THE HISTORY OF PIEDMONT
by Helen Stoddard Chenoweth (1928)
History of Alameda County
F. C. Merritt
[Editor's note: Helen Stoddard Chenoweth resided at 189 Vernon Terrace, Oakland, Alameda County, California according to the 1930 United States federal census. She lived in the household of her widowed step-father George Chenoweth. (T626-104, California, Alameda Co., ED 111, Oakland, p. 7A)]
HISTORY OF PIEDMONT.
Early Days. The Peralta Land Grant.
Piedmont, like its larger neighbor, Oakland, traces its origin to the Peralta’s. What is now Piedmont was included in the domain of more than fourteen thousand three hundred and thirty-eight acres granted to Don Luis Peralta by the Spanish Government on June 3, 1820, under the regime of Col. Pablo Vicente de Sola, the last Spanish governor of Alta California. These lands remained intact until 1842, forming the rancho San Antonio, which then occupied the future site of Oakland and its satellite towns. * In 1842 Don Luis divided the rancho among his four sons, as equally as possible, in tracts extending from the Bay to the hills.
To Jose Domingo he gave the northwest quarter, and to Vicente he gave the next part adjoining, which included the Encinal del Temescal, then an oak grove. Piedmont now occupies a site that was partly within both these grants, although the major portion of Jose Domingo's patrimony became the present City of Berkeley, while on the larger share of that of Vicente was reared the present City of Oakland.
With the influx of American settlers, the squatter problem arose. The Peralta brothers themselves made subdivisions, with the result that when California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850, the title to these lands was in dispute.
Much has been written concerning the land title difficulties following the acquisition of California by the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 2, 1848. Great confusion arose because of the transient character of many of the landmarks used by the Spaniards and Mexicans. Streams, sand hills, even corrals, clumps of trees, and plants were used as landmarks in various sections of California.
So great was the confusion that in 1849 and in 1850 Congress ordered investigations, and reports were submitted on the subject of California titles. It was not until 1851, how-ever, that Congress was able to agree upon a definite policy.
In that year, on March 3rd, the famous Land Act was passed by which a Board of Land Commissioners was created to hear the claims of the Spanish grantee or their heirs. Had the United States Government adhered to the letter of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which guaranteed that property held in the ceded Mexican territory would be "inviolably respected," the Land Act would not have been necessary. The Act, however, threw many titles into uncertainty, and endless litigation followed.
Domingo and Vicente Peralta were forced to have their titles quieted under this Act, and accordingly, on January 21, 1852, filed their claims to ownership before the Board of Land Commissioners which had been set up at San Francisco. The Commission acted favorably upon their claims on February 7, 1854, but this decision was not made binding until the United States Supreme Court handed down an opinion on February 19, 1858. On this date the country's highest tribunal "recognized and confirmed the title and claim of Domingo and Vicente Peralta to the tract of land known as San Antonio."
The United States patent was recorded in the office of Recorder Thomas A. Smith, of Alameda County, at the request of H. P. Irving, on March 14, 1877. Gradually the Peralta holdings, like those of other early Californiana, passed out of the hands of their original owners and their descendants. The Peraltas often surrendered a parcel of land in lieu of the purchase price of a bill of goods or in payment of some other debt.
In this manner many ranches sprang up on the old Peralta domains. The City of Piedmont took its origin from one of these ranches, the Blair Ranch, established by Walter Blair, who came to California from New England in the early '50's.
[Editor's note: I still have not found any solid evidence of the $1.25 Blair purchase]
THE COMING OF WALTER BLAIR
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 this 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.
A COMMUNITY OF RANCHES.
In the '60's this was a community of ranches, with farmhouses nestled among the hills. Adjoining the Blair ranch on the northeast was the Reed place, now Crocker Highlands. What is now Trestle Glen was the Beard ranch, while the Biglow and Gladding ranches we know today as Pleasant Valley and Vernon Heights. The ranch of Gerhardt Medeau stretched over what is now Merriwood and Montclair; to the north and adjoining the Medeau place was the ranch owned by Col. Jack Hayes, a picturesque figure who had been a member of the Texas rangers. Where the Fernwood dairy, conducted by Hammond and Hall on the Hayes ranch stood, about 1877, the Oakland-Antioch, or Sacramento Short Line trestle is now built at Thornhill and Moraga Road. That section is now known as Fernwood. John Hayes Hammond, later prominent in South African affairs, was of the Hammond family mentioned above.
The history of Piedmont runs so closely alongside that of Oakland that it is difficult to speak of one without reference to the other. The dividing line between Oakland and the county was at Twenty-sixth Street, better known in earlier days as Charter Street. All the land to the hills, north of Charter Street, and east of Broadway to Dimond Canyon, was know as Piedmont, a word meaning foot-hill, borrowed from the Italian, and most descriptive of this hilly region.
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 ‘70's when certain individuals of 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 thousand on his ranch near Santa Barbara. So well has this beautiful tree, especially the "globulus," or blue gun species, thrived 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.
Blair planted not only eucalyptus, which the ranchers of Piedmont discovered made a wonderful windbreak, but also the Monterey Cypress, seeds of the latter having been sent him by a friend in the South. The trees served to fill the barren spots in the hills; they were also useful for firewood, especially the eucalyptus, which when cut so on sends out shoots and is ready to supply a fresh lot of fuel within a few years.
Many of these trees still stand today; and in the heart of the civic center of Piedmont the visitor can see a lone eucalyptus, planted by Blair in 1878.
A PLEASURE RESORT.
In the ’70's and thereafter the East Bay was regarded by the people of San Francisco as a summer resort of easy access. The milder climate and the lack of fog and wind attracted many people from San Francisco. About 1876 an organization which called itself the Piedmont Springs Company, purchased from the Blair family approximately sixty acres of land. By good fortune a sulphur spring was discovered on the newly acquired tract (the spring in the canyon), and the owners decided to erect a hotel, knowing that it would be patronized by the people from across the bay. Accordingly before long crowds from "the City" spent their leisure hours in the three-story frame building with its four adjacent cottages, known as the Piedmont Springs Hotel. The beautiful gate to the Piedmont Civic Center now stands on the grounds occupied by this early structure. The fruit and vegetables for the hotel came from the ground that is now occupied by the Piedmont High School. Elaborate stables were maintained by the hotel where the Interdenominational Church now stands. For many years the hotel was patronized by horse fanciers, and just after the stables were erected they held some of the world's finest stud. The hotel was also the terminus of the telegraph line between the East Bay and Walnut Creek.
As years went on, other settlers with smaller holdings came to Piedmont. In 1863 the cemetery was moved from Nineteenth and Harrison Streets to its present site, the terminus of Piedmont Avenue. 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.