Laundry Farm Canyon – Revealed…..#7 (the 50’s)


Laundry Farm Canyon Map

Steve Graham stood before his Monday morning school class sharing about exploring the neighboring hills not far from his house. Telling his Burckhalter classmates about following Leona Creek up to the abandoned sulphur mines and old quarry called Devil’s Punch Bowl.  Mike visiting with  Karl Kreplin who also lived near Steve confirming what Steve had said as well as Roger Monroe,  the three classmates living in Leona Heights,  in the foothills across Mountain Blvd just before the Seminary Ave turnoff  adjacent to Mills College.  The hills Steve’s talked about covered an area from Leona Height to Redwood Road, upwards from Mountain  Blvd, cresting on Skyline Blvd that overlooked the east bay.  What sparked a curiosity was it’s name, Laundry Farm Canyon,  an area Mike was to discovered steeped in folklore and California history.

Steve Graham and Karl Kreplin

Nestled in the foothills of central east Oakland was Laundry Farm Canyon projecting one of the richest histories of any locale in the east bay area.  The native Huchiun Ohlone Indians having established a village deep in the redwoods above the bay inlet with its full-flowing spring-water creeks cascading down from the hillsides in the fog-draped forest of the redwood evergreen giants.  Spanish Mission explorers passing within a half-mile of Laundry Farm Canyon, later Spanish Californios would settle in the area for next two centuries.

On August 3, 1820 the last Spanish governor of California,  Pablo Vicente de Solá presented Don Luís María Peralta, a sergeant in the Spanish Army and later commissioner of the Pueblo of San José, in recognition of his forty years of service a land grant of 44,800-acre embracing the sites of the cities of San Leandro, Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley, and Albany.  With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the U.S. Federal Land Act required the Spanish Californios to prove their land titles in court. The resulting litigation lasted years. In the interim, squatters continued to overrun the Peralta’s bay area Rancho San Antonio, stealing and killing cattle and even subdividing and selling the land.   At the time of his death in 1851 Luís María Peralta’s estate had been valued at $1,383,500.  By 1860 the combined property left to the sons had been substantially reduced, partly to pay for the previous decade’s litigation by lawyers and to cover newly imposed property taxes.  In 1872, the combined property  left to the sons was assessed at approximately $200,000.  By the time of Don Luís son Antonio Peralta’s death in 1879, the son only had 23 acres left of the original 16,067 acres inherited from his dad.

In 1840’s, logging started in the redwood-covered hills in and just beyond Laundry Farm Canyon and within 20 years,  men numbering 400 at their peak had logged out the entire redwood forest.   In 1851, three men—Horace Carpentier, Edson Adams, and Andrew Moon began developing what is now downtown Oakland and on May 4, 1852,  the Town of Oakland was incorporated, two years later in 1954 it was re-incorporated as The City of Oakland.

Mills Seminary 1889

In the 1850’s Pliny Bartlett, a recent San Francisco businessman decided to go into the laundry business, associating himself with George H. Hallett and P. E. Dalton. Their idea was to establish a white labor laundry, the line of work at that time being almost exclusively operated by the  Chinese.  Bartlett and his associates ferried the laundry from San Francisco hotels across the Bay to San Leandro Bay at the southeastern end of Alameda Peninsula. The laundry was then hauled up the hill to the spring water Horseshoe branch of Leona Creek, where it was washed, bleached and dried on the grass, the area becoming referenced to as Laundry Farm Canyon.  The 1860’s, found the Laundry business having moved to West Oakland, the redwood forest logged out, the hillsides of Laundry Farm Canyon and Leona Creek sparsely populated.  A change was in store as Cyrus and Susan Mills buying a 55-acre of pasture land,  part of the Thompkin Ranch with a cottage alongside Leona Creek.  Mrs. Mills who had operated The Young Ladies Seminary of Benicia, moved it to Oakland.  In 1871, building Mills Seminary on the Ranch site at the south end of Laundry Farm Canyon bordering Leona Creek, the creek being dammed to form tiny Lake Aliso as flood control for the school.

