Lower Codornices and Cerrito Creeks: A Short and Partial History


Codornices and Cerrito Creeks are geologically very young. They were born in the sideways friction of great plates. Rupturing along the Hayward Fault system, one block of crust tilted downward to the east. Its west portion formed what is now the hills of San Francisco and Marin; its eastern portion formed a long valley. Upward tilting just east of this valley similarly formed the Berkeley Hills, beginning as recently as a million years ago and probably continuing today. As the Berkeley Hills rose, their mix of old sediments, volcanic outpourings, and scrapings from the clash of the great plates fractured deeply and eroded rapidly. Rain into these cracks and emerged as springs, which consolidated into small creeks carrying the eroded fragments downhill. On the west slopes of the hills, for a time, the eroded fragments washed to a great river that drained the Central Valley. Some 10,000 years ago, as the last ice age released water from glaciers, sea level rose and the valley between the San Francisco and Berkeley Hills became today's San Francisco Bay. A few hilltops on the downward-tilting block remained above water as El Cerrito del Sur (Fleming Point), Cerrito de San Antonio (Albany Hill), Brooks Island, and Potrero San Pablo (the hills of Point Richmond).

The Waterfront before Bay fill

The young creeks flowing from the west slopes of the rising Berkeley Hills to the Bay quickly built today's flood plains -- today's flatlands. Like the hills, these were grassy and covered with wildflowers in spring. Near the creek mouths the distinction between Bay and dry land was sometimes hazy. Codornices Creek and many smaller creeks did not have year-round channels that reached the Bay. Rather, they ended in damp grasslands or marshes. For Codornices, these edged into a salt marsh bordering a long slough that ran north-northwest from about today's Virginia Street to the inland, northeast corner of Fleming Point, where it emptied in the Bay. Schoolhouse Creek south of Codornices, and Marin Creek farther north also emptied into this slough and salt marsh. On the west side of this slough, south of Fleming Point,  sandy beach and low dunes edged the Bay about where the I-880/580 freeway runs now. Sandy beaches are a rarity in the Bay. But just opposite the Golden Gate, tidal currents are strong. They sweep away fine muddy sediment but leave sand. Marsh formed only where there was shelter, for example from Fleming Point.

North of Albany Hill, a fan of creeks, the largest of them Cerrito Creek, flowed into a large tidal marsh that began just west of today's San Pablo Avenue. The southernmost creek in this fan was Middle Creek, which gathered waters from Blackberry and Capistrano Creeks, which flow down from the hills above Tousand Oaks in Berkeley, including today's John Hinkel Park. Middle Creek found its way to Cerrito Creek through a willow marsh, or sausal, at the foot of Albany Hill.

This formed an almost perfect village site for the Native Americans who began to create permanent settlements in the area perhaps 4000 years ago. The hill provided shelter from winter winds. Marshes provided shellfish and waterfowl for food. The creek provided fresh water and easy transport to the Bay. Mortar holes in rocks and deep deposits of shells show this was a village site. Neighboring villages south and north were at the mouth of Strawberry Creek, on Pt. Isabel, and at Stege in Richmond. European diseases and missions wiped out most of these settlements before the East Bay was divided into huge land grants in the early 1820s. Some of the survivors worked as ranch hands on land that once was theirs.

The land grant ranchos

Sargeant Luis Maria Peralta, who had risen through the ranks to become military governor at San Jose, received today's Berkeley and Oakland from the Spanish Crown. Francisco Maria Peralta, who had been alcalde in San Jose, received today's El Cerrito, Richmond, and San Pablo from the Mexican government after the Mexican revolution redistributed mission lands. Both grantees shared their vast holdings among their numerous children. On Rancho San Antonio, Jose Domingo Peralta received today's Berkeley; he built his house on the south bank of Codornices Creek at today's Albina Street, a bit northwest of today's Monterey Market. In 1818, he and his brothers had named the creek after finding quails, or quails eggs, there. On Rancho San Pablo, son Vincente Castro built his more elegant home near the south border of his father's holdings, on the north bank of Cerrito Creek at today's El Cerrito Plaza. The 13 rooms in several buildings, including a chapel and stables, surrounded a patio edged by a shaded veranda. Nearby were an orchard and vegetable gardens.

