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History and Future of the Berkeley Waterfront

Walk led by Susan Schwartz, Friends of Five Creek, f5creeks@aol.com, www.fivecreeks.org, , 510 848 9358


Why does Berkeley have a waterfront? A good place to begin is in fairly recent geologic history, with the sideways friction of the North American and Pacific Plates, cause of our area’s famous earthquakes. Just a few million years ago, the ruptures resulting from this friction led a longish block of crust to tilt downward to the east. Its higher west portion formed what became the hills of San Francisco and Marin; its eastern portion formed a long valley. More recently, perhaps as little as a million years ago, the sharp scarp on the block just east of this valley was similarly tilted, with the uplifted edge forming the Berkeley Hills – probably still rising today. These rocks -- a mix of old sediments, volcanic outpourings, and scrapings from the clash of the great plates – was already deeply fractured, and eroded rapidly into the valley as they rose.

 Some 10,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age released water from glaciers, sea level rose. The valley between the San Francisco and Berkeley Hills was flooded, forming today’s San Francisco Bay. A few hilltops on the down-tilted edge of the long block remained dry, forming El Cerrito del Sur (Fleming Point), Cerrito de San Antonio (Albany Hill), Brooks Island, and Potrero San Pablo (the hills of Point Richmond).

 Creeks flowing from the rising, eroding Berkeley Hills to the Bay built today’s flatlands as their flood plains, grassy and covered with wildflowers in spring. Near the creek mouths, the distinction between Bay and land was often hazy. Strawberry Creek and Schoolhouse Creeks broadened into willow marshes. Codornices Creek probably spilled onto a marshy grassland that filtered into a north-flowing slough and salt marsh that ran behind the sandstone hill later called Fleming Point – now the site of Golden Gate Field Racetrack. This slough ran from today’s Virginia Street to the north edge of the point, receiving water from Schoolhouse and Marin Creeks. On the Bay side of this marsh, strong tidal currents just opposite the Golden Gate formed a strand of sandy beach and low dunes from just north of Strawberry Creek to Fleming Point.

 North of Albany Hill, a fan of creeks, the largest of them Cerrito Creek, meandered toward the Bay in a tidal marsh that began just west of today’s San Pablo Avenue and continued north behind Point Isabel, then an island at high tide.

 Native Americans

Native Americans established permanent settlements thousands of years ago; their earliest homes are drowned beneath today’s Bay. Remains we can still see show that they chose areas near creeks and marshes that supplied them with fresh water, shellfish, and waterfowl. Island locations may have offered safety. There were villages at the mouth of Temescal Creek in Emeryville, the mouth of Strawberry Creek, the confluence of Middle and Cerrito Creeks on the northeast corner of Albany Hill, Point Isabel (then an island), Brooks Island, Stege, and Ellis Landing (also formerly an island).

 Mounds 15 or more feet high grew up at these settlements – shells, bones, artifacts, and human remains. The Native Americans also affected the landscape by burning it regularly. Burning helped retain oak woodlands and grasslands where bulbs and wildflower seed were gathered. Keeping the area open also reduced surprise attacks by grizzly bears.


European diseases, resettlement at missions, and slaving decimated the Native American population. Most Bay Area Indians were moved to aptly named Mission Dolores. A few remained to work as “hands” on the Spanish ranchos, as the Spanish and later Mexican governments parceled out the East Bay in large land grants to to government workers and ex-soldiers, beginning in the 1820s. The Estudillos got San Leandro, the Peraltas Oakland and Berkeley, the Castros El Cerrito north. With the rancheros and their cattle came invasive non-natives – wild mustard and grasses wild wild oats. The Indians’ regular burning was stopped. Hooves of cows were heavier than even those of elk, and unlike elk and deer, cows are fond of loafing along streams. Cattle trampled plants and compacted soil, especially along streamsides. On the waterfront, though, the created only small landings – Victor Castro had one at Point Isabel, for example.

Gold Rush to cities     

Wealth seekers poured like locusts into California from 1849 on, opening an era of radical change. The rancheros, squeezed by squatters and greedy lawsuits, mostly lost their land. Only a few of the newcomers paid  them – one was butcher John Fleming, who bought the near-island El Cerrito del Sur (now Fleming Point) to fatten cattle for booming San Francisco. Domingo Peralta, who had owned all of Berkeley, died penniless in 1865. The Castros hung on longer – Victor Castro, whose elegant adobe edged Cerrito Creek at today’s El Cerrito Plaza, operated a ferry for miners from his Point Isabel landing.

