is to take Ashby or Claremont straight to the base of the hills.  Once you reach the intersection of the two streets, right below the bottom of Tunnel Road, look for the giant white building that's looming over you.  That's the hotel.  Both Claremont and Ashby can be traffic heavy, so ride safely.  Once you're there, I like to look at the sites from the comfort of the Peet's patio across the street from the tennis courts.  You can also ride your bike through the front gate and look at the gardens.  I've never been asked to leave, but be aware that they may not want people wandering the grounds if they aren't guests.  The former site of the Kennedy Tunnel is a short jog up Tunnel Road if you feel like trekking a bit farther, and Claremont Canyon is a steep, though beautiful, climb to the top of the hills.