Historic Time Line - 80th Anniversary

Historic Time Line - 80th Anniversary

A Brief History of the East Bay Regional Park District
by Jerry Kent, Retired Assistant General Manager



This account describes selected events for each of the seven major eras that were important to the formation and growth of the Park District. Today's regional parks are the result of eight decades of hard work by innumerable citizen activists, elected district directors, general managers, district employees, environmental organizations, public officials, volunteers, and taxpayers who have collaborated to ensure that residents in this region will have access to a system of magnificent regional parklands.

The District and its parks are also rooted in the land and its cultural history, so this narrative starts at the very beginning. The prehistoric period of the first paragraph reaches back more than 6,000 years, around the time bay waters reached their present level. The historic period, summarized in the following text, covers less than 250 years.

A Land Destined for Change, 1769 to 1850

Native Americans lived in this natural paradise for the past seven millennia, in villages along the bay shoreline and in the larger interior valleys. It was not really a pristine wilderness, but rather a landscape that had been the homeland of several thousand native people and their descendants for countless years. Ancestral Ohlone and Bay Miwok speaking tribal groups hunted, fished, managed their environment for food and safety, harvested seeds, fruits, and vegetables, married, gave birth, worshiped, grew old, died, and were buried on the land we now call the East Bay. Then about 230 years ago, this land and its native people would begin to experience unimaginable changes.

In the fall of 1769, Sergeant Jose Ortega, leading a scouting party from Spain's Portola Expedition, would be among the first Europeans to visit the East Bay. Captain Pedro Fages led follow up expeditions in 1770 and 1772, and four years later the De Anza Expedition reached the Bay Area with 193 soldiers, padres, and civilians to establish the areas first Spanish settlement. Mission San Francisco de Asis was founded along with its military presidio at San Francisco in 1776, one year later Mission Santa Clara was established in the South Bay, and 21 years later Mission San Jose was established in the East Bay.

Franciscan Padres worked to attract local Indians to the missions to be baptized as Christians and trained in the Spanish way of life. It was not long before the three Missions significantly impacted tribal life. Missions controlled the best lands, and villages that were once stable weakened as leaders and their families were attracted to the missions. Traditional hunting and food gathering practices became less effective without regular Indian burning, and free-ranging mission cattle began to damage native food sources. By 1810, the remaining Indians had little choice but to leave their villages to live at the missions where many would die of European diseases, change in diet, and other afflictions due to harsh living conditions.

Spanish military forces left the territory in 1821 after Mexico won its eleven-year war of independence from Spain. Mexican authorities originally intended to secularize the missions and return most of the land to the Indians. However, this approach was not implemented, and the church continued to control the missions and Indians for the next 15 years. Mission San Jose was eventually closed down in 1836, and its extensive agricultural and cattle grazing lands were granted to powerful and wealthy Mexican families who established large ranches using freed mission Indians as laborers, craftsmen, servants, and vaqueros. The territory changed hands a third time when it became part of the United States after the Mexican-American war of 1846-48.

The first major immigration into America's new Territory began in 1848-49 when an estimated 40,000 men arrived at San Francisco by sea, and rushed through this area to seek their fortunes in the goldfields. Many returned to the East Bay to purchase land to farm, to establish businesses, and to become Americans living in the new State of California (1850). Soon ships and wagon trains filled with settlers made their way to California and the East Bay where new residents were welcomed as the key to future prosperity. Cities sprang up in Oakland (1852), Martinez (1867), Alameda (1872), and Berkeley (1878), leading the way for the many waves of urban development that swept over the East Bay during the next 150 years.

Water Preserves the Hills, 1851 to 1928

By the 1870s, small family ranches dotted the East Bay Hills, while cities and farms were scattered across the flatlands. The many creeks that flowed from the hills were the source of water for these early communities. Independent companies were formed to supply water to city residents and farms by tapping springs, drilling wells, and damming local canyons. Anthony Chabot, a self-taught hydraulic engineer from the California goldfields, pioneered large "earth-fill" dam construction by building Temescal Dam in 1869, and Chabot Dam in 1876. Chabot's Contra Costa Water Company dominated the Oakland water scene for the next 30 years.

