San Leandro Bay, Alameda County, California page 1 of 3
by Gary Lenhart


Sometimes looking back can help us better understand where we are now. In this spirit, the following history of the San Leandro Bay looks at not only it's physical changes, but also what influenced and motivated the people whose decisions led to those changes.

Some may find it hard to believe that the San Leandro Bay, in Alameda County, California, was once home to one of the world's most remarkable natural habitats. Fresh water that ran down creeks from the Oakland Hills mixed with salt water from the San Francisco Bay and created there a freshwater / saltwater marshland that was rich in nutrients and teaming with plant life. This together with the well protected environment and temperate climate, supported a vast and complex web of wildlife there.

However, almost immediately following the non-native migration of people into the area, especially following the California Gold Rush of 1849, and then again after the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, a major assault on the San Leandro Bay and its wildlife began.

Today virtually all of the original marshland and its habitat is gone. Only a very small amount of marsh, called Arrowhead Marsh, exists, and this is widely believed to be "second nature" (its result mainly due to human intervention), created around 1874 when a man-made earthen dam on the San Leandro Creek in the Oakland Hills failed and washed vast amounts of soil into the San Leandro Bay.

While most of the San Leandro Bay area's present day uses serve the "public good", serving millions of people annually (including at the Oakland International Airport), it is highly debatable if the loss of this natural wonderland truly served the public good.

Just as we are born into and inherit our physical world, and those changes that were made to it by those who came before us, so too we inherit our beliefs and views about the world, and then build upon, change, and make them our own. A look at the decisions made by those who so dramatically changed the San Leandro Bay, I hope will give us a better understanding of our current beliefs -- by way of where they, at least in part, came from.

Native Americans, Spanish Era, Human Migration

The first known Native Americans to inhabit the East Bay area are believed to have arrived approximately 3,000 years ago. These people, known as the Ohlone Indians, enjoyed the natural abundance of the area. They hunted and fished in the marshlands, in the bay, and also along the creeks. With no need to roam or move around in search of new sources of food or to fight neighbors for scarce resources, these were believed to be a peaceful people who remained in the same village locations over many generations, living off the bounty of the land.

Over 400 Indian burial mounds were found around the San Francisco Bay area. One, with the remains of about 450 people, was found in Alameda City near Santa Clara Ave. and Mound Street. It also contained "stone implements and shell ornaments." The natives decorated themselves with shells and feathers and they used stones, shells, and bones for tools, some of which can be seen in the pictures above, which were taken at the Alameda City Museum. The mound and its contents was "removed" in 1908. A plaque commemorating the burial mound can be found at Lincoln Park in Alameda City today. (see picture below)

European Discovery of the San Francisco Bay area in 1772

The San Francisco Bay area was "discovered" relatively late, not until 1772. This can likely be attributed to the small opening to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean at the Golden Gate, along with the area being often shrouded in fog, and also the natural camouflage that is provided by the East Bay hills seen in the background of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. In fact, the Bay Area was first seen by Europeans who were on a land expedition. They quickly claimed the land was owned by Spain.

Mission San Jose Established 1797

Just seven years later, in 1797, the Spanish established Mission San Jose in the East Bay (The San Jose Mission is located at 43300 Mission Blvd in what is Fremont, California today). Ohlone Indians lived in the area. Between 1825 and 1830 there were approximately 2,000 California natives living on the mission grounds. The mission raised cattle and sheep. In 1832 the mission had 12,000 cattle, 13,000 horses and 12,000 sheep which grazed between the area of the mission and Oakland. The mission was very productive and had the second highest agriculture output and the highest olive oil production of all of the California missions.  In 1833 the mission had thousands of acres of crops and grazing land stretching from San Jose to Oakland to Livermore.

In 1834 control of the missions shifted from the Spanish to the Mexicans and the Spanish Padres left. Within three years, by 1837, the San Jose Mission's land was divided into Ranchos and the mission buildings were abandoned. The natives that had been living there suddenly no longer had the support of the Mission and its way of life; finding it very difficult to adjust back to their previous ways, many of them died. 1

Spanish Rancho Era circa 1820-1850

In 1820 the King of Spain granted Luis Maria Peralta, a Spanish Army officer, a 44,800 acre, 35 mile land grant, known as a "rancho." The land was given to him in recognition for his service in the Spanish Army. The land included what are today the cities of: Alameda, Oakland, Piedmont, Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito.

In 1842, Luis Peralta divided his land up among his four surviving sons.  His third son, Antonio Peralta, received land that today includes the cities of Alameda and most of Oakland.

Before the Damming, Dredging, Filling and De-Forestation of the Land

The image at the left  is from a close-up of a map that was made in 1844  (map info) -  five years before the gold rush. The San Leandro label on the map is not identifying a city, but refers to the water, San Leandro Bay and San Leandro Creek, which at this point are not too indistinguishable, they are more like one body. S. Antonio is where the entrance to the estuary between Alameda and Oakland (the inner harbor) is today. Lake Merritt hasn't been "made" yet . Lake Merritt was made in 1869 from 155 acres of "dammed tidal water" from the headwaters of Indian Slough. First known as "Merritt's Lake", the land used to make Lake Merritt was donated by Dr. Samuel Merritt in 1867.