 Grazing, dairying, haying, and wheat-growing, all supplying the mining boom, soon took over the flood-plain areas between hills and Bay. Sailor and trader James Jacobs in 1853 built a landing at the firm land at the foot of Strawberry Creek (today’s Delaware Street). Basic industries like flour and lumber milling sprang up around Jacobs Landing in the 1850s, soon after the new Alameda County improved the trail that became San Pablo Avenue. The real boom in waterfront industry, however, came after 1878, when the Transcontinental Railroad was extended north along the waterfront. The tracks ran close to the Bay shore along the South Berkeley waterfront, then on dry land just east of the slough that drained Schoolhouse and Codornices Creeks, then on trestles or fill across the salt marshes on both sides of Pt. Isabel. The state platted and auctioned off the submerged tidelands in the 1870s, and small-scale filling west into the Bay began almost immediately. Soon, canning, tanning, soap making, paint, cigars, starch, flour, lumber, beer, and other manufacturers grew up along the tracks; nearby piers were crowded with sailing barges. Sewage combined with manufacturing waste turned Bay water black and peeled paint from buildings. 

 Explosives were vital to Califonia’s mining. Driven out of the San Francisco dunes, dynamite manufacturing moved to the north side of Fleming Point in the 1870s. But the deadly explosions didn’t stop, and the manufacturers were forced to move north, this time to the northwest side of Albany Hill, where they planted eucalyptus trees to muffle the sound of explosions. Nevertheless, they were forced out again in 1905, after a particularly large explosion and fire. Before World War I the old Nobel train station at Albany Hill was abandoned; the area became a hobo jungle.

 The beach south of Albany Hill remained a popular swimming and picnic spot into the 20th Century, but its sand was steadily mined out. In its place came refuse fill. In Berkeley, most of the land that is now Eastshore State Park was created by garbage fill beginning in the  1920s, when garbage collection became a city responsibility.  Over the protests of conservationists, Berkeley began filling, working south from Codornices Creek. Building the shoreline highway (now I-880) in the late 1920s created a lagoon south of University Avenue, made into Aquatic Park by a public works project of the Great Depression. The vision, and use, was of a highly urban park – with the smaller south lagoo, for example, set aside for racing model yachts. 

 Meanwhile, sewage had polluted the many small creeks that ran from hills to waterfront, and storm runoff quickened by paving and building made them prone to flooding. Most residents welcomed putting the creeks into pipes. Culverting accelerated in the Great Depression, as the country sought public-works projects for the out of work.

 Adventures on landfill

Moving south, garbage landfill reached Virginia Street in the 1940s. The Meadow and Brickyard areas were filled from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Garbage surrounded and buried much of the Berkeley Wharf, built in 1875 and extended in the 1920s for a short-lived San Francisco auto-ferry service. (The restored end is now  a fishing pier.) The wharf’s massive timbers, however, remain under lower University Avenue. Bumps forcibly remind you that the beams do not sink as garbage rots. Today’s Cesar Chavez Park, north of the marina, operated as a landfill into the 1980s.

 As dumps smoldered along the waterfront, other communities also advanced their landfill peninsulas into the Bay. To see the future they envisioned, draw a line joining the ends of the Emeryville Marina, Berkeley Marina, Albany Bulb, and Pt. Isabel. Imagine all that as dry land. Some fill was domestic garbage. Other areas were devoted to construction waste (e.g. the Albany Bulb) or characterized by nearby industries.  “Battery Point,” north of the channel at Pt. Isabel, has battery casings under its clay cap. The “Brick Yard,” never used for manufacturing, was named for large quantities of waste brick. 

 Many and various plans were advanced for the waterfront. The Central (later Union and Southern) Pacific, by building the first transcontinental railroad, forced the later-arriving Santa Fe toward an inland route (now used by BART in our area). But Santa Fe turned the tables by secretly buying up the Berkeley tidelands. It advanced plans for a huge commercial port, only to deadlock against another plan, with piers running at right angles to its desires.

 In the 1940s, an international airport was proposed for the Berkeley waterfront; in the 1950s, a virtual town doubling the size of Berkeley. Another proposal was a World Fair site, on fill stretching from Richmond to Oakland. In Albany, where fill most of construction debris created the peninsula now called the Bulb from the 1950s on, plans for high rises, hotels, and restaurants fell apart when consultants pointed out that the fill and Bay mud would not support the buildings.

 The fill also took on its own life. Urban Ore, Berkeley’s recycle-and-resale emporium, got its start on the landfill that is now Cesar Chavez Park. A few people moved into barges or old boats and declined to leave. In the 1970s, Berkeley made an idealistic attempt to let the homeless camp on what is now the east side of the park, but “Rainbow Village” lost its shine with murder and robbery. An artistic City of Berkeley employee created stonehenge-like sculpture with huge fragments of concrete. In a more lasting effort, nonprofit Design Associated Works with Nature (DAWN) pioneered in attempts to restore native vegetation in the 1970s. They grew native plants on the fill; you can see the wind-sculpted, almost maintenance-free thickets and glades they created on the west ridge of Cesar Chavez Park. Although Berkeley’s final plans for the park left this as a token gesture to restoration, DAWN metamorphosed into Native Here Nursery, the California Native Plant Society’s nursery in Tilden Park that supplies locally native material for restoration projects.  