The Laundry Farm Canyon Hotel

In 1876, an enterprising man named Lane ran 4-horse-drawn canopy sightseeing tour buses up the hill to the flat hilltop site above the canyon, referred to as Observatory Hill becoming a popular picnic spot, a foot trail led high up above the creek to the meadow on top of the hill with a 360 degree view all around.  Later in 1887 the Laundry Farm Railroad was built, a tunnel was begun through a hill north of the 1885 incorporated Mills Seminary, now renamed Mills College,  but the tunnel construction coming to a standstill with cave-in’s.   The railway re-routed around the hill, across the Mills property, then north into the Laundry Farm Canyon across the creek from where the original laundry shack had stood, also building a Car Barn where the trains were switched and stored.  With the scenic area becoming an attraction the 3-story Laundry Farm Hotel was built in 1892 a quarter-mile east of the Car Barn on a 200-acre site on the south bank of Leona Creek on the opposite side of the Observatory Hill.  The railway track from the Car Barn was extended to provide service to the hotel.  The hotel suffering a fire in 1897, being rebuilt, the train service and tracks to the hotel removed in 1902, the track beds becoming roadways, but the hotel experiencing second fire in 1907 was not rebuilt.

Francis Marion ‘Borax’ Smith

Miles of tunnels

 The Leona Heights sulphur mines began operation east of the Laundry Farm Canyon 1906, the project of  Francis Marion ‘Borax’ Smith  a Oakland businessman and civic leader born in Richmond, Wisconsin in 1846. He went to the public schools and graduated from Milton College and at the age of 21, he leaving Wisconsin to prospect for mineral wealth in the American West having made his fortune in borax mining, but also invested locally in real estate.  A bunker was built at the railway car barn at the Laundry Farm Canyon site connecting aerial cable tramways to the sulphur mines to transport over 200,000 ton of Iron Sulfide, known as Pyrite from the Leona Heights Mine,  later known as McDowell Mine. The mineral was trammed by aerial tramway down the hill to a sizing mill, crushed and shipped by railroad to Stauffer Chemical Company in Richmond for the manufacturing of sulfuric acid.

Macdam rock quarry – Oakland

Devouring the hillside

The rock quarries opened in 1909 a mile NE up the hill.  Three aerial and cable tramways hauled rock from the quarries, across hill, and down into Laundry Farm Canyon to the Car Barn site. From there, the railroad then hauled the rock down from the hills.  It was used as macadam for local roadways and gets its name from John Loudon MacAdams, a process he invented 1816 using aggregate stone for road construction.  The quarry had the perfect quality rock needed to make up the three, two and smaller 3/4 inch stones for a macadam road.  It was later that they poured tar on the cracks between the laid stones so it would better support a load.    They gave the road mixture a new now familiar name…tarmac.

At school Mike expressed his interest in seeing and exploring what Steve Graham had said was in the hills to Roger Monroe who listened but didn’t make a commitment to show him.  Mike recognized that he was somewhat different from the other boys in the class, rather quiet and reserved, never exhibiting a lot of enthusiasm.  Mike ascribed his demeanor to his health, he was exempt from P.E. activities because of a heart problem attributed to rheumatic fever.  He understood Roger situation having been thru a medical episode earlier in his life and when Roger offered to show him the places that Steve had mention a red flag went up,  hiking thru the hills with someone with a bad heart.  The more Mike  thought about it, the more it made sense,  if he knows where these places are, he must  have made there and back, let’s go for it.



5 Responses to “Laundry Farm Canyon – Revealed…..#7 (the 50’s)”

  1. Arden Overbee Says:

    sensational stuff. don’t stop saying it the truth Your blog is within the number one spot of my favorites.

    • gwillson7 Says:

      Thank you for your encouragement. I enjoy reliving and wiriting about thse true events. The best part is they never end.

      Take care………………..Gaary

  2. Steve Beck Says:

    Perhaps it’s just a typo in your last paragraph, but the name of the Richmond Co. tht received the crushed iron pyrites was STAUFFER CHEMICAL CO., not Staffer.

    I found it an interesting naratiive of a boyhood adventure my grandfather would have enjoyed.

  3. Steve Beck Says:

    Sorry, but I discovered another typo after I printed this out. When I got out my AAA map of Oakland, I covered the end of the street from which you began your hike to the mine is called KUHNLE, not Kuhnie; probably another typo.

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