Before the turn of the century, Oakland's Francis "Borax" Smith and Frank Havens formed the Realty Syndicate to consolidate several of their local businesses, but then divided their holdings after the earthquake of 1906 when many San Francisco residents moved to the safe and sunny side of the bay, doubling Oakland's population. Frank Havens retained the Syndicate's 13,000 acres of undeveloped residential land in the hills, and acquired the Peoples Water Company which then included all of the smaller water companies serving the East Bay. Havens dominated the water scene for the next 10 years, and continued to purchase both large and small tracts of residential and watershed lands in the hills between Oakland and San Pablo, amassing a reported 30,000 acres.

By 1916, the Peoples Water Company was failing financially, so Havens conveyed all of its assets and watershed lands to a newly formed East Bay Water Company. In addition to continuing financial problems, the new company experienced dry years between 1917 and 1919 with poor water quality in its two local reservoirs. During this period, water advocates concluded that the East Bay Water Company was not reliable, and lobbied the State Legislature to adopt the Municipal Utility Act of 1921, paving the way for a public agency that would represent a new concept in regional government. The East Bay Water Company continued its efforts to supply water to all of the developing areas of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties by adding San Pablo Dam (1919), Upper San Leandro Dam (1926), and Lafayette Dam (1928). However, residents had already begun to place their faith in the East Bay Municipal Utility District to solve their long-term water crisis.

EBMUD had been formed in 1923 when 63 percent of the residents in nine cities from San Leandro to Richmond voted to create the new municipal utility district, and elect its first five directors. The next year, voters also approved $39 million dollars in bonding capacity to build a dam and aqueduct that could bring unlimited Sierra snowmelt water to the East Bay. As the new dam on the Mokelumne River neared completion in 1927, voters also approved $26 million dollars in bonding capacity that was used to acquire the privately owned East Bay Water Company to obtain its local water delivery system, 40,000 acres of watershed, and five local dams. Pardee Dam and its 94-mile long aqueduct were completed in 1929, and EBMUD subsequently declared that 10,000 acres of the newly purchased watershed in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills were surplus to its needs.

The Park District's Formative Years, 1929 to 1945

Park advocates immediately began to see the 10,000 surplus acres as a "Grand Park" stretching 22 miles from Lake Chabot in the south to Wildcat Canyon in the North. The Olmsted/Hall feasibility study was completed in 1930, and contained compelling statements about the need for parks in general along with a detailed plan for the 10,000-acre Park.

A thousand spirited East Bay residents joined the East Bay Regional Park Association, and met at the Hotel Oakland to sponsor the park project described in the Olmsted/Hall report. They stressed that the park would be kept natural, providing recreational opportunities and employment during the depression. Since the new park would stretch along the ridgeline from San Leandro to Richmond, serving residents in two counties and nine cities, a new type of agency was needed. Legislation was quickly drafted to create a regional agency, following the water District model, that could then acquire and operate the park. In 1933, Governor James Rolph signed the bill authorizing the formation of the Park District, subject only to a vote of District residents. A massive get-out-and-vote campaign in the seven cities between San Leandro and Albany preceded the November 4, 1934 election. Richmond and El Cerrito wanted to be included, but were forced by Contra Costa County to withdraw before the election even though most of the new parkland would be in Contra Costa County. The vote to form the East Bay Regional Park District passed by a stunning 2 1/2 to 1 margin (71%) during the depth of the Great Depression.

The newly elected park board held its first meeting on December 10, 1934. However, acquiring all of the "Grand Park's" 10,000 acres at one time was not likely since the Water District's asking price was $3 million dollars, and the Park District's annual budget was only $194,000. After 18 months of unsuccessful negotiations, a three-member board of real estate experts helped establish the value and phasing of payments for the first acquisition. On June 4, 1936 the park board agreed to purchase 2,162 acres from EBMUD, at a cost of $656,000 to be paid in installments over the next five years, for what would become the District's first three parks at Upper Wildcat Canyon (Tilden), Temescal, and Roundtop (Sibley). At the same meeting the board agreed to provide the $63,428 in local funds to qualify for $1 million in federal funding needed for park development projects.