 Creating the Eastshore State Park and Shoreline Trail

Conservationists opposed fill from the outset. They began gathering strength in the 1950s, after communities began sending raw sewage to the EB MUD treatment facility rather than dumping it along their waterfronts. In the 1960s Berkeley matrons Sylvia McLaughlin, Catherine Kerr, and Esther Gulick were spurred to action by maps showing the Bay’s future as little but a deep-water ship channel. They formed Save the Bay in 1961, pressured the state to form the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to regulate shoreline development, and after a twenty-year effort finally all but halted Bay fill in the 1980s.

 In 1982, plans by Catellus (successor to the Santa Fe land holdings) for 4 million square feet of offices and stores on the waterfront galvanized residents. The proposal led to the founding of Citizens for the Eastshore State Park (CESP), led by the San Francisco Bay, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club. Their lobbying led to a 1986 resolution to create a state park, funded by State and Regional Park bond money. Purchase of the land was finally completed in late 1998. In combination with existing parks such as Pt. Isabel and Cesar Chavez, park lands linked by the Bay Trail will from Richmond to Emeryville. The last remaining gap is through Golden Gate Fields’ property. Also with that exception, the Bay Trail is now complete from Powell Street in Emeryville through the Richmond Marina, with an on-street extension into Miller-Knox Regional Park.

 Planning and restoration

A park plan adopted in late 2003 envisions parking, headquarters, and visitors center, as well as retention of the Sea Breeze Deli or something like it, at the southwest corner of University and Frontage Road.

 Park plans envision a “promenade” along the west shores of the Brickyard (now occupied and weeds and temporary soil dumping) and along the west shore of the North Basin Strip. The northwest corner of the Brickyard peninsula may be removed to create better circulation in the cove at the mouth of Strawberry Creek.

 In the 72-acre Berkeley Meadow, 17 acres are being restored with enlarged seasonal ponds and native plants; the dirt mountain north of Virginia Extension will be used in this area. The project, financed as mitigation for destruction of 2.4 acres of wetlands on Port of Oakland lands, also will pay for trails in the area and fencing to protect wildlife habitat.

 North of the Meadow, Save the Bay and Friends of Five Creeks have completed a feasibility study of “daylighting” the mouth of Schoolhouse Creek – replacing the creek’s concrete culvert, once used to bring sewage and creek water to the Bay, and creating a new tidal channel and small salt marsh. The project is do-able, but costly due to lead in the former landfill.

CalTrans will attempt to establish eel grass in the North Basin itself, as mitigation for Bay Bridge construction. In the northern part of the North Basin Strip, Golden Gate Fields has sold 15 acres to be developed as ballfields run by a consortium of neighboring cities. A boat ramp is planned for this area. Separately from park plans, Ferry enthusiasts are eyeing the foot of Gilman as a possible location for an East Bay ferry terminal.

 Although the owners of Golden Gate Fields have promised to complete the Bay Trail, set aside their immediate waterfront lands as park, and enlarge the salt marsh at the mouth of Codornices Creek, the future for the area remains problematic. The owners withdrew a proposal for extensive development in the area of the grandstand, but have announced plans for a mall complex that could be even larger. Although expansion of building or most new uses would require a vote by the residents of Albany, Proposition 68 on the November ballot would allow major expansion of gambling at the track, overriding local ordinances. Groups such as Citizens for Eastshore State Park and the Sierra Club advocate making most of the property into park, but costs might be quite high.


Friends of Five Creeks, 510 848 9358, f5creeks@aol.com, www.fivecreeks.org.

 Citizens for Eastshore State Park, conservation-oriented group responsible for park creation, (510) 461-4665
e-mail: eastshorepark@hotmail.com, www.eastshorepark.org

 Save San Francisco Bay, works on many Bay environmental issues, (510)452-9261
savebay@saveSFbay.org, www.savesfbay.org.

 Friends of Albany Beach, 525 3125, susanmoffat@sprintmail.com

 Let It Be (wants to keep art and off-leash dogs on Bulb), www.albanyletitbe.com

Berkeley Path Wanderers Assn., www.berkeleypaths.org. To join, send $5 to BPWA, 1442A Walnut Street, #269; Berkeley, CA 94709

Aquatic Park EGRET, (510) 549-0818, markl@lmi.net


 Modern and original shoreline, from Creek and Watershed Map of Oakland & Berkeley, by Janet M. Sowers, William Lettis & Assoc., & San Francisco Estuary Institute, published by Oakland Museum of California, www.museumca.org/creeks

Copyright © 2005- Berkeley Path Wanderers Association and its licensors. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 29 January, 2012