We decided to take an historical tour featuring Montclair today, but wondered how anyone could schedule 2.5 hours for such an event. After all, we’re a far cry from ancient Rome.
After taking this walk and talk, we understood and have become disciples of the Oakland Heritage Alliance. There’s plenty to learn about our area, the first Euro settlers, village development, landmarks and even buildings that usually go unnoticed.
Docent Kathleen diGiovanni is an Oakland librarian who clearly knows her craft. She researched everything well, and told us what was documented versus hearsay. She explained what “was there” or “happened there” all over the village. And she brought along old photos so we could compare yesteryear with today.
Here’s some of what we learned this afternoon:
- Texas Ranger John Hayes was the first Euro settler who owned all the land from north of Berkeley through part of Hayward. He was legit, having purchased (rather than stolen) his land from the Peraltas. He didn’t actually live in our hills, though.
- The first Montclarion settlers were perched near the Thornhill-Moraga exit, on the Thornhill side. Back then, they lived on Hayes Road. The name later changed to Thorn Road, honoring logger Hiram Thorn. When realtors hit town, they decided on Thornhill. Today there are some stones along the northern reaches that might have edged the first settlement, but no one’s exactly sure.
- Folks from a hundred years ago really didn’t understand the value of trees. It seems that everyone was obsessed with blue-gum eucalyptus trees. After all the original growth redwoods were logged out, these trees were planted because they were supposed to remove malaria risks in the swamps and provide good hardwoods for building – but they were not particularly useful after all.
- Original real estate developers wanted Montclair Village to look like Carmel, at least from an architectural perspective. There are a few vestiges left in the village, such as the Spanish style bus depot that now houses Le Bonbon. There also used to be a really nice building housing the Montclarion, but it was razed to build a gas station. So much for preservation ideals back in 1961!
- Fortunately, some of the original buildings stayed intact. The 1920s and 1930s storybook charmers remain in Fernwood, as well as the Montclair Library and old Fire Station. Other later era structures have gotten covered up, such as a wood-clad, hip 1950s building where Noah’s Bagels sits. As we walked south on Mountain, we looked at original buildings near Luckys – and realized they might seem nicer as time marches on.
- Vestiges of the trains running through Montclair are prominent, when you poke around Montclair Park and Mountain Avenue. You can imagine where the massive berm was located, as verified by Montclair School alums who used walking tunnels through it. After the Sacramento Northern trains ceased operations in the 1950s, the earth-berm was removed entirely.
Anyway, kudos to the Oakland Heritage Alliance. While there were a few dozen people appreciating Montclair on the tour, we’re pretty sure that most Montclarions would have gotten a big kick out of the stories told about our little burg today.