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Walter Blair

Walter Blair photo

The Bay of San Francisco : the metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its suburban cities : a history

by Lewis Publishing Company 1892, p232-233:

Walter Blair was one of Oakland's progressive and representative citizens. He was born at Ryegate, Vermont, April 2, 1830, of Scotch parents, one of a family of twelve children, nine of whom are living He grew up inured to the activities of a life upon a New England farm, and in 1852 came by water, rounding Cape Horn, to the new El Dorado of the West. During his first year in California he engaged in various pursuits in San Francisco, and in 1853 came to Oakland and purchased the land adjacent to this city, including the site of Piedmont and the property known as Blair's ranch. He engaged in farming for a number of years and also conducted a dairy. He was successful in all his business ventures, while property advanced in value. He always had great faith in Oakland's future prosperity, and as property advanced in value he sold a portion of his land and purchased inside property. At length he left the Piedmont homestead and moved into Oakland, where he built a residence and occupied it many years. He also built a large three-story hotel in 1876, at the corner of Fourteenth and Clay streets, known as the "Centennial," which is still a portion of his estate and was his home at the time of his death. He was a man of genial and generous disposition, a fond father and devoted husband. In his intercourse with men he was a gentleman of the strictest integrity and honor; he was public spirited and had been identified with the development of the city of Oakland from its earliest history. He invested his means in enterprises of a public character. He was extensively interested in the building of street railroads, having been one of the builders and owners of the Broadway and Piedmont railroad, the Fourteenth street system, with the Market and Adeline street branches, and the Piedmont branch, which was his own individual enterprise. He also owned considerable real estate about the city, and at one time was a director of the Oakland Bank of Savings. Some years ago he purchased a portion of the Tompkins property, near the Laundry farm, which he still owned by his estate.

Politically he was a stanch Republican and for many years a member of the City Central Committee and a liberal contributor to the campaign fund. He was at one time nominated as an independent candidate for the Assemble, and was frequently mentioned for the office of Mayor, but of late years had declined to enter public life.

To the appeal of charity he never turned a deaf ear, and many were his unostentatious deeds of benevolence. He was ever ready to assist his fellow man, and there are many who gratefully remember his generous assistance.

There are two sisters of the deceased residing in Oakland, namely: Mrs. J Young, Mrs. O. I. Denison. William Blair, a brother, has recently deceased. Matthew Blair  is a resident of San Francisco; also his brothers, James and George, reside in Solano County. Other members of his family reside in the


East.In 1862, at Napa City, Mr. Blair was united in marriage with Miss Phebe Harvey, who also was a native of Vermont, and they had two daughters,—Ethel and Mabel E.

After an active and useful life of fifty-seven years, although his death was sudden and unexpected, Mr. Blair passed to the higher life January 17, 1887, leaving a wife and two grown daughters to mourn his loss.

 The San Francisco Examiner -

Wed - Jan. 18, 1888

 Oakland Tribune - Sun - Sep. 19, 1926

The Mountainview Cemetery's Blog had a great write up on him:

Walter Blair (1830 - 1888)  Plot  28, Lot 11

Walter Blair and his brother William, Vermont natives, came to California via Cape Horn in 1852, and settled in Alameda County in 1853.


The area that is now Piedmont, and parts of Oakland, was originally a community of ranches. The Beard Ranch is now Trestle Glen; the Biglow and Gladding ranches are now Pleasant Valley and Vernon Heights. Walter Blair created the largest of these - 600 acres. 


Other landowners included early Piedmont pioneers Isaac Requa, Hugh Craig, Jesse Wetmore and James Gamble. The estates generally were self-sufficient with their own water, fruits & vegetables, livestock and chicken.


A farmer and dairyman, Blair’s dairy farm property ran from the cemetery wall (on the Moraga Avenue side) to and beyond Blair Avenue in Piedmont. He bought the land from the US Government, which now owned most of the original Vicente Peralta land grant. 


Blair’s Dairy was at the southwest corner of what is now El Cerrito and Blair Avenues. The dairy supplied milk and butter to the surrounding area and San Francisco. He raised cattle and planted wheat and barley. Old-timers referred to it as “Blair’s Pasture.” 

In 1862, Walter married fellow Vermont native Phoebe Harvey, with whom he had two daughters – Ethel (aka Florence) and Mabel. They lived in a house on Highland.


Blair and his brother planted Eucalyptus trees, which still provide the border between Mountain View Cemetery and Piedmont. These trees were known as “Blair’s Gum Trees” and ran from Moraga Road to Montclair. They were removed in 1936 for street widening. 