The rancheros' short tenure was doomed by the Gold Rush, whose wealth seekers descended like locusts. Domingo Peralta sold the hill west of the salt marsh (then called El Cerrito del Sur) to a San Francisco butcher named Fleming, who used it to fatten cattle. But the rest dribbled away to squatters and in lawsuits. Domingo evicted and died landless and penniless. Castro did better, operating a ferry for miners from San Francisco to Point Isabel (named for his daughter). He held onto his adobe until he died, but ruinous lawsuits among his siblings left the family with nothing but a few acres surrounding it and his father's adobe in what is now San Pablo. Both adobes fell into decay. Victor's adobe was refurbished in the 1930s as a gambling casino and dance hall, but it closed during World War II and was burned in an arson fire in 1956, shortly after the property was purchased to build El Cerrito Plaza. 

Farms, fill, and industry

From the Gold Rush into the 20th Century, the main uses of land along the lower creeks were grazing, haying, wheat, and dairying. Industrialization accelerated with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, especially after tracks running north from Oakland along the Bay in the 1870s captured most of the traffic from Niles Canyon, the original route. It's likely that Codornices Creek was ditched through to the slough as part of building the railroad, to keep the tracks from flooding. West of the rails, the broad tidelands edging the Bay were divided by the state and sold in the 1870s - the dream of filling the Bay began early.

In the early 1850s, trader James H. Jacobs had built a wharf on Domingo Peralta's land at the mouth of Strawberry Creek, and the young county of Alameda began to improve the trail that is now San Pablo Avenue, leading north from Oakland. A roadhouse and grain mill sprang up near Jacobs' landing, and with completion of the railroad, industry took over much of the Berkeley waterfront. When Berkeley incorporated in 1878, with Codornices Creek as its north boundary, the town had two foci: the area around the University and today's downtown, and the more blue-collar village of Oceanview near the waterfront. As industrialization flourished, canneries, flour milling, paint, soap, glass, tanning, and other factories loomed behind docks in Central and South Berkeley. The air was often rank; raw sewage combined with manufacturing waste turned Bay water black and peeled paint from buildings.

Because of the slough and marsh, the waterfront near Fleming Point was less developed. The sandy beach south of Fleming Point remained a popular swimming and picnic spot into the first years of the 20th Century, until the sand was mined out and raw sewage made it unattractive. Inland, grazing continued until most of the land that is now University Village was purchased by Hiram Gill, a pioneer nurseryman and horticulturalist. 

Dynamite manufacturing, driven out of San Francisco's dunes by the frequency of explosions, moved to Fleming Point at the mouth of Codornices Creek in the 1870s. But after an 1883 explosion that killed some 35 workers and knocked out windows in San Francisco and Oakland, this plant was driven out (to be replaced by manufacturing of acid, also for explosives). Dynamite manufacturing itself resumed on the northeast side of Albany Hill along Cerrito Creek. There the powder companies planted eucalyptus trees to muffle the sound and force of explosions. Nevertheless, after a particularly large 1905 explosion and fire, they were forced to move north again. (Along the waterfront from Berkeley to Richmond, eucalyptus groves are generally a sign of past explosives manufacturing.) 

The marshes that received waters of Codornics and Cerrito Creeks were seen as a liability. In today's El Cerrito, the marsh was edged by a dump and slaughterhouse in the first years of the 20th Century. In 1908, a typhoid scare briefly closed the dump, which had served Berkeley, booming after the San Francisco Earthquake. A new site was found near the mouth of Codornices Creek. But the working-class housewives of the unincorporated area between Codornices and Cerrito Creeks were not pleased. Women could not vote, but one morning, a group of housewives met the slop wagons with guns and tried to turn them back. Shortly afterwards, the men of the area, who had generally favored joining Berkeley, voted instead of form the town of Ocean View. The next year, they changed the name to Albany. 