After working six months without pay, Elbert Vail was hired as the District's first general manager at a monthly salary of $300. With six new park employees hired and with funding in place, work on the new parks could begin using Civilian Conservation Corp crews, Works Progress Administration crews, and private contractors. A CCC Camp at Tilden provided housing for crews working on park development, and in an amazingly short two-year period, Tilden and Temescal were ready to be opened for public use. The first acquisition of EBMUD land for Redwood Park occurred in 1939, and the District's fourth park was developed and opened the following year.

By early 1942, World War II emptied the park workforce when WPA, CCC workers, and park employees joined the war effort, leaving the four new parks under "caretaker" operation for the next three years. However, District parks played an important role in supporting the war effort by providing recreational facilities for the military and for residents working in local war related industries. The Army leased the Tilden CCC camp for use as a training facility. The Army Defense Command also leased 500 acres at the south end of Tilden where an early warning Regional Radar Center was constructed, with housing and support facilities for 500 soldiers, to monitor aircraft and ship movement along the central California Coast.

Seven Cities and Six Regional Parks, 1946 to 1961

In February of 1945 Richard Walpole returned from military service, and was appointed the District's next general manager. Under Walpole and board leadership, the Park District concentrated on the development and operation of its four parks.

The Army terminated its lease of the Tilden CCC Camp in 1946, and schools from the District's seven cities began to use the site for "in-town" camps to teach natural history to school children. The District soon hired its first full-time park naturalist to work with students and adults at the camp that eventually became today's Tilden Nature Area. In 1947, Walpole visited Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and returned with glowing reports about revenue producing concessions. With Board support, he contacted the owner of a vintage 1911 Hershell Spillman carousel that was in boxes at Griffith Park, about bringing it to Tilden. The carousel was soon installed as the District's first concession followed by a quarter scale steam train ride, pony and miniature tractor rides, and a trout pond for public fishing.

In 1951, the District purchased 82 acres for Roberts Park that soon featured a swimming pool, merry-go-round, pony ride, and enough picnic tables in the redwoods to seat 5,000. The District also purchased Grass Valley's first 927 acres from EBMUD in 1953, and opened its sixth park (Chabot) with minor improvements the next year.

During the 1950s a major shift in the region's population occurred as postwar cities expanded, and more residents began moving into the suburbs and outlying unincorporated county areas. East Bay cities were providing local parks, but the counties with their mostly rural populations did not have taxpayer support for funding county parks. Park advocates in southern Alameda County began to see that the only way to get their own Regional Park was to annex to an agency that could levy a very small tax on both city and county property. Residents in the Eden Township Area (Hayward, Castro Valley, and San Lorenzo) were first to take this step when they voted to annex to the District in 1956. The Washington Township Area (Fremont, Newark, and Union City) followed by annexing in 1958.

Map of Park District in 1960

Mott Invigorates the District, 1962 to 1967

In 1962, William Penn Mott, Jr. became the District's next General Manager. Mott's first order of business at the Park District was to reorganize and plan for the future. He brought new life to every aspect of the District's operation by restructuring, and bringing in talented professionals like Richard Trudeau, Chief of Public Information and Hulet Hornbeck, Chief of Land Acquisition who both would serve as leaders in the park and trail movement during the next 40-years. Mott's enthusiastic vision of a grand system of hilltop and shoreline parks would require additional stable funding, and he moved quickly to increase District revenues.

The Forward 1964-1969 Plan was developed by Mott and his staff in 1963 to identify the Park projects that were needed to serve all East Bay residents, even those outside of the District's boundary. In 1962, residents in Contra Costa County had turned down a funding measure for county parks; so park supporters began pushing for annexation to the Regional Park District. In 1964, voters in West and Central Contra Costa County approved annexation to the District, and Kennedy Grove and Briones were soon developed and opened as the first Regional Parks entirely within Contra Costa County.

Lake Chabot was leased to the District by EBMUD in 1964, and opened 2-years later with fishing and boating allowed for the first time. The District entered into lease agreements in 1966 for Alameda Beach, the first Regional Park on the Bay Shoreline, and residents in the Pleasanton area voted by an overwhelming 80 percent to annex to the District.

