Piedmont Sulphur Springs (& Hotel)

The start of Piedmont Park:

Piedmonter - March 14, 1989​:

 

In the spring of 1870 a group of prominent San Francisco businessmen backed the building of a modest resort hotel in Piedmont. Their goal was to develop the springs as a regional attraction and to encourage people to move to the slowly developing community.

 

In addition to the hotel itself, several cottages, summer house and a long row of stables were built and maintained by the hotel.

 

In the early 1860s, Walter Blair, one of Piedmont's first residents, and Oakland resident Samuel Howe created one of the East Bay's first street car lines running from Broadway and Seventh, up Piedmont

Avenue to Mountain View Cemetery.

 

Following the completion of the Piedmont Hotel, Blair extended his horse-powered street car line from the

cemetery to the hotel.

 

Mark Twain and John Muir were among Piedmont Hotel's famous visitors. Muir described the view from Piedmont in his book West of the Rocky Mountains: “From the hills above Piedmont, a pleasant suburb, and destined hereafter to be dotted all over with villas, the observer looks down upon Oakland, stretching along the bay and estuary for five miles or more."

 

On New Year's Day in 1886, a disastrous fire struck the hotel, burning it to its foundations. Later a club house was built on the site but never again would a hotel stand in Piedmont as more and more people settled down to stay.

 

Were the Piedmont Hotel still in existence, it would be located across Highland Avenue from the Wells Fargo

Bank. The stables would be opposite the Community Hall parking lot, and the springs could be found two-thirds of the way into the glen towards the football field.

History of Alameda County, California by Merritt, Frank Clinton

 

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, and the owners decided to erect a hotel. They knew that the establishment would be well patronized by San Franciscans. 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 ground occupied by this early structure. The hotel was supplied with fresh fruit and green vegetables from an orchard and garden which were planted on ground now occupied by the Piedmont High School. Elaborate stables were maintained by the hotel on the site of the Interdenominational Church of today. For years the hotel was the resort of horse fanciers, and in their prime the stables housed some of the finest steeds in the world. From the days of the Spanish to the close of the racetracks, fine horses were bred in California. The hotel in the old days also was the terminus of the telegraph line between the East Bay and Walnut Creek.

Overland Monthly, 1901, p513:

No historical record of Piedmont can be found, but several old settlers have kindly given us some authentic facts of interest. Although without the city limits, Piedmont Park and Springs is virtually an extension of Oakland. A portion of the Piedmont Park property originally belonged to Mr. Walter Blair , but he sold it to the “ Piedmont Land Company," and it now is included in the Park. “

 

The Piedmont Land Company" was incorporated April 14 , 1853, with Mr. James Gamble as its President, and five directors. Its object, as set forth in the original certificate, was to " engage in and carry on the business of buying and selling real estate in Alameda County," and to make such improvements as should be necessary.

 

Mr. James Gamble suggested the pretty name of Piedmont, derived from the Piedmontese hills of Italy, meaning " at the foot of the mountain ." No more appropriate name could be found. A hotel was built on the site of the present Club House, and the sulphur Springs were Piedmont Driveway. somewhat improved , blue gum trees were planted, and rustic seats were prepared. In those early days it became a very popular resort. At first the grounds were open to the public, but some years ago the tract passed into the hands of the Realty Syndicate, which company has made all the varied improvements mentioned at the commencement of this article. The original hotel was burned down, and the new modern Club -House is not only frequented by the public during the day, but is rented for private affairs, dinners, etc. , in the evening. In early days that portion of Piedmont known as Blair Park, was thronged by thousands on Sunday, when open- air con certs and balloon ascensions were given with a view to attracting the public. The present owners desire to keep the Park artistic and refined , and intend to make it the most beautiful pleasure ground in California.

From a Stanford Exhibit:

The present map is likely the same map that was filed on April 2, 1877 with the Alameda County Recorder. This example is nearly identical to the example held by the Bancroft, but does not include the number 27 at the top left corner in the inset map, and may in fact be an earlier version of the map. The map identifies Piedmont in its earliest inhabited days, showing the home of Walter Blair, Blair's Dairy, the Blair Quarry, and Sulpher Springs, along with the Piedmont Hotel and subdivision, early roads, proposed extension of the Oakland and Piedmont Street Railway, etc. The names of early land owners are shown. The map also includes pencil annotations showing proposed streets, and surveyor's information, reflecting its ownership by William F. Boardman, one Oakland's first City Engineers and one of Alameda County's first County Surveyors, who would remain one of the most important planning and development forces in the East Bay from the 1860s until the turn of the Century.