None of this stopped the dumping and filling. The marsh north of Albany Hill remained an undesirable, unincorporated "no man's land" long after El Cerrito incorporated in 1917. Unregulated fill there, including dynamiting of a small hill northwest of Albany Hill, led to flooding problems that continue today -- see Albany Hill and Cerrito Creek -- History and Future

Berkeley zoned the marshy area south of Fleming Point for noxious industries, like tanneries and slaughterhouses. In the 1920s, over the protests of conservationists, Berkeley began filling its waterfront with garbage, working south from Codornices Creek. The incinerator they built west of Second Street did not work well, but it became the slaughterhouse. (Today, it is part of a storage company and a historic landmark.) Fill reached Virginia Street by the 1940s. The Meadow and Brickyard areas were filled in the 1950s and 1960s. Today's Cesar Chavez Park operated as a landfill into the 1980s, as did the Albany Bulb, the next artificial peninsula south. 

The railroads

At first, the Central (later Union and Southern) Pacific Tracks dominated the waterfront. They forced the Santa Fe Railroad to build its spur from Richmond to Oakland inland, on the line of a failed narrow-gauge railway. The Santa Fe railroad built the massive concrete abutments at Schoolhouse Creek and at Codornices Creek, where Friends of Five Creeks recently built a new bridge rail. (The northern part of this route is today's BART right of way. Farther south, the route was turned over to Berkeley in the 1970s, but mostly remains unused because of lack of agreement on what to do with it.)

The Santa Fe Railroad, however, turned the tables by secretly acquiring most of the tidelands along the Berkeley waterfront. Its grand plans for an ocean-going port were thwarted mainly by a rival plan that had piers running at right angles. But its subsidiaries and spinoffs, Santa Fe Land Improvement and later Catullus, remained owners of nearly all the filled lands west of the freeway.

Albany and El Cerrito

Inland, the early 20th century saw bedroom subdividing, as ferries and steam and then electric railways speeded transportation and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake sent frightened residents searching for safer ground. A real estate syndicate acquired control of most of the land in the Berkeley Hills and began subdividing with appeals to the well-to-do. The less-well-off settled for the flats. 

In Contra Costa across the county line, settlement remained thinner. But William Rust had opened a blacksmith shop on San Pablo near Cerrito Creek, and the area, far from thick settlement and accompanying law enforcement, was a popular site for roadhouses. In 1917 the settlement around Rust's and one around Stege Landing farther north combined to incorporate as El Cerrito - named for the prominent hill in the neighboring town and county.

The decline of creeks

Suppression of Native American burning and trampling by the heavy hooves of cattle began the transformation of the flower-filled grasslands along the lower creeks. Erosion probably increased and channels were cut deeper. This accelerated with urbanization. As more land was covered by roads and buildings, storm water could no longer soak into soil and instead flowed too quickly to the creeks, which became raging torrents during rains. The high storm flows led to flooding and at the same time cut the creek channels deeper, creating cliff-like, unstable banks. Sewage polluted the water - early creekside houses often had drains emptying directly into the creek, and storm drains and sanitary sewers were inadequately separated if at all. With urbanization, land for development increased in value - even land over creeks. So the creeks that had been vital assets for the first settlers began to become liabilities. By the 1930s, with the Works Progress Administration looking for projects for those thrown out of work by the Great Depression, putting the creeks into culverts was welcomed. And while older creekside houses generally face creeks, those built from the 1930s onward generally ignore or turn their backs to them.

Codornices and Cerrito Creeks were not totally buried, probably because they were political boundaries, which made such projects cumbersome. Cerrito Creek's deep upstream canyon also defied filling. 