By 1967, eight new regional parks had been added with park visitation, staffing, and park acreage more than doubled. Then, Governor Reagan asked Bill Mott to come to Sacramento as his director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Mott is universally credited with waking up a rather sleepy park district just as the East Bay population was beginning to expand at an astounding pace.

map of Park District in 1970

The Right Time for Action, 1968 to 1987

Richard Trudeau became general manager in 1968, and both Trudeau and the board were determined that the momentum of the past five years would not be lost.

Planned additions did continue at six parks and the District's first three regional trails, but the rate of expansion would have been too slow to keep up with the region's rate of growth and rising land costs. Fortunately in 1971, the legislature approved AB 925 and Governor Reagan signed the legislation that allowed the District to increase its tax rate for land acquisition and new park development, subject to the preparation of a master plan.

The District's first comprehensive master plan was then developed by the Overview consulting firm, an 83-member Citizens Advisory Committee, and a 63-member Public Agency Committee. One of the most important principles in the 1973 Master Plan was the following policy for equity and balance.
"The District shall have as one of its primary goals the equitable distribution of regional parklands to create a balanced system of both existing and new parklands designed to reflect the needs and desires of all District residents".
Parklands were classified and planned as either a Regional Wilderness, Preserve, Park, Recreation Area, Shoreline, or Trail, with equitable distribution of each type of parkland in each planning sector. Equity and balance goals were also established for funding and park additions based on population in each planning sector. The 1973 Master Plan has now been updated three times to keep current with changing conditions. Each succeeding master plan has included a similar policy for a balanced system of regional parks, and each has served as the defining document for guiding both the expansion and operation of the Park District.

Between 1973 and 1978, the initial acquisitions occurred at 23 new parks and 8 new regional trails, with several developed and opened for public use.

And then, Proposition 13 and the California taxpayers' revolt of 1978 sent a message to all public agencies, including the Park District. District finances were restructured, future designated funds for land acquisition and new park development were lost, employees were released, jobs frozen, and the District's future property tax funding capabilities would require a super-majority vote (66.6%) by its residents. Acquisitions were slowed until revenues and grants made it possible to add a few new parks and trails. Nevertheless, Liberty Union Township (Eastern Contra Costa County) was annexed to the District in 1981 as residential growth began to spread throughout Contra Costa County's last large developable rural area.

map of Park District in 1980

The District also experienced a major transformation in public involvement during these two decades. For District staff and board members, it seemed like there was a major political issue or crisis every few months. Open space advocates and organized environmentalists became very active. Interest in preserving San Francisco Bay to make it more accessible, cleaner, and healthier became a significant movement. Trail use grew rapidly with walking, hiking, jogging, bicycling, and mountain biking increasing as the "exercise-for-health" generation became active park and trail users. Residents throughout the District began to demand that nearby ridgelines and important open space areas be protected by zoning, or in many cases purchased by the Park District. The District also began to acquire old industrial sites and filled lands that could be rehabilitated to locate several new regional parks along the Bay shoreline, closer to urban residents.

During the 19-year period between 1968 and 1987, that was so influenced by proposition #13, the District was still able to add 33 new regional parks, 16 new regional trails, and preserve 43,000 acres of the East Bay's most scenic parklands. This was a time of challenge as well as a critical period for acquiring new parklands to keep up with urban growth.

map of Park District in 1990

Coming of Age, 1988 to 2013

In 1988, Pat O'Brien became general manager, and District voters approved the passage of Measure AA, a $225 million bond to provide funding for both regional and local park projects. With leadership provided by O'Brien and the board, the district survived repeated attempts by the state to take away essential park revenues to help balance the state budget. In 1992, the rest of Murray Township (Livermore Area) was annexed with appropriate changes made to the District's master plan to now cover all of Alameda County and Contra Costa County.

During this 20-year period, Measure AA was fully implemented, allowing Pat O'Brien, Robert Doyle, and the Board to add 15 new regional parks, 15 new regional trails, and preserve an additional 34,000-acres. This was also the time for expanding park and recreation services for the public, and modernizing all aspects of District operations. The District's unique system of regional parks and trails now serve 2.5 million residents living in two counties, 33 cities, and 10 unincorporated communities.