Map of Piedmont Park in 1871

In 1850, what is now Piedmont was part of Rancho San Antonio, owned by the Peralta family, and covered much of the northeastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Rancho San Antonio was sparsely populated except for cattle and their tenders. In 1860, retired South Carolinian Congressman Isaac Holmes bought a piece of land from his neighbor Reed. The area included Bushy Dell Creek, a creek that runs through the dog-walking trail of modern-day Piedmont.

 

In 1870, Walter Blair bought over 800 acres in the foothills of East Bay. Where the spring was located he built the Piedmont Springs Hotel, of 20 bedrooms and five dining rooms. The water of the spring was thought to have curative powers. Wealthy San Franciscans retired to the hotel during trips to "the country." In addition to the hotel, Blair built a dairy farm on what is now Highland Avenue and a quarry where Dracena Park is today.

 

In April 1877, James Gamble bought a 350 acre tract of land from Blair, and formed the Piedmont Land Company, along with James de Fremery, George W. Beaver, L.A. Booth, and T.L. Barker. The Piedmont Land Company hired landscape engineer William Hammond Hall to plan the avenues and subdivide the tract into 67 parcels. The first auction of land took place on April 10, 1877. As noted in the September 15, 1974 edition of the Oakland Tribune at page 62. William F. Boardman, the hardware salesman who educated himself as a civil engineer and became simultaneously Oakland city engineer and Alameda County surveyor. Boardman came to California in 1851 and spent seven years in the hardware business in San Francisco. [Later], he moved to Oakland where he lived until his death in 1906 at age 82. He held both the city engineer and county surveyor posts from 1864 to 1868 and assisted in the development of many public utilities and services in the area, including Contra Costa County Water Co.'s Lake Temescal Dam, San Leandro Dam and Central Pacific Railroad's main line from the Sierra Summit to Truckee. 

Bushy Dell Creek went from the sulfur springs down into Piedmont Ave (now Magnolia Ave) and Bushy Dell Avenue (now Palm Drive) to Pleasant Valley Ave (now Grand Ave)

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Oakland Tribune -Sat - Oct. 16, 1897

I should here mention that Blair's Park property should cover 450 acres, and was originally intended to be included in Piedmont Park, as it is shown on the first map, but Blair backed out of the arrangement. It was unfortunate for him that he did, tor he would have had his property improved and received a good price for it. Piedmont Park property has sold sold as high as $3,000 per acre in plots and about double that price in lots. The two tracts combined aggregate 800 acres.


In addition to what I have mentioned we are to have a park within a park, and this will be within a few hundred feet of the Sather tract. The Piedmont Springs Hotel tract, or that portion originally known as Bushy Dell, where the sulphur springs are located, is being highly improved, already water falls, cascades and rustic bridges are being made in the dell, and many rare plants and choice trees have been planted. In this tract there are thirty five acres, all of which is to be handsomely laid out in winding paths, grass plats and beautiful flowering plants. Of course there is something back of this. It means in the near future a handsome and commodious hotel where it will delight every Oaklander to take our visitors: where one can overlook all of this beautiful park, view the bay for thirty mlles north and south and see the ships sail out the Golden Gate. Where can you find anything to compare to it?
 

Map of Piedmont Park - 1883

Sulphur Springs:

Facts that need to be researched more --> how and when the springs were found. This was from the Queen of the Hills book that sometimes doesn't have the most accurate facts. I will research more when libraries fully open most covid again:

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Edward T. Planner discovered these facts about Piedmont -

Information from the Bancroft Library supposedly says:

"A group of white sulfur springs was 'discovered not long ago about two and one half miles from Oakland on the farm of Mr. Reed. As a matter of fact the springs were actually 're-discovered', as they had been found and used for the cure of rheumatism by the late Mr. Holmes formerly a prominent member of Congress from South Carolina. Mr. Holmes, having found by experience the curative valued of the water, took up his residence on this farm and finally purchased half of it. After his death the importance of the springs passed out of the minds of the few persons who had any knowledge if them.

