Social History Walk!

By Norah Cook

Over forty participants gathered for Wild Oakland’s Social History Walk, led by Dr. Dianne Fristrom, retired biologist and Lake Merritt resident, to learn about Lake Merritt’s rich and varied history.

We met at the Oakland museum, from where we ventured onto the seldom visited rooftop gardens of the museum and gathered around the yellow “peace” sculpture. Here we got a good view of the Lake (aka slough) and an introduction breaking down the history of the lake into seven main “eras”; from natural slough (tidal lagoon) hunted and fished by native Ohlone to the current era of transformation taking place under measure DD.

As we looked out over the highway construction, to the ‘Jewel of Oakland’ set in a ring of high-rises, Dr Fristrom evoked Oakland just three hundred years ago: an undammed tidal slough, rimmed by a broad swathe of marsh plants. Migrating fowl darkened the sky, providing, along with herds of deer, rich hunting for the Ohlone Indians.

Early Oakland

In 1820 Part of a huge Spanish land grant, over 44,000 acres Rancho San Antonio, to Comisionado Luis Peralta as a reward for his long service to the Spanish crown. At that time sailing ships would occasionally come into the area and dock at the embarcadero to pick up and deliver cargo. The marshy reedy lagoon edge was not settled – either by the Ohlone or the Spaniards and the water level continued rising and falling up to six feet with the tide. California’s admission into the Union and the discovery of gold  slough to the estuary. At high tide salt water filled the lagoon and at low tide it was a mud flat. It was rimmed by a broad swathe of marsh plants. Area thick with fish and birds hunted by the Ohlone Indians.

During the Gold Rush Era villages were growing up on both sides of the lagoon: Oakland on the west at the base of Broadway and Clinton on the east. There was quite a wide channel connecting the slough to the SF estuary with no convenient way across and a long way around by horse and buggy. So Horace Carpentier, founder of Oakland and generally suspicious character, saw a business opportunity and builds a toll bridge across the Lake more or less where the current roadway is now. He also owned the only ferry service to SF so “he and his associates were collecting a fee on virtually every passenger, animal, or item of cargo that entered or left Oakland. This did not exactly endear him to Oaklanders.

Then at the beginning of the “Private” era Merritt built his dam that also functioned as a bridge (a wider and better bridge than Horace’s).  The effect was  to greatly reduce tidal flow (from about 6 ft to one foot) – like emptying a bathtub through a straw. While the immediate effects were desirable because there was always water in the lake – it never turned into a mud flat. The longterm effects have their problems. Private homes were being constructed around the perimeter – where do you suppose their sewage went? ….


 It took quite some time before the city built an alternate system that carried sewage directly into the estuary instead of the lake. Another long term consequence of damming was that the lake bottom kept silting up with sediment carried down by the creeks. The lake has been dredged many times. Some of the dredging material has been used to fill in the perimeter. Fill was also used to create the bird islands by the nature center. The real consequence of slow drainage is that there is not good mixing of bottom and top water so the bottom layers tend to be low in oxygen, and some areas of the Lake bottom are dead zones.   Now we’re seeing the almost completion of some of the renewal projects in the graceful sweep of the new 6 lane highway. One can see the outline of the new amphitheater and the separate pedestrian bridge. What people don’t see is that channel under the highway has been considerably opened up. A series of culverts have been removed, the channel has been widened and a bird marsh along the channel is being developed. This should have a noticeable effect on the hydrology of the lake.  

County Courthouse

This imposing edifice is the county courthouse and was built as a WPA project in 1934 still part of the progressive era. This is the front of the building and a very imposing entrance it is. Since 911 access is through a side door with typical airport-like security. There was said to be some wonderful murals in the lobby at the top this staircase — 10′ x 30′ marble backed with gold and silver leaf. “Exploration” depicts the Native American and Hispanic history of Alameda County, the other “Settling of California” depicts the settlement of the area by frontier settlers.

Camron Stanford House

  Camron Stanford House

The Camron Stanford  is the oldest (and only) surviving lakeside building dating back to the private era. One of many homes built by Merritt. Finished in 1876. 5 different families lived here over the next 30 years. Then it was purchased in 1907 by the city at the beginning of the Progressive Era, when the Lake became public property to be the first Oakland museum and for 56 years it operated as the first teaching museum west of the Mississippi.

