The Trail Companion
Theme: Parks with a Past
A Brief History of Bay Area Parks and Open Spaces
Part 1. From the 1840s through the 1950s
By Brian Kunde.
In an increasingly overcrowded Bay Area, privately held
open space is disappearing at an alarming pace. Yet our
region also boasts a greenbelt preserve unmatched in any
other major metropolitan area and seemingly immune to the
pressures of the Silicon Valley economy. This did not come
about by chance, but much of the story behind it is
invisible. Go to any park and you will easily ascertain its
name, elevation, something of the natural history, some
idea of where the good trails are. You may discover
something of its cultural history such as early settlement,
logging and mining, or importance in local events. But you
will probably learn only a little of the park's own stories
- why, when and how it was established - and those stories,
as well as the larger story of how the greenbelt came to
be, are well worth knowing.
Exploitation and Unintentional Conservation
The concept of resources existing and being treasured
for their own sake is a relatively recent one in American
culture. Far more basic seems to be the idea that they
should be made property, exploited for whatever can be
gotten from them. And for much of our history the proper
use of public lands was held to be that they should be
converted to private ownership as soon as humanly
So it was in California.
Prior to European settlement, nearly all the native
Californian tribes considered the land as being held in
common, but once the Spanish, and then the Americans
expelled them from their lands, ownership and economic
exploitation came first, and preservation as an
afterthought. Land was good for its minerals, its lumber,
its pasturage, its water, its potential for farming and
real estate. So it was mined, logged, grazed, drunk from,
grown on and lived on. Only when those activities had been
going on for some time was much thought given to saving it
for recreation, or "future generations." In the beginning,
the vastness of the land and the scantiness of the
population did more to preserve it than any positive
impulse in that direction.
The impulse started small,
when the residents of San Francisco and Oakland began to
think that it might be good to have public parks in the
early 1850s. The thought was immediately contested - real
estate was real estate, and the public benefit of a city
park was a tough sell to men more interested in immediate
private profit. Parks on a grander scale were an even
tougher sell. The dream of Golden Gate Park did not even
begin to be realized until 1870, and then took a state act
to push it past opposing interests. Oakland's park at Lake
Merritt only took shape in the early years of the twentieth
Meanwhile, less altruistic
interests were shaping the future of the area's open lands.
The need for water in San Francisco and the hope of a water
monopoly lay behind the formation of the Spring Valley Water Company in 1860,
but its stealthy buying up of the San Andreas valley
watershed for reservoirs proved crucial in saving it from
later development. Across the bay the East Bay Water
Company played a similar role. Several competing companies,
meanwhile, gradually diked off the wetlands ringing the
bay, as salt ponds. While their activities drastically
reduced the area's natural marshes, they also helped save
them from filling and development, leaving open the
possibility of later restoration.
The early millionaires who
built up vast personal estates on the Peninsula were
another factor in limiting development, though in most
instances they merely delayed the inevitable. A spectacular
exception was the Stanford estate. Leland Stanford's
inalienable bequest of his land to the university bearing
his son's name in 1885 maintained a vast area of the
Peninsula's foothills in their natural state right into the
present. Only the recent emergence of the university itself
as a major developer threatens its status.
Money-Making Scenery and the Yosemite Effect
Early appreciation of scenic attractions was reflected
primarily in efforts to exploit them as such commercially.
In the Bay Area, Mount Diablo was a particular target of
such efforts, beginning with the building of a private toll
road to the summit in 1874. New auto toll roads were
constructed between 1912 and 1915 as part of a speculative
resort development. Its subsequent bankruptcy provided
openings both for preservation and further development
efforts later on.
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