"But not long ago (1869)  a shrewd citizen of Oakland (name unknown), having an eye for attractive building locations, made and offered for the entire Reed farm and, while walking over it, discovered the old bathtub which Mr. Holmes had used in his self-treatment... The farmer related the incident about the former use of a spring down in the ravine nearby which had been thought by some to have valuable mineral properties. This casually described spring turned out, upon examination, to be several strong white sulphur springs within a few yards of each other.  The largest threw out a good volume of water and left a light gray deposit in its course. The water smelled and tasted like that of the white sulphur springs near St. Helena in Napa County."

Oakland Tribune - Sun - Jun. 20, 1926:

On the northeast was Reed ranch, now Crocker highlands. On the south side were the Beard, Biglow and Gladding rachen on what we now know as Trestle Glen, Pleasant Valley, and Vernon Heights.

…William Blair, brother of Walter, brought the first eucalyptus and cypress trees to the district and planted them about the hills. Many of them are still standing, one, a larger eucalyptus stands in the civic center.

When the sulfur springs were discovered a tract of land was sold by the Blairs and a resort hotel was built where the entrance of Piedmont Park later existed.

Before the hotel was built, Photographer Eadweard Muybridge took a picture of Mark Twain and his visit in front of the gazebo-covered spring. In this picture Mark Twain is holding a cup of mineral water to the left of the child in the white dress. 

 

 

The Historical Marker Database:

Walter Blair hoped to capitalize on the curative powers of the water when he bought the park property. According to the newspaper, "The waters of these springs contain sulphur, magnesia, iodine and iron and are claimed by those who have used the waters to have great curative qualities for rheumatism, neuralgia, dyspepsia and kidney ailments." Blair bottled his mineral water and built a decorative gazebo over the spring where passersby could use a tin drinking cup. The gazebo features prominently in a photograph of Mark Twain circa 1869 when he was on a lecture tour in San Francisco and also appears on the cover of the prospectus for Piedmont Park tract in 1877.

Oakland Tribune - Sun - Nov. 15,  1959:

Whether or not Mark Twain's visit to the Piedmont Springs was a publicity stunt of the late 1860's dreamed up by the discoverers of those sulphur waters, or a legitimate outing by a group of literary-minded residents of our early Bay Area Region is now rather difficult to ascertain. 

1875 - springs - The_Daily_Bee_Mon__May_

The Daily Bee - Mon - May 10, 1875

The photo, from the Joseph R. Knowland collection of the Oakland History Room at the Oakland Public Library, shows Twain in top hat signing autographs. An arrow here pointing to Twain was added by graphic artists at the Oakland Tribune, according to library records.

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A directory of the city of Oakland and its environs, including Alameda, Berkeley and Temescal by Langley, Henry G, Publication date 1872:

There are two beautiful drives leading to Piedmont Springs, five miles from Oakland, by way of Broadway or Webster streets or out Twelfth Street to the Lake Road, with finger boards at all cross roads directing the way. From the Piedmont Springs Hotel, which offers every attraction for the comfort and enjoyment of its patrons, perhaps the finest and most complete view of the bay and its surroundings is obtained, while the Bushy Dell, hard by, is a ravine filled with a luxuriant growth of shrubbery and trees; this is a most delightful and romantic spot, with excellent made walks running through it. In this dell the sulphur springs are situated, of which there are three, flowing eight hundred gallons of water per hour, strongly impregnated with sulphur, magnesia, and iron. They have medicinal properties of great value. No place of resort can be more favorably recommended to the notice of our Eastern visitors, while the city man out of health will find them very conveniently situated. From Piedmont there are good roads running through the mountains, and there is a labyrinth of pleasant drives. The mountain scenery is very fine, and it is difficult to realize that so great a change can be found in a half hour's ride from Oakland.

From the San Francisco Morning Call -

Sunday, March 22, 1891. Page 8:

PICTURESQUE PIEDMONT.

Glimpses of a Region of Delightful Hollies.

The Piedmont Cable Company and Its Enterprise --

The Attractions at Blair's Park. Views of Surpassing Grandeur.

PIEDMONT SPRINGS,

The ranch including which was long known as Bushy Dell, on account of the wooded and romantic character of the ravine or glen in which the springs are situated, were known in early days and were already then much resorted to. It was these springs that first made Piedmont a favorite. Finally in 1868, 1869 and 1870 there was somewhat of a "boom," and Piedmont lands began to be sought after. This died away, however, and, except that the springs were always popular, but little attention was paid to the locality.

