History of Piedmont
In 1820, Don Luis Peralta owned 14,330 acres of land on the east side of San Francisco Bay. His Rancho San Antonio was so big that it covered all the land that is Piedmont, Berkeley and Oakland today. Gradually the Peralta holdings, like those of other early Californians, passed out of the hands of their original owners. The major portion of Jose Domingo's patrimony became the City of Berkeley while most of Vincente's land became the City of Oakland. A small portion of both these tracts is now known as the City of Piedmont.
One newcomer was a man named Walter Blair. He was born in Vermont but moved to California in 1852. He bought 600 acres of land from the Peraltas for $1.25 per acre. He built a dairy on Highland Avenue. He started a quarry where Dracena Park is now and sold the stones to the city of Oakland to pave the streets. He built a hotel in Piedmont Park and a 75 acre amusement park in Moraga Canyon which was known as Blair Park. It took 25 minutes for families in Oakland to travel up the hill by horsecar to Blair’s Park. At the park you could sail small boats, ride ponies, watch acrobats hang from hot air balloons, have a picnic by one of the waterfalls and listen to music.
In 1877 James Gamble, the president of Western Union Telegraph, bought 350 acres of land from Walter Blair. He built a big house for himself on Hillside Avenue and planned to sell the rest of the land so that other people could also build homes. He called his business the “Piedmont Land Company”. Piedmont means “foot of the mountain” in Italian and he thought it was a good name for the new community.
In the 1880’s there were only seven houses where the City of Piedmont is now. Mr. Gamble’s house and gardens filled up the whole block where the Recreation Center, pool and tennis courts are now, but his house was not the biggest. The biggest house was owned by Isaac and Sarah Requa. It was painted yellow and because there were no trees on the hills, sailors could see the house from San Francisco Bay. The Requa’s called their house “The Highlands” and Highland Avenue is named after it. Another house at the corner of Vista and Bonita Avenues belonged to Jesse Wetmore, and that house still looks just like it did over a hundred years ago.
During the same time, Piedmont had its first, and only, factory. At the top of Oakland Avenue there was a mulberry orchard with over 6,000 trees and a two-story building that was the Ladies Silk Culture Society. Over 100 women worked spinning thread from the cocoons of silk worms that grew on the mulberry trees. The silk worms were very hungry, however, and soon there were not enough mulberry trees to feed them. The Ladies Silk Culture Society closed in 1895.
The Piedmont Hotel burned down in 1892. Sparks from a chimney set the hotel roof on fire and it took more than two hours for the fire engine to come up the hills from Oakland. Frank Havens bought the property and built a new restaurant and clubhouse. He installed electric lights in the park and made beautiful paths and bridges. There was even an outdoor theater where plays and musical events could be held. Mr. Havens also built an art gallery where the Piedmont Park tennis courts are now.
While Mr. Gamble and Mr. Havens were building large houses in the middle of Piedmont, there were many artists and writers who lived in smaller houses which they built themselves on Scenic Avenue. Jack London, Xavier Martinez, and George Sterling all lived in the hills of Piedmont during the early 1900’s.
On the morning of April 18, 1906, there was an earthquake in San Francisco. Thousands fled across the bay to safety and many never returned to San Francisco. Piedmont grew 10 times bigger in just one year.
On January 7, 1907, Hugh Craig and James Ballentine filed papers with the State of California to incorporate a new city which was just 1.8 square miles in size. They called it Piedmont. The map they used for the new town was from the Piedmont Sanitary Sewer District and because the sewer lines were already underneath houses there are many homes which are now half in Piedmont and half in the City of Oakland.
An election was held on January 26, 1907 and 118 men who owned land in Piedmont voted to become a city. Some people were unhappy with the decision and another election was held in September of 1907. One-hundred fifty-five men voted then, and Piedmont became a city because of just 10 votes!
Varney Gaskill became the first mayor in the city of Piedmont, but he was only mayor for three months. In May of 1907 Hugh Craig became the second mayor of the city and is considered the father of Piedmont.
Piedmont City Hall was built in 1908. When it was first built it was just one-story high and had a tall bell tower. It was designed by Albert Farr, a famous architect. Mr. Farr designed many of the buildings in the civic center, including the Piedmont Community Church which was built in 1916 and the Exedra arch. The city also built a bridge across Oakland Avenue to make travel easier.
The city’s first school was built on Bonita Avenue in 1911 on property donated by Frank C. Havens. The Egbert Beach School was built in 1913 and the city’s first high school was built on a section of Piedmont Park in 1921.
Crocker Park was a gift to the city in 1916 from Wallace and Mary Alexander. They owned a large home that covered the entire block between Crocker and Sea View Avenues. Mr. Alexander was the founder of the Boy Scouts in Piedmont and also helped the city buy Piedmont Springs Park from Frank Havens.
In the Roaring Twenties Piedmont was known as the “City of Millionaires” because there were more millionaires per square mile than in any city in the United States.
Piedmont became a charter city under the laws of the State of California on December 18, 1922. The charter was adopted by the voters on February 27, 1923 and can only be changed by another vote of the people.
In 1950 the Veteran’s Building was built next door to City Hall on land that had been used as a small park.
By 1976, the city needed a new middle school. The school district tore down the Leander Redmon estate on Magnolia Avenue and built the current Middle School on that property. The Redmon’s tea house, which had been in the back yard, was moved to Piedmont Park and placed in the exact spot where an earlier tea house had been built by Frank Havens in 1890.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, Piedmont restored its existing parks and created three new ones. Over $350,000 was spent to clean up Piedmont Park and build a new overlook behind the Community Hall. The city received a gift for Crocker Park, a large statue of a bear and her cubs designed by Benny Bufano. There were three new parks built, Linda Park, Dracena Park and Coaches Playfield. The newest park project is the Hampton Field Building which will be used as a pre-school and for recreation programs for Piedmont children.
Piedmont Unified School district also did major building projects at each school in Piedmont during the 1990’s and rebuilt Witter Field at Piedmont High School.
As Piedmont starts a new century, there are many names from the past that are still part of everday life. Havens School is named for the man who rebuilt Piedmont Park. Blair Avenue is named for the the farmer and businessman who first settled here and Craig Avenue is named for the man who led the fight to become a city. Highland Avenue and Requa Road remember one of the first seven families to settle in our community.