This charming piece of Claremont Canyon history is excerpted from “A Proposal for the formation of Claremont Canyon Park,” the 1973 document that brought about the eventual formation of the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. Reprinted here with permission from the author and the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association.
Claremont canyon has known human use for thousands of years although little or no archaeological evidence of aboriginal use is known to exist at this time. During the 1830s the canyon became part of the Peralta Rancho. The first known development of the canyon occurred in July 1858 when it was chosen as the route for the transcontinental telegraph cable between Oakland and the eastern states. Cable stringing began on July fourth of that year and reached Genoa, Nevada by autumn. The road that grew up beneath the cable became known as Telegraph Road. North of Oakland it followed the present course of Telegraph Avenue as far as the intersection of Telegraph and Claremont Avenues. At that point it angled eastward following present day Claremont Avenue and climbed up through Telegraph Canyon (now Claremont Canyon) on its way over the hills toward Mount Diablo and then northerly to the Sacramento River at Martinez. A road soon developed alongside the entire cable route and settlers began to take up land adjoining the road. Orinda, Lafayette, Walnut Creek and other present day landmarks developed where they did because of this road.
In 1860 a petition was presented to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors asking for the road to be declared a public highway. A stage route (J. Bamber & Co.) began to operate between Park Street in Oakland and the Morgan House in Martinez. Service was coordinated with the ferry boats that came from San Francisco to Oakland, and from Benicia across the Sacramento River to Martinez.
The Pony Express riders used Telegraph Road through Claremont Canyon during 1861 whenever the west bound trips failed to connect with the Sacramento-San Francisco riverboat and therefore came overland—crossing the river via the Benicia-Martinez Ferry. The trip from Martinez to Oakland required about two hours for the express riders. In New Pictures from California, Bayard Taylor describes a rather difficult and frustrating three-hour-long trip over Telegraph Road and through Claremont Canyon in the year 1859. The road through the canyon was so steep, narrow, and otherwise difficult (especially for loaded wagons) that there were many accidents and a call soon went out for a new route that would be easier and safer—perhaps by means of a tunnel through the hills.
The road into the canyon from the Oakland side ran past Thornburg’s Sanitarium which stood on the Martin Dunn Ranch where the Claremont Hotel now stands, and then wound along the canyon bottom very much on the course now followed by Claremont Avenue. A little saloon named “The Last Change” was stuck into the side of the hill (near the intersection of Claremont Avenue and Alvarado Road) and beyond that point the grade became steeper and steeper as it approached the summit of the divide. For a time this part of the road was called Summit Road and a hotel and staging station by the name of Summit House (elevation 1,315 feet) was built at the top of the divide. It continued in operation for many years (1860 to about 1903) and was operated for at least six years (1861-1867) by Milton J. Rook and his family. Stages including those bound for Mount Diablo often changed horses at Summit House.
In 1893 a pledge of financial support and a concerted effort by the Merchant’s Exchange Club of Oakland (a forerunner to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce) persuaded the supervisors of both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties to proceed with the construction of a tunnel through the hills. Years of planning, fund-raising, and construction were capped on November 4,1903 by the formal opening of the original 1,100-foot-long tunnel that was some 320 feet lower than the old summit. Traffic on the old road then dropped off very sharply and it was not long before the road was closed completely. The upper part of the canyon then became a very quiet and rather remote area used only for cattle grazing, dairying, some minor quarrying, and the development of water from the hillside springs. The Alameda Water Company and William Glasscock then owned the 174 acres that later (1923) became East Bay Municipal Water Company property, and then in turn became University of California property (1961).
After 1900 a number of subdivisions began to be developed in the westernmost parts of the canyon. The first of these was named Claremont Estates. Later developments were Claremont Knolls, University Villa Park and University Uplands. The Hotel Claremont was built in 1914 as part of the region-wide speculation brought about by the excitement surrounding the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that opened in the following year.
About 1920 John Garber Park was donated by the Garber family to the City of Berkeley, but during the boundary change it came to be in the middle of Oakland and was later given by Berkeley to Oakland. In the 1920s a landscape architect laid out the park’s trails, picnic and barbecue facilities. Other park and recreation uses of the canyon date back to the twenties also—when the canyon was still in its pre-automobile era.
Horse stables were maintained near the present-day Claremont Hotel site and both riders and hikers used various trails or the still unpaved road up into the canyon. Until 1929 the road remained closed to wagon or other vehicular traffic at the edge of the water company land in the upper part of the canyon. At least one well developed recreational hiking trail followed the contours about half way up the north slope of the canyon. It passed by several springs and was quite popular as a way of hiking over the hills into Contra Costa County. In 1929 the road was paved and opened to automobiles, thus ending horseback riding opportunities on the road itself and markedly changing the quiet atmosphere of the canyon.