 

The progressive history of Piedmont may be said to have had its commencement with the formation in 1877 of the Piedmont Land Company, composed of James Gamble (President), James de Fremery. George W. Beaver, L. A. Booth and T. L. Barker, all well-known and prominent citizens. They owned a considerable tract of land at Piedmont since the time already named. Having thorough confidence in the future and, moreover, possessing the courage and the means to accomplish their purpose, these gentlemen summoned William Hammond Hall, the distinguished civil and landscape engineer, to the task of laying out and subdividing the property. This he did, with the assistance of M. G. King, C.E., of Oakland. To their labors is due the admirable method upon which Piedmont is planned, with its winding avenues which follow the natural undulations of the ground and add artificial grace to the high inherent beauties of the spot. Upon the completion of this work the property found ready sale, and many handsome and elegant residences arose within the parklike region. To this company is also owing the fact that Piedmont is so admirably supplied with water. In addition to the numerous springs which break forth spontaneously at different points the main pipes of the Contra Costa Water Company are led through the section, the connection being made with the main reservoir in the mountains, affording a head of water of great strength. A horse-car line supplied access. 

1871, THE HOTEL:

The Overland Monthly 1901:

A hotel was built on the site of the present Club-House, and the sulfur springs were somewhat improved, blue gum trees were planed, and rustic seats were prepared. In those early days it became a very popular resort. At first the grounds were open to the public, but some years ago the tract passed into the hands of the Realty Syndicate, which company has made all the varied improvements mentioned at the commencement of this article.

Oakland Tribune - Sat - Oct. 16, 1897:

I should here mention that Blair's Park property should cover 450 acres, and was originally intended to be included in Piedmont Park, as it is shown on the first map, but Blair backed out of the arrangement. It was unfortunate for him that he did, for he would have had his property improved and received a good price for it. Piedmont Park property has sold as high as $3,000 per acre in plots and about double that price in lots. The two tracts combined aggregate 800 acres.

In addition to what I have mentioned we are to have a park within a park, and this will be within a few hundred feet of the Sather tract. The Piedmont Springs Hotel tract, or that portion originally known as Bushy Dell, where the sulfur springs are located, is being highly improved already water falls, cascades and rustic bridges are being made in the dell, and mare rare plants and choice trees have been planted. In this tract there are thirty-five acres, all of which is to be handsomely laid out in the winding paths, grass plants and beautiful flowering plants. Of course there is something back of this. It means in the near future a handsome and commodious hotel will delight every Oaklander to take our visitors; where one can overlook all of this beautiful park, view the bay for thirty miles north and south and see the ships sail out of the Golden Gate. Where can you find anything to compare to it?

JAMES GAMBLE

Oct. 15, 1897

The_San_Francisco_Call_Sun__Mar_22__1891

The San Francisco Call - Sun - Mar. 22, 1891

"The house is well-kept, strictly first-class, and there is an entire absence of that disorderly and most undesirable element that is sometimes found about places of public resort."

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Nov 16, 1892, 9:30am,

The 20 year old hotel burns down

At the time Piedmont did not have a fire department and it would take hours to get a truck with water on the scene.

Oakland Tribune - Thu - Nov. 17, 1892:

The insurance on the Piedmont Springs Hotel expired November 1st. James B. Marvin regrets this now. For 20 years the old house had stood, and during two decades the Bohemian life of Oakland had enjoyed its hospitality. 

...Mrs. Marvin occupied room 7 and at 9:15 o'clock this morning she was startled at a peculiar crackling in the chimney. She at once gave the alarm as the fire gained headway and the smoke oozed through the shingles of the roof the neighbors saw the smoke and hastened to the scene...

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 San Francisco Examiner - Mon - Nov. 21, 1892:

J. B. Marvin, lessee of the Piedmont Springs Hotel property, has erected a large tent on the grounds adjoining the wreck of the burned hotel, and in it has constructed a rude bar, over which some of the liquors and cigars saved from the flames will be doled out to anybody that may want them.

On the day succeeding the fire agents of the Pacific Mutual Investment Union, which owns the hotel grounds, visited the premises, and a few hours after their departure carpenters put in an appearance and began inclosing the grounds with a fence. All Marvin's goods and chattels which were not destroyed in the fire had been taken off the property by the latter's employees, so the building of the fence lets the owners in absolute possession. 

Oakland Tribune - Tue - Aug. 15, 1893:

J.B. Martin retires from Piedmont Springs.

For more information on the hotel, visit the hotels page.