Emeryville is Born – 1890s to 1930s
A Motley Community
By the mid 1890s, Emery’s and environs was a motley community with odiferous stockyards to the north, a paint plant and iron mill along the shore, a racetrack and amusement park in the middle, and a bawdy commercial district along Park Avenue to the south. The railroad mainline ran along the shore and streetcar lines ran along San Pablo and Park Avenues. San Pablo Avenue was lined with a number of stately mansions including Joseph Emery’s, and other residences were scattered in the Park Avenue district, north of the racetrack, and in Butchertown. The older residential neighborhoods that exist in Emeryville today, east of San Pablo Avenue, and east of Doyle Street, had not yet developed. The population was about 500, of which about half lived in the Park Avenue district, and there were no churches or civic facilities.
The Town is Incorporated
Surrounding neighborhoods targeted the noxious industries and “immoral” social activities for reform. The town of Berkeley incorporated in 1878 and its southern boundary was extended to just south of Ashby Avenue in 1891. Meanwhile, the City of Oakland was growing and expanding northward. In 1872 it had annexed the northern portion of West Oakland and was eyeing Emery’s and surrounding areas. In the fall of 1896, residents of the Temescal district to the east along Telegraph Avenue circulated a petition proposing a town which included both Temescal and Emeryville; this worried Emeryville businessmen, who did not want to be part of a municipality that they could not control. United by a desire to protect their assets, dissatisfied by the minimal municipal services provided by Alameda County, and leery of Oakland’s annexation aspirations, Emery and other landowners and industrialists decided to form their own town. They drew and redrew the boundaries to include their interests and exclude surrounding neighborhoods, finally settling on a line that extended from the Oakland boundary on the south, running north 150 feet east of San Pablo Avenue and Adeline Street, then west along Temescal Creek, and then north along the eastern edge of Vallejo Street to the Berkeley boundary on the north. Residents of the Golden Gate neighborhood to the east protested that the new town would cut them off from the bay; Emeryville’s founders responded that they would be happy to annex Golden Gate, but this never occurred. Today’s City boundaries are substantially the same as established by the founders in 1896.
On October 26, 1896, they presented a petition to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, who accepted it on November 2, 1896. The County Supervisors called for an election of the citizens of the proposed town to decide the question of incorporation and to elect a five-member Board of Trustees, a clerk, and treasurer, and a marshal. The election was held on December 2, 1896 and incorporation was approved by a vote of 150 in favor and 28 opposed. Of the 11 men who ran for the Board of Trustees, the five who were elected included Wallace H. Christie; John T. Doyle; Joseph S. Emery; William Fieldwick; and Fred J. Stoer. John C. Cobourn was elected clerk, Charles S. Mayborn was elected treasurer, and J.T. Cushing was elected marshal. Emeryville’s incorporation was not a moment too soon, for the following year, 1897, North Oakland, including the Temescal and Golden Gate districts, was annexed into the City of Oakland. (Contrary to popular belief, Emeryville was never a part of the City of Oakland. The confusion arises because Alameda County was divided into a series of “townships”, the northernmost of which was called “Oakland township”. Emeryville was in Oakland township, but not within the city limits of Oakland.)
Trustees and Mayor
The Town Board of Trustees met in the Commercial Union Hotel at the foot of Park Avenue (which, ironically, was partially in Oakland). At their first meeting, held on December 14, 1896, Trustee Wallace H. Christie was elected Mayor. Born in Illinois in 1860, Christie had come to California and settled in Emeryville in 1894, just two years before its incorporation. Christie was the manager of Judson Iron Works, and was Emeryville’s first and only Mayor for 40 years until his retirement in 1936. He was a young man of 36 at the time that he became Mayor. His fellow Trustee and the Town’s namesake, Joseph Emery, by contrast, was then 76 years old, had already lived a full life, and would live only another 13 years after the town that bore his name was incorporated. Christie was followed as Mayor by Al Lacoste in1936; he was then a 12-year veteran Trustee whose father had started a packing and slaughterhouse in Butchertown. Lacoste served as a City Council member (as the Trustees came to be called) for 40 years until 1964, and was Mayor for 26 of those years.
The Trustees met at the Commercial Union Hotel for seven years until 1903, when they built an elegant two-story, domed, neo-classical Town Hall at the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Hollis Street, four blocks to the east. This building served as the town’s headquarters for 68 years, until 1971, when town offices were moved to a new city hall on the Bay. After a hiatus of almost 30 years, City offices moved back into a renovated and expanded Old Town Hall in 2000, and today it once again serves as the seat of local government.