Collections were moved to current Oakland museum when it opened in 1967 and the fate of this deteriorating building was in question. The Camron-Stanford preservation society raised $800,000 to restore the building to its largely inferred original splendor Progressive Era or City Finally Gets Control of the Lake back from Railroad Barons It was Mayor Chapman who finally wrested ownership of the Lake from private ownership. In 1891 he got an agreement from Leyland Stanford of the southern Pac RR to give the lake to the city on the following conditions 1) that it would remain a public place 2) that the city construct a public boulevard around it 3) the city maintain the already built dam on 12th St   The city would get the deed when the city proved itself willing to start improvements of $30,000. Both the voters and city council thought he was crazy – a huge waste of taxpayers money. Indignant, angry and red-faced the City Public Works Director, Playtor got up and launched into an anti-Lake attack and promptly dropped dead of a heart attack. Chapman refused to adjourn the meeting and railroaded the appropriation of the $30,000. But it took another 18 years before the final resolution of the waterfront issue under Frank Mott (the Mayor who built Oakland).

Lake Chalet/ Municipal Boathouse

Here we have another beautifully restored building from the Progressive Era. The central part was built in 1909 as a high pressure Pumping station in a response to the fires of the 1906 Earthquake. Wings added in 1914 to create the municipal boathouse. In the Private Era lakeside residences often had their own private boathouses. Now boating was available to the public. Pretty much every kind of man-powered boating has been available on the lake over the years. Row boats and canoes, kayaks and dragon boats, whale boats and peddle boats and now even a gondola (quite recent) that picks up its passengers right here. Competition in the form of regattas has been popular from its inception of the boathouse. The upstairs room (now a restaurant) was a tea room for spectators.. What the municipal boathouse really had going for it is that high school kids – boys AND girls came here to row. Oakland was promoting competitive women’s rowing at a time when most rowing clubs didn’t let women in the door.   Sometime in the ‘60s the boat house moved to the blue and white building across the lake and this became the office of parks and rec. and now as you see it has been restored to its original splendor as a restaurant.

Rain Garden

The purpose is to improve water quality in nearby bodies of water. The idea is that after a downpour the water would accumulate in this trench instead of running straight into the Lake. The plants are carefully chosen to tolerate wide extremes of water. The root systems filter and clean the water before it gets into the lake.

Lake Boulevard and Necklace of Lights

It was a vision of many early mayors to have a boulevard encircling the lake but it took about 40 years to complete and was one of the stipulations by the Southern Pacific RR . The last section from here to 20th St. was completed in 1925. In celebration of this event the Necklace of Lights was installed, when there was finally a shoulder to hang the necklace upon. The Necklace consists of 126 Florentine standards and 3,400 pearly bulbs contributed mainly by city merchants. The Necklace was turned off in 1941 in World War Two and  did not go back on until 1980’s when funds were provided by Oakland’s breakfast club.


This and the adjacent building #244 built in 1923 and 24 respectively. They were built on the sight of the Schilling estate which faced the Lake with its own boathouse and a carriage house and spectacular gardens, ponds, fountains, bridges and sculptures. These two elegant apartment buildings were constructed at the height of the Progressive Era and just before the completion of the road. They could hardly be condemned so the city built a wall out into the Lake and filled in behind it leaving boathouses high and dry.

We ended the walk in Snow Park.

Here we are in famous Snow Park. What was its most recent claim to fame? Occupy Oakland! This area was one of Oakland’s earliest cemeteries. Henry Snow was a big game hunter who left his collection to the city in 1922. The taxidermied animals were housed in an existing residence here – the Snow Museum. There was also a live animal zoo adjacent which formed the beginning of the Knowland Zoo. After Snow died some of the his collection joined the material from The Camron Stanford house and went to current Oakland museum when it opened in 1967


This park has some truly lovely trees and is slated for some improvements under measure DD. There will be renewed pathways, a children’s playground hopefully spiffed up bathrooms.

Thank you everyone who came out! See you soon!

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