Diagonally across from the dairy, Blair developed a quarry where Dracena Park was later located, and sold the basalt and chert to pave streets in Oakland and Piedmont. Some of the rock from the quarry can still be seen at MVC where it was used to make gravestones. When the quarry filled with water, the quarry became a favorite swimming hole. When someone drowned in the 1920s, the city filled the quarry with construction debris. 


Blair made his major mark was made in the field of transportation. Along with Montgomery Howe, he founded the Broadway & Piedmont Railroad horsecar line. He was also involved in lines that ran up H Street, Market and Adeline. Both James Gamble and Montgomery Howe were investors in his transportation companies.


Not only did the streetcars provide service for Oakland, but it brought prospective property owners and homeowners to Piedmont. This was also why both the Key System, developed by Borax Smith in the 1890s and early 20th century, and rail lines in L.A. built by Henry H. Huntington at the turn of the 20th century were built.


The Key System served a number of neighborhoods, particularly where development was happening.

·      The B served Lakeshore and Trestle Glen

·      The C served Piedmont

·      The E served Claremont


It was Blair who designed the cable car grip that replaced the original one of Hallidie’s -- the basic design still in use today. 

In 1870, Walter Blair built the Piedmont Springs Hotel where natural sulpher springs bubbled from the ground. The hotel became the terminus for one his streetcar lines. The streetcars ran hourly, connecting the hotel to Piedmont Avenue, where riders could transfer to Oakland or head to the ferries to travel to San Francisco.


The hotel had 20 bedrooms and five dining rooms. The main dining room featured a crystal chandelier, fine china and velvet drapes. It could seat up to 35 guests. The water of the spring was thought to have curative powers. Wealthy San Franciscans journeyed to the hotel during to visit "the country" and often stayed for a week. It was considered one of the finest resorts in California at the time. One of the most famous visitors was Mark Twain, who arrived in 1871. 

In 1884, in Moraga Canyon, at the end of his Oakland and Piedmont Railroad horsecar line where the hotel now stood, Blair developed a 75-acre amusement park, Blair’s Park. This was an inducement for people to ride his street railroad, which took someone 25 minutes to travel by horsecar up the hill from downtown Oakland to Blair's Park. At the park you could sail small boats, ride ponies, watch acrobats hang from hot air balloons, have a picnic by one of the waterfalls and listen to music.


1n 1890, the Consolidated Piedmont Cable Company leased the park from Blair’s widow and added attractions to lure more riders to their cable cars. The offered free concerts on Saturday and Sunday and built a dancing pavilion. There were also plans for a 3-story casino with a large veranda, but it was never built.

The Park eventually saw it’s demise due to a number of circumstances, including competition from other amusement parks (Bushrod, Idora and Shell Mound), problems with “hoodlums and hooligans,” and a tragic balloon accident involving a 6-year-old boy named Bertram Hills. 5,000 people witnessed the boy fall 1,000 feet from the sky. Newspaper accounts claim that Mrs. Edna Olney fainted when she saw the boy fall from the sky. In 1897, Blair’s heirs put the park up for sale. It was purchased in 1902 by Frank Havens’ nephew, the poet George Sterling. By 1904, it was owned by the Havens Realty Syndicate and developed with homes around 1917.


In January 1891, the women of Piedmont led a temperance movement to block the sale of liquor at the Piedmont Springs Hotel, which was increasingly getting complaints about noise and public drunkeness. They petitioned the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to withdraw the liquor license granted to the owner of the hotel. The liquor controversy ended quickly with the Piedmont Springs Hotel fire in the early morning of November 17, 1892. The absence of any water supply left the occupants of the doomed building no other recourse than to sit down in the shade and watch the building burn. The closest fire station was 5 miles away in Oakland and the horses had a difficult time getting the fire equipment up the steep hills.


Mountain View Cemetery purchased the land between the lower and middle lakes.


This is not the same Blair Park that we know today off Moraga Ave, although it shares some of the same footprint. 

In 1877, Blair sold 350 acres to James Gamble, then president of Western Union Telegraph.  James Gamble built a large home on the property on Hillside Avenue, established the Piedmont Land Company and planned to sell the rest of the property for homes. The President of the Company was George Beaver, with Gamble as VP. Investors involved in the venture included S.P. Van Loben Sels, T.L. Barker, James de Fremery and L.A. Booth. Directors included Booth, as well as  James Gamble, Henry Bigelow and Arthur Bowman.


With the development of homes, schools were needed. The nearest school was miles down a dusty country road at 28th & West St. Walter’s brother, William, drafted a petition in 1878, which was submitted to the Alameda County Board of Education. The state required that 5 students were required to start a school. 

