Oakland's First Park -- Blair Park in Piedmont

“Oakland’s Deserted Park”



By ARTHUR LEWIS

Oakland Tribune – Sun - Oct. 15, 1916


Before Oakland had any electric cars, its street railway system consisted of horse-drawn vehicles and two lines of cable roads; one ran from Seventh and Broadway out of San Pablo Avenue to Emeryville.


It was built at great expense, was not much faster than horse drawn cars and never paid its upkeep. The other line ran out of Broadway to Twenty-fourth street, out of Oakland Avenue, thence over the hills to Piedmont.


This road had more reason for being than its rival, for the cable system had been used in San Francisco for years and had demonstrated perfectly its hill-climbing capabilities, so that was one of the reasons a party of capitalists finances the Piedmont Cable line.


But cable roads are expensive to construct, trenches must be dug, steel braces at intervals of twenty feet, the entire length of the road, double-tracked and cemented, a great power house where massive machinery whirred, and miles of steel cable, which had to be replaced at regular intervals as it wore out. All this comes high, so it is obvious that a great number of nickels must be rung up daily to keep the wheels turning.


When the Piedmont cable road was built the population of Piedmont was in embryo, but the builders were figuring on the road bringing the population, by making the charming country which it tapped easy of access.


They had a cinch, for automobiles were in the chrysalis stage, ad as all the land in Piedmont was owned by the biggest stockholder in the road, there was little worry about an opposition line.


So for a year or two the road hauled its cargo of passengers out into the fields beyond Oakland, and the owners had the satisfaction of seeing their dream come true, for people began to buy and build and Oakland started to creep up toward Piedmont and the latter place came down the hill to meet Oakland.


But still something was needed to bring great numbers of people; something that was velvet, the receipts from the regular travelers on the road would just about cover operating expenses, with very little, if any, left over to divide with the stockholders.


Since the residents of the exclusive district as it soon became had put the resort known as the Springs out of business, there was no drawing card that would brig the people with their nickels. So the directors got together and the idea of a park was decided upon.


A site was secured on a gentle slope adjacent to the cemetery and separated from it by a small lake. Laborers with picks, shovels and mules got busy grading, building paths and lawns and after some months of labor, Oakland’s first regular park made its debut, and the people were invited to come and make merry.


As there was at the time nothing like it in Oakland, and as there was music every Saturday and Sunday, and as the ride to the park was most enjoyable, the people came, and in such numbers that extra cars had to be put on the run, and at last the Piedmont line began to feel the “velvet”.


The first improvement erected in the park was a bandstand. This was the typical eight-cornered affair, supported by mill-turned posts, the apex of the roof crowned by a gilt lyre so that it could not be misunderstood for anything but a place where music was dispensed, and here a German picnic band of twelves pieces would render “Annie Rooney.” “She May Have Seen Better Days,” “Two Little Girls in Blue,” “When Her Father Turned Her Picture Toward the Wall” and other classics of the day, interspersed with selections from “Erminie” and “Robbin Hood” or with the intermezzo from “Rusticana.”


Around the bandstand, under the shade of the cypress and gum trees would promenade the youth and beauty of the town, aye, even from the metropolis they would come, while on the benches under the long row of trees which bordered the main walk, those who sat, would enjoy the passing throng and pass the comments while eating peanuts and popcorn.


To keep the crowd, other improvements were gradually added, but the main one, the Chef d’Oeuvre as it were, was a grand fountain, just back of the bandstand. This was supposed to be the great decorative feature of the park, something that would give it éclat as it were. So local sculptors and artists were invited to submit designs.


A plumber and gasfitter’s bid was the lowest so he captured the job. His design was supposedly classic, but was conventional in motif, consisting of an overfed plaster of paris Cupid with a dislocated hip on which he supported a fish of the man-eating shark type. A strangle-hold amidships of the fish and the upturned face of the Cupid, with an expression of extreme bliss gave one the impression that he was well satisfied with his job.



From the open mouth of the fish of the unknown species a stream of water about the size made by the ordinary garden horse squirted a few feet upward and fell back with a splash on the Cupid’s nose where it rickled over his dropsical form, until it fell in the basin underneath. A couple of gold fish and a mud turtle made up the piscatorial end of it, much to the delight of the kids, who employed every known means to scoop them in.



