Archive for November, 2011

The Holy Names hematite workings

29 November 2011

On the grounds of Holy Names College is a locality where the locals, before the Spanish moved in, would find and process the red mineral pigment of hematite.

hematite site

Today it’s the setting of a toddlers’ playground, without a sign of its former prestige. Nearby is Oakland historical landmark 51, the George McCrea House and Indian Campground. McCrea was the prominent architect who designed the house, and I find nothing online about the Indians. I don’t know if these boulders are part of the historical landmark, but they aren’t being treated like one.

I visited the site a couple weeks ago accompanied by a rockhound and a geologist. The boulders have numerous pits, much like the ubiquitous mortars where the natives once ground acorns.


The material making up the boulders appears to be ancient colluvium cemented by abundant iron oxides. This cementation would not happen at the land surface. They sit on a shoulder of land near a deep ravine of the Lion Creek drainage, evidently exposed by erosion.

The site is not far from the former sulfur mine in the hills above Laundry Canyon, and I was told that other ironstone boulders occur in the neighborhood.

Hematite is an excellent orange-red stain, useful for face paint and similar decoration. There isn’t much around here.


Slate fountain

23 November 2011

Here’s a nice piece of stonework on upper Lakeshore Avenue.

slate fountain

It’s a pit lined with picturesque cobbles and rimmed with gray slate flagstones. A large slate boulder is mounted in the center, and a fountain trickles off a smaller slate stone over the boulder, cascading into the pit with a delightful sound. Thanks for the gift to passers-by.

The Albany Hill walk (#35)

13 November 2011

Here’s another stairs-and-paths walk from Charles Fleming’s Secret Stairs East Bay covering Albany Hill, the “little hill” for which the city of El Cerrito is named. I covered its geology last month for KQED Quest Science Blogs, so this post is more about the details of what you’ll see as you take walk 35. Here’s the route map starting from the El Cerrito Plaza BART station. In the book, the route starts at San Pablo and Washington, but I