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

Laundry Farm Canyon Map

Steve Graham stood before the class sharing about exploring the neighboring hills not far from his house. Telling Mike’s Burckhalter classmates about following Leona Creek up to the abandoned sulphur mines and old quarry called Devil’s Punch Bowl.  Mike later visiting with  Karl Kreplin who also lived near Steve confirming what Steve had said as did Roger Monroe,  the three classmates residing in Leona Heights a neighborhood 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

(The amazing Laundry Farm Canyon History ) – Nestled in the foothills of central east Oakland was Laundry Farm Canyon,  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 explorers passed within a half-mile of Laundry Farm Canyon and in the late 1700’s Missionaries and  Spanish Californios would settle in the area.

On August 3, 1820 Spanish governor of California,  Pablo Vicente de Solá presented Don Luís María Peralta, for his forty years of Spanish Army service and commissioner of the Pueblo of San José, 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 and with California becoming a state in 1850, the U.S. Federal Land Act required the Spanish Californios to prove their land titles in court.  By 1879 all that remained of Don Luís son Antonio Peralta original 16,067 acres inherited from his dad was 23 acres, the years of attorney fee’s having pillaged the estate.

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 1854 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,  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 the southeastern end of Alameda Peninsula. The laundry was then hauled up the hill to the spring water fed Horseshoe branch of Leona Creek, where it was washed, bleached and dried on the grass, the area becoming referenced to as Laundry Farm Canyon.  In the 1860’s the Laundry business having moved to West Oakland, the redwood forest logged out, the hillsides of Laundry Farm Canyon and Leona Creek were sparsely populated but that would change with Cyrus and Susan Mills buying a 55-acre of pasture land and a cottage alongside Leona Creek.  Mrs. Mills an educator who had operated The Young Ladies Seminary of Benicia, moved it to Oakland,  building Mills Seminary on 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,  a 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.   an enterprising man named Lane ran 4-horse-drawn canopy sightseeing tour buses up the hill.  Later in 1887 the Laundry Farm Railroad was built across the Mills property, the incorporated Mills Seminary, now renamed Mills College. The railroad continued north into the Laundry Farm Canyon across the creek from where the original laundry shack had stood,  a Car Barn being build where the trains were switched and stored.  With the scenic area becoming a major 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, leaving Wisconsin to prospect for mineral wealth in the American West making his fortune in borax mining, but also invested locally in real estate.  ‘Borax’ Smith having a bunker was built at the railway car barn at the Laundry Farm Canyon site connecting a 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.

Mike couldn’t let go of what what Steve had shared with the class about the Sulphur Mines and Devils Punchbowl talking to Roger Monroe wanting to see for himself, Roger listened but didn’t make a commitment to show him.  Mike recognized that Roger was somewhat different, rather quiet and reserved, never exhibiting a lot of enthusiasm about much anything,  ascribing 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,  Roger finally offering to show him the places that Steve had mention.

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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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