Alameda can be clearly seen as a peninsula in this map from 1844, which was fifty years before the "estuary" and "tidal canal were completed in 1902, which separated Alameda from Oakland and made Alameda an Island City.

Notice the "Pins Rouge" (Redwood Trees) in the Oakland Hills. Within just ten years these would all be cut down, creating a major change in the eco-system of the area.

Other than maps, there are very few visual references (such as photographs or drawings) during this early period. However, there are some early visual descriptions of what the environment was like at this time. In an address during the "Pioneers Picnic at Dry Creek" Judge Crane provided a first hand account of what the land in the area of Alameda County was like in the 1850s, when the ownership of the land was still largely controlled by a handful of large Spanish and Mexican land grants, with some squatters also beginning to gain some control of the land. During this period Judge Crane observes, "Nearly all of this land was still in a state of nature, unenclosed, uncultivated, and unoccupied, except as a range for herds of half a wild cattle." 2

San Antonio Forest and The "Blossom Rock Trees"

Two trees in the Oakland Hills were so tall that Sea Captains could see them as they entered the Golden Gate of the San Francisco Bay. Known as the “Blossom Rock” trees, the Sea Captains used them as a visual marker to help navigate safely away from the “Blossom Rock”, an underwater rock near Yerba Buena Island.4

In 1826, Captain F. Beechey, of the British Royal Navy, noted in his ship’s log (the H.M.S. Blossom) "dangerous rock lay roughly between Alcatraz and Yerba Buena islands in about a fathom of water. In order to miss the “Blossom” rock, one should line up the northern tip of Yerba Buena Island with two towering trees on the ridge of the Oakland Hills." 4A  On the first official map of the San Francisco Bay,  published by Navy Captain Cadwalader Ringgold in 1851, it clearly explains how ships should sight on the two “Navigation Trees” to avoid Blossom Rock. 4B 

After the trees were cut down in the early 1850s, a lighthouse was built on Yerba Buena Island to help guide the Ship Captains. Although many of the redwood trees in the forest were likely over 2,000 years old, in just about ten years the entire Redwood Tree forest in the Oakland Hills, called the San Antonio Redwood Forest, was virtually completely cut down. The trees were milled at saws in the Oakland Hills and the lumber was sold largely to people building the first buildings in San Francisco.

The plaque at the left, for California Registered Landmark No. 962, can be seen  near the Madrone picnic area in the Roberts Regional Recreation Area.

San Antonio Forest is Cut Down ca. 1842-1853, 1906

An early and major environmental impact caused by human activity started in 1842 when full-scale logging of the Oakland hills began. This was the same year Don Peralta divided his land among his four sons. The Redwoods in the Oakland Hills were in an old growth redwood forest called the San Antonio Forest. Visual accounts from the time indicate that the Oakland Hills may have had some of the oldest and biggest redwood trees in the world. William P. Gibbons, who in 1855 was the curator of geology and mineralogy at the California Academy of Sciences, in 1893 published “The Redwoods in the Oakland Hills.” It is a survey that he had made 40 years earlier and in 1855 he described the area as  a “sea of stumps.” He found one redwood tree stump that measured “over 31 feet across at a height of four feet from the ground." 3

After the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, once again there was a tremendous demand for wood in San Francisco. And once again, the San Antonio Redwood Forest was logged to provide lumber to build the city. This time however, not only the trees, which were now only second growth trees that had been growing for only about 50 years taken, but even the stumps were cut up and sold. This is especially unfortunate because redwood trees often grow new trees from their old stumps and their removal made it virtually impossible for the forest to ever recover.

Undoubtedly, the elimination of the trees in the Oakland Hills had a very severe impact on the surrounding ecosystem -- including causing a vast amount of soil erosion, which washed large amounts of soil down the creeks and into the San Leandro Bay. It is also highly likely that the removal of the trees had a devastating cascading impact on a variety of plant and animal life, whose existence was intertwined with the trees. The area is very different now from how it was before the old growth forest was logged in the 1840s, however, there is there today a redwood forest, of Coast Redwood Trees, that are now up to about 150 years old in Redwood Regional Park. This park is one of 65 parks that now make up the East Bay Regional Park District, and also includes Tilden Park. As it describes in the brochure to the left, the Regional Parks, established in 1934, "offer the people of the East Bay natural types of recreation in native California countryside surroundings. They are created and maintained as a semi-wildwood area designed to protect, preserve and increase native plant and animal life in addition to furnishing recreational areas of varied interest to all age groups."3A

Continued on Next Page

Before N.A.S. 1937
Alameda, California

Hovercraft 1965
Oakland Airport


Bay Farm in 1966
Alameda, California has information about Alameda, California and also some other areas, mainly in California. Content may be viewed for your personal educational use only and otherwise not be copied or used in any way.  
About this site
 Send Email