The District celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2014 to thank its residents for their support. The District's 65 regional parks, 31 regional trails, 1,250 miles of park trails, and 120,536 acres now offer an extraordinary range of choices to its25 million annual visitors. Most District parklands provide large open space areas where the public can walk, hike, and jog on trails, roam with their dog, or ride on horseback or mountain bike. Park ridges and peaks offer spectacular panoramic views, and valleys provide seclusion and escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The District's nine park lakes and bay shoreline units provide 12 sandy beaches for swimming, with year-round fishing and boating opportunities.

District parks are also the place for a family or group picnic with more than 4,000 picnic tables and BBQs to be reserved or claimed on a first-come, first-served basis. Park naturalists operate nine interpretive centers that provide exhibits and educational programs about the region's wildlife, natural features, and cultural history. The Tilden Botanic Garden contains one of the state's best collections of California native plants, including many that are rare and beautiful, and also has a visitor center with numerous events and classes. District recreation employees provide introductory classes and programs to encourage and assist urban residents with skills they can learn to actively use regional parklands. Camping facilities and programs have been expanded for day camps and group camps, and the recently completed Camp Arroyo in the hills above Livermore provides overnight and even week long camping and educational experiences for up to 200 kids and counselors.

Volunteers annually contribute more than 110,000 hours serving on volunteer patrols to help keep parks and trails safe, by working with park staff on an amazing variety of projects, and by assisting resource stewards in managing wildlife and enhancing park natural areas. The District's Park Express Bus Program offers a subsidized bus service to any District park for groups of seniors, disabled residents, low-income residents, and school classes having funded lunch programs. The District has also expanded its ability to communicate with the public by inserting "Regional In Nature" in local newspapers six times each year with news articles and offerings of naturalist and recreation programs. In addition, a website and e-mail newsletter provides up to date information, program reservation capability, and ready access to the District for all residents with access to a computer.

The natural and cultural resources found in today's regional parks, whether a rare plant, a wild animal, a spectacular wildflower display, chaparral slope, bedrock mortar, historic site, panoramic vista, or a secluded meadow are all a public treasure. Ninety percent of district parklands are undeveloped, forming habitat for native species and the expansive open space areas that visitors enjoy. Numerous park sites also contain protected species of plants or animals listed as rare, threatened, or endangered, as are Native American sites that contain rock art, burials, or village sites.

Open space is also important for urban residents. Accordingly, as a matter of sound planning and environmental justice, the District has paid attention to the need for regional parks in or near densely populated urban areas, especially along the bay shoreline where many low-income and minority residents currently live. When the District was formed in 1934, about 6% of its residents were listed as minorities in the 1930 census. A recent East Bay Economic Development Administration Report states that the District's 33 cities and unincorporated communities together have a multi-racial and multi-ethnic population that is 45.8% White, 21.1% Hispanic, 18.2% Asian, 11.3% Black, 2.5% Multi-race, 1.0% Pacific Islander, and 0.4% American Indian. Population diversity in the District ranges from the least diverse city (Clayton) with 12% minority residents to the most diverse city (Hercules) with 72% minorities. The median city is Antioch with 35% minorities. Oakland and Richmond are two large cities with 69% of their population listed as minorities. Overall the District's two county population is a rather cosmopolitan, socially progressive, and increasingly diverse rainbow mixture.

Ninety percent of all households in the District currently have access to at least one auto. However in several of the District's older core cities, 10% to 25% of the families will not have access to an automobile, and must rely on bus or BART transportation. For these residents, the location of both local and regional parks is a critical issue. Planning goals for city parks suggest locations within a walking distance of ¼ or ½ mile of neighborhoods. A walking distance goal for regional parks would not be realistic, so the District has adopted a 15 to 30 minute travel goal for the time it should take residents to reach the closest regional parkland. To accomplish this goal, the District has paid attention to acquiring the best possible regional park sites with natural resource values, wherever they exist, as well as the best possible sites with regional park potential near urban residents. The Park District has tracked changing population numbers as each Master Plan is updated to set goals for use of acquisition funds, use of development funds, and the location and number of its regional parks.