The Depression and the War

As the country began to come out of the Great Depression in the late 1930s, there was increasing development in what had been empty land along the lower creeks. The University of California had bought the Gill Tract in 1928. In 1939, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began building its Western Regional Laboratory on part of this land. UC Berkeley soon moved its experimental fields to the tract to be near the new facility. There were plans for a new veterinarian college.

Plans to dynamite and dig out the top of Albany Hill were foiled, but beginning in 1939 the Santa Fe railroad blasted off the top of Fleming Point to build Golden Gate Fields race track. The debris was bulldozed north into the Bay, forming the tracks' northwest parking lot. The track opened in 1941, but storms forced immediate closure. By the time the racecourse dried out, the track was bankrupt and World War II had begun. The track was commandeered first by the Army as a camp, but found too muddy. By 1944 the Navy had taken over, using the area to refurbish and test landing craft, which were then shipped out for landings in the South Pacific.

The Richmond and Mare Island Shipyards were in full wartime production. Liberty ships were turned out in less than five days from keel to launching. The dog track that had occupied today's El Cerrito Plaza closed (and with it the casino in Victor Castro's adobe). The area became a trailer park for workers. What is now University Village extended south about to Camellia Street in Berkeley; this Codornices Village had almost 2000 simple apartments for war workers (later partly used by Navy families as well), with a community center and child-care facility -- the community center is still in use. The village also became a bold and largely successful experiment in racial integration, then a rarity in both California and public housing.

With gasoline rationed and tires all but unavailable, getting the war workers to the shipyards was critical. In 1942 and 1943, the Richmond Shipyard Railway was cobbled together in six months, using rails from abandoned streetcar and electric rail lines, pilings from dismantled ferry piers, used girders, and antiquated mothballed rail cars from New York's elevated tracks. unning more than 90 trains a day, it was an ironic last gasp of urban mass transit in the East Bay - much of the scrap and junk material was available because completion of the Bay Bridge and increasing automobile ownership had led to abandonment of the ferries and commuter lines that had networked the area.

Through most of Berkeley, the line used recently abandoned Interurban Electric Railway tracks along Ninth Street. Codornices Creek at 9th apparently was culverted in order to extend these rails into Albany. This culvert was removed in 1995 with a small grant and lots of volunteer labor, creating the restored channel that we see today.

North of Codornices Creek, in what is now University Village, the railway curved up to the northwest to cross the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, and then passed under the Eastshore Highway near Buchanan, where Codornices Creek reached the Bay.

In the post-war years, increasing numbers of Codornices Village tenants became returning veterans and their families going to school on the GI Bill. Although some land and buildings were transferred back to the University of California in 1948, Codornices Village in both Albany and Berkeley continued as public housing, given new impetus by the Korean War. Not until 1955 was the Berkeley portion closed and demolished. In 1956, the Albany buildings were sold to UC Berkeley, which continued to use them as student housing, adding 500 new apartments next to Codornices Creek in 1961 and 1962. As part of this project, woods along what had been a meandering stream were cut down, and the creek was channeled into a narrow artificial channel. Another reach of the lower creek flowed through the Union Carbide plant, which reportedly turned the water green or red at times. A scrap-metal plant and one filling gas canisters also edged the creek.

As the Postwar industrial boom dwindled and the United States began to lose its manufacturing industries, the lower creek was left as a "brownfield" site. But heavy-duty pollution also ended, and with passage of the federal Clean Water Act in the 1970s, water quality began to improve. At some time, probably in the 1980s or 1990s, steelhead trout returning from the ocean to find freshwater spawning spots found their way up Codornices Creek and laid eggs that hatched and survived. (There are no reports of trout in the creek before the 1990s, but children knew about them by 1995, and Friends of Five Creeks proved their existence in 1998.) By this time, the movement to restore urban creeks was on its upward swing.

To Be Continued

The next chapter, of attempts to revitalize Codornices and Cerrito Creeks, is still being written. You can read some of it in our projects pages. Efforts, issues, and questions remain. All-volunteer Friends of Five Creeks would welcome your participation!