THE LURE OF ART.


At the fountain the promenaders would stop and gaze, some with awe and some with merriment, at the wonderful work of art, and the youngsters would sail chip boats and fall in, just as youngsters have been doing and will be doing until the end of time.


Around the fountain and the bandstand constituted the promenade and as the area of the park was rather limited, it took about sixty laps to the mile, the whole park could be places within the present auditorium, but small as it was it was considered a gem of its kind and its natural beauty was the drawing card.


The young men wore cutaway coats, a very low cut waistcoat displaying a vast expanse of striped shirt front, a cuff around the throat in place of a collar, and a long thin cravat which had to be pinned to the inside of the waistcoat to keep it from flapping in the wind like a pennant. The trousers, cut very wide, were the same width over the instep, so that about an inch of the boot protruded, while a black silk stripe down the sides gave a touch of elegance.


The young women wore no skirts that displayed from the eight to twelve inches of stocking, but just the reverse, it seemed to be immodest to show even the feet, so the skirt trailed behind them on the ground; but the waists were the marvel of the century. The sleeves were large enough to conceal a couple of hams in and to prevent them from being crushed the young ladies had to keep so far away from their escorts that the width of the walk would just about accommodate the couple.


As the devotees of fashion promenaded around the walks the trailing skirts of milady stirred up the dust, and several hundred of these animated brooms would create some disturbance in that line, so that everything was seen through a dusty haze.


After the band had blown itself out, the concessions would be visited, the merry-go-around, whose wheezy organ, playing “Down Went McGinty,” mingled with the stains of “Il Trovatore” from the band, was enough to make the inhabitants of the cemetery across the reservoir revolve in their graves.


Then the tintype gallery, where the swains and their fair ladies would be waiting in line, to have their tintypes “took,” the meanwhile chewing gum and munching popcorn.


Great numbers also took the trail to Inspiration Point, the highest peak of the foothills back of the park. It was a dusty back-breaking path alongside a barbed wire fence which separated the domain of the quick from the dead. At its top was a flagpole indicating the summit, and those who reached it and made the return trip, dusty and perspiring, considered they were in the same class of the greatest climber who ever scaled the Matterhorn.


The homeward journey from the park was of the chief delights; after the cable cards left the park they went under gravity; the grade was sufficient to send them under their own momentum around a loop, through flower-studded fields, resembling a huge Oriental rug. The course was winding and the cars went with great speed around the curves and up gentle slopes. It was then that the boys and girls sat close together regardless of voluminous sleeves and thus decorated with ferns and wild flowers and singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” would the homeward trip be made.


THE RETURN TRIP


After the car had made the loop, it would run into the main line, pick up the cable, and slowly drag its way over the hills toward Oakland whose spires and turrets were halftoned in a sea of purple mist.



Oakland’s first park today is deserted. The basin of the circular fountain is still there, but is a depository for old hats, cans and other refuse. It is overrun with rank weeds and blackberry vines, and a tight board fence bisects it, to apparently shut out forever the memory of the park from its neighbor, the peaceful city of the dead. Where the bandstand once stood, a forest of eucalyptus stands like great pillars, supporting a green trellised dome, while the ground is covered to a depth of several inches with weathered branches and dead leaves, through which occasional patches of cement walks can be seen. The elephantine Cupid, once the pride of the park, now decorates the lawn of a retired butcher somewhere out on Grand Avenue, while to complete the desolation the wind from the cemetery sighs and moans through the eucalyptus causing long strips of peeling bark to rattle weirdly against their ghost like trunks.


Old hats and castoff clothing bestrews the place, and the long walk beneath the arches trees, where twenty years ago the youth and beauty strolled and breathed the fresh air, is hidden from view by layers of dead leaves, which rustle when walked over, as if complaining at the disturbance.


The new generation of today now enjoys the velvet lawns and beautiful splashes of color of Oakland’s well-groomed park, while lolling under the shade of some fantastic old oak, the cooling breezes of Lake Merritt temper the atmosphere, while the strains from Steindorff’s well-conducted band bring a sense of peace to the soul.



Read more about Blair's Park in Piedmont, California here.