The East Bay Regional Park District strives to provide a balanced system of regional parks, trails and services for all District residents. For planning purposes, the Master Plan 2013 divides the District into three sectors:

-- West Metropolitan Sector (Crockett to San Leandro, bounded on the west by the San Francisco Bay and on the east by the East Bay hills.)
-- South Metropolitan Sector (San Lorenzo to the Santa Clara County line in the south; and in Alameda County to the San Joaquin County line in the east.)
-- Diablo Sector (East of the East Bay hills: includes lands bounded on the north by Carquinez Strait and the Delta Shoreline; on the east by San Joaquin County; and on the south by the Alameda County line and Hwy. 580.)

Sector2010 % of Population
West Metropolitan Sector 37.1%
South Metropolitan Sector 29.9%
Diablo Sector33.0%

The District allocates resources based primarily on the population projections for the three sectors. However, to balance land acquisition, development, services and parkland operations equitably among the sectors, the District evaluates a variety of other important factors for any given project. These factors include financing, long-term goals, special opportunities and the unique characteristics of the sectors. The District also endeavors to take advantage of opportunities that can help to supplement or otherwise make the most of residents’ tax dollars. Thus, the District affects the balance with the implementation of each project.

Balanced parkland distribution is a goal to be achieved over a period of time and a guide for day-to-day Board decisions.

The passage of Bond Measure WW in 2008 enabled the District to greatly increase its acquisition and recreational development programs. Measure WW allocates funds equitably by planning sector and parkland and includes a commitment to distribute bond funds equitably between Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

map of Park District in 2008

The District's Future - A Work in Progress, 2014 to 2030 and on!

It is staggering to realize that the East Bay's population has grown by 2 million people during just the past 80 years, with close to three million residents expected to be living here by 2030. If population growth continues at the current rate during the last 70 years of this century, the East Bay could be squeezing in yet another one million residents. As chilling as this may sound to many current residents, the probability of a population increase of this size means that the Park District will have plenty to do in the future.

The District's updated master plan map identifies several locations for possible new regional parklands and trails. They include: Alameda Naval Air Station, Bethany Reservoir, Cedar Mountain, Delta Access, Delta Recreation Area, Dublin Hills, Duarte Canyon, North Richmond Wetlands, Pittsburg-Antioch Shoreline, Point Edith Wetlands, Point Molate, Altamont/Tesla Open Space, Byron Vernal pools, Concord Naval Weapons Station, Doolan Canyon, Deer Valley, Oakland Shoreline, and Rancho Pinole. The master plan map also includes a full listing of the 83 trail links (some already developed and some yet to be acquired) that will be necessary to complete the districts regional trail system.

The District's Board of Directors placed Measure WW on the November 2008 ballot to extend Measure AA for an additional 20 years. Measure WW's budget includes $125 million in grants to local agencies for local park projects, $281 million for regional park acquisition projects, and $94 million for regional park improvement projects.

As the nation entered into tough economic times including a recession, rise in unemployment, and a nearly unprecedented housing and financial crisis, the District was concerned about the passing of Measure WW which needed two thirds of the votes in the combined Alameda and Contra Costa counties. An error on the Alameda ballot caused the title of Measure WW, which included the verbiage of not raising the tax rate, to be inadvertently omitted. This caused even more concern. However, Measure WW did pass with a strong 71.92% approval rating (72.12% in Alameda County and 71.66% in Contra Costa County). Ironically, this was roughly the same percentage rate as the original ballot measure in 1934 that created the East Bay Regional Park District. An exit poll showed that voters approving Measure WW did so because they believed in protecting open space, used the parks regularly, and understood the tax rate would not be increased. It was the largest local park bond measure to pass in the nation's history and is believed to be the tool that will define the future of parks and open space in the East Bay.

While much has been accomplished over the past eight decades, there is a lot more to do. The Park District will always remain a work in progress as it struggles to acquire and operate the regional parks and trails that are necessary to serve its residents, whatever the population will be.

The changes that have occurred to this region and its park district over the past 80 years have been rather astounding. Growth in population along with a host of unforeseen events will likely provide even more impressive challenges and opportunities during the years ahead.