George Hume, a local millionaire had two school age children. Along with Walter’s two children and one other local child they met the requirement.


George Hume’s sister-in-law, Zylphia Raymond, was a teacher and was appointed as Piedmont’s first school teacher. The first classes were held in the Hume home. Three years later the first school was constructed at what is now Piedmont Ave and Pleasant Valley Rd. Mrs. Raymond ran the school until 1880, when the attendance “swelled” to ten students and a schoolhouse had to be built. The school was built on land purchased from Montgomery Howe (near what is now Mather Road). 


Not all kids attended the school, as many had home tutors.


Walter Blair did not live to see his ranch become the city of Piedmont.

In 1876, he built the 3-story Centennial Hotel at the corner of 14th and Clay in Oakland, and lived there at the time of his death in 1888. His wife insisted that get away from the lonely and isolated country life of Piedmont. He would die in his apartment there 11 years later at the age of 57 of complications from diabetes. 

 The San Francisco Examiner -

Tues - Oct. 5, 1897

Blair's home in Piedmont

From the Piedmont Post, July 8, 2020, it mentioned Blair was raised on his family's dairy farm with 11 siblings. When he got to San Francisco his brother and him rowed across the Bay to the Piedmont hills and purchased a property that extended from Scenic Avenue west to Grand Avenue. With his brother they selected a site just south of Moraga Avenue near a freshwater spring and built a modest one-room cabin. They ended up naming the pathway from Moraga to their home “Vernal” because of the abundant ferns and shrubs that grew around that nearby spring. Later that street was renamed to Highland Avenue in 1911.

Blair started a dairy in what is today Dracena Park. The dairy had high quality milk, cream and butter. Their milk was delivered locally as well as to a few wealthy San Francisco customers. In order to better serve his customers, Blair realized he needed to better roads. Blair hired Chinese laborers to quarry rock from a basalt outcropping near his dairy and sold crushed rock to lay over the muddy/dusty streets in Oakland. Today you can see those walls of the quarry in the lower part of Dracena Park. In 1926, the Blair homestead was demolished and Waldo Avenue was created.

The Walter Blair house, the earliest home in what is now Piedmont, circa 1910.jpg

Oakland Tribune – Sun – Jun. 22, 1952



Blair set up a dairy ranch to supply Oakland and neighboring communities with milk and butter on the site of the old Peralta grazing lands. He milked his cows at what is now Blair and Carmel Avenues and let grass for his cattle grow on the rest of his 600 acres.

History of Alameda County, California
by Merritt, Frank Clinton, 1928:

In 1852, attracted to California as were so many other New Englanders, Walter Blair arrived in San Francisco from Vermont. He crossed the Bay to Oakland in a row-boat, walked to the foot-hills, and camped at what is now the corner of Blair and Highlands avenues. In that same year Blair purchased from the United States Government, which held part of the old Peralta grant, some six hundred acres, paying $1.25 an acre. Land was then the cheapest goods in the possession of the United States Government; it had just received an empire from Mexico. On his camp-site, within a short time Blair erected a one- room cabin. This later formed the central portion of the Blair homestead, often denominated in after years “the house of mystery,” and occupied until March 4, 1924, by the pioneer’s daughter, Mrs. Edward Roberts, who was known to the community only by her maiden name of “Miss Blair.” Blair engaged in the dairy business, supplying milk and butter to the surrounding community. He also opened a quarry from which was taken much of the rock for paving the streets of Oakland in early days. Chinese coolies worked in this quarry; for years their foreman was a Spaniard by the name of Antone Schuman.

Stock and grain were the principal products of these hilly ranches, which were barren of shade trees save for scrub-oak and buck-eye. In the 70s, when certain individuals in California conceived the idea of importing the picturesque eucalyptus from Australia, William H. Blair, brother of Walter Blair, introduced some of these trees into the East Bay. The introduction of the eucalyptus to California is one of the most remarkable arboricultural activities in the history of the state. Of upwards of two hundred varieties of this tree found in Australia, many have been planted with success in California. Among the pioneer planters was Elwood Cooper, California’s first commissioner of horticulture, who set out many thousands on his ranch near Santa Barbara. So well has this beautiful tree, especially the “globulus,” or blue gum species, thriven in California, that the stranger unversed in tree lore might well conclude that the eucalyptus were indigenous. Many a barren landscape has been made a pleasing prospect by these huge trees, with their straight trunks and glossy green leaves.

...About 1875 Montgomery Howe and Walter Blair built the first street railway in Piedmont from Seventh and Washington streets to Mountain View Cemetery. These cars were drawn by horses.

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