Other civic facilities were developed to serve the needs of the growing town. Emeryville’s first fire station was built in 1910 on San Pablo Avenue near 45th Street. A library and post office were also located nearby on San Pablo Avenue. A four-room school house known as Emery Elementary School had opened on 41st Street as early as 1886. It was subsequently expanded and rebuilt as the Emeryville Elementary School, and today is known as Anna Yates Elementary School. A second elementary school was built in 1910 at the northwest corner of 61st and Doyle Streets to serve the north end of town. It was replaced in 1929 by another building at the southeast corner of the same intersection, which was named for John A. Sutter, and later became the Ralph S. Hawley Elementary School. Subsequently, this building served as a middle school until those grades were consolidated with the high school, and today it is used for a variety of purposes by the Emery Unified School District. In 1920, a two-story school was built at the northwest corner of San Pablo Avenue and 47th Street to serve the upper elementary grades. It subsequently became Emery High School, which graduated its first class in 1928. It was later replaced by a one-story structure, and the site is still the location of Emery Secondary School, which includes grades 7 though 12. In 1930, the Veterans Memorial Hall was built on Salem Street; today it serves as the City’s Senior Center.
Railroads and Streetcars
In 1902, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, which had built a transcontinental railroad terminating in Richmond to the north, bought Joseph Emery’s floundering California and Nevada Railroad. This provided the Santa Fe with a much needed connection to Oakland from its yards in Richmond, in competition with the Southern Pacific’s waterfront line. The Santa Fe converted the line to standard gauge and built a freight yard and a passenger station west of San Pablo Avenue and south of Park Avenue. The first Santa Fe passenger train arrived in Emeryville on May 16, 1904, and passenger train service continued for over 50 years, until it was finally discontinued in 1958. Freight service continued on this line until 1978, when Santa Fe got permission to run its freight trains on the Southern Pacific’s waterfront mainline.
Two extensive interurban streetcar systems, the Key System and Southern Pacific’s East Bay Electric Lines, were developed and vied for the burgeoning demand for local passenger traffic. The Key System, developed by Francis Marion “Borax” Smith, built upon the small local streetcar companies that he acquired in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It began operation in 1903, offering both local service and transbay service to San Francisco, initially via ferries from the “Oakland mole”, and later directly over the Bay Bridge. The rival East Bay Electric Lines began operation in 1911 using the Southern Pacific’s mainline tracks and a series of branch lines to various East Bay cities. The “Berkeley Branch Line” ran along Stanford Avenue from the Southern Pacific mainline to downtown Berkeley, and the former rail spur that eventually became the Emeryville Greenway linear park and bicycle path was originally an East Bay Electric interurban line running to Solano Avenue in Albany. The Key Route lines converged near the Santa Fe station at Yerba Buena and San Pablo Avenues in Emeryville, which became a major transportation hub, and the Key Route maintained shops and its main power plant next to the Santa Fe yard. The area along Yerba Buena Avenue developed as an industrial center with grain storage facilities, coal yards, and freight handling companies. Both the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads built an extensive network of spur tracks throughout Emeryville to serve the many industrial plants that developed during the town’s first decades of incorporation.
Industry Grows and Thrives
Aided by a supportive town government, low tax rates, a central location on the Bay, and an expanding transportation system, the 20th century brought a rapid expansion of industrial development to Emeryville. This was accelerated by the relocation of industries from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake, and the advent of World War I in 1914-18. Existing industries, such as Paraffin Paint and Judson Iron Works, were expanded and new industries were built. The old racetrack was demolished in 1915. Hollis Street was put through as the town’s first north-south street, and the area between Park Avenue and Powell Street was developed as a planned industrial park with new streets, water mains, and railroad spur tracks. PG&E built several large concrete buildings on the west side of Hollis Street that are still standing. Sherwin Williams built a large paint and insecticide plant next to the railroad just north of Park Avenue that remained in operation until 2006; for almost 40 years, its landmark 300-foot long animated neon “Cover the Earth” sign could be seen clearly from as far away as Treasure Island. Other tenants of the new industrial park included Western Electric and Watkins Company; eventually the Shell Oil Company’s research facilities were located here, and later the Cetus, Chiron, Novartis, and Bayer pharmaceutical labs. In 1924, Shell Mound Park was closed, the old shellmound was leveled, and the area south of Powell Street and west of the railroad was filled in with various industrial uses. A special “Thirty-Third Anniversary Edition” of the Emeryville Herald published in 1929 listed over 100 companies that called Emeryville home including California Packing Corp. (later Del Monte Cannery), Fisher Body, Judson-Pacific, Oliver Tire and Rubber, Pacific Gas and Electric, Paraffin Paint Company, Pennzoil, Santa Fe Railroad, Shell Oil, Sherwin-Williams Paints, Southern Pacific, Standard Electric, Union Oil, Western Electric, and Westinghouse.
Residential Neighborhoods Develop
Meanwhile, most of the houses and hotels that had existed within the now-industrial areas were demolished, and new residential neighborhoods were developed east of San Pablo Avenue in the southern part of town, and east of Doyle Street in the north end. The area between San Pablo Avenue and Adeline Street, from 41st Street to the northern city boundary at Temescal Creek, later became known as the “Triangle” neighborhood because of its distinctive shape. The north end neighborhood, between Doyle Street and the eastern city boundary at Vallejo Street, never seemed to acquire a universally accepted name, but is now commonly referred to as the “Doyle Street Neighborhood”. Both of these areas blend seamlessly with the vast residential areas of North Oakland to the east, although they are, and always have been, part of Emeryville. By 1930, the population of Emeryville was about 2,400, most residing in these two neighborhoods.
Sports and Recreation
Amidst all this growth and development, Emeryville did not lose its thirst for entertainment. Although the racetrack and amusement park were both gone within the first few decades of the 20th century, they were replaced by other activities. In 1920, Blue Star Amusement Park opened on Park Avenue between Horton and Holden Streets; it was purportedly the first dog-racing track to employ a mechanical rabbit. In the 1930s, the Emeryville Speedway, located at San Pablo Avenue and 47th Street, featured motorcycle and midget car racing, and a Walk-A-Thon arena was opened in an abandoned factory on Park Avenue. But the major sports facility was undoubtedly the Oaks Ball Park, built in 1912 on the north side of Park Avenue just east of San Pablo Avenue. (Three years after Joseph Emery’s death in 1909, his mansion had to be relocated one block north to San Pablo and 43rd Street to make way for the ball park; it was subsequently demolished in 1946.) For 43 years the Oakland Oaks played here, winning several pennants in the Pacific Coast League, which also included the San Francisco Seals and the Los Angeles Angels. The team featured such early baseball luminaries as Russell “Buzz” Arlett, Alfred “Billy” Martin, and Artie Wilson (the Oaks’ first African American player). Its managers included the legendary Casey Stengel, who left to join the New York Yankees in 1949; Chuck Dressen, who left to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1951; and slugger Mel Ott, who came from the New York Giants to replace Dressen. But amid failing attendance and an abortive attempt to revive fan interest with car races, the ball park was closed in 1955 and the Oaks moved to Vancouver, British Columbia where they became the Mounties. Today, a small plaque on the north side of Park Avenue commemorates the former location of the ball park, and a number of interesting old photographs of the team are on display in the Oaks Corner restaurant at San Pablo and Park Avenues.
The Rottenest City on the Pacific Coast
Gambling and other questionable activities also continued to play a prominent role in Emeryville’s culture. Night clubs, lottery dens, bars, and bordellos flourished along Park Avenue. Following Oakland’s crackdown on gambling in 1919, Emeryville began licensing card clubs, and many prospered along San Pablo Avenue including the Santa Fe Club, King Midas Club, Bank Club, Key Club, Alemo Club, Avalon Club, and Oaks Club. Today, only the Oaks Club survives and, with its 24-hour operation and private security force, is purported to be one of the safest places in town, as well as the City’s largest single source of tax revenue. During prohibition in the 1930s, a number of “speakeasies” and bootleg joints offered illegal liquor. These included the Townhouse, an old restaurant and bar built in 1926 on Doyle Street, (reportedly with an affiliated bordello to the rear on Beaudry Street); it subsequently became a cowboy bar in the 1970s and has since been transformed into an upscale restaurant that maintains its original wild west appearance and is a popular gathering spot for the local community. But during prohibition, everyone was in on the action. Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren, who vigorously enforced the laws against gambling and liquor, dubbed Emeryville “the rottenest city on the Pacific Coast”. According to Warren, “Vice is flourishing in Emeryville under the encouragement of city and police officials, who are getting their cut. Within a block of the police of Emeryville are 12 houses of prostitution and 20 bootlegging joints”. In 1932, federal agents raided the Emeryville Police Garage at 3900 Adeline Street and discovered a “liquor fleet” of five cars containing 565 gallons of liquor in 5-gallon cans; the Police chief expressed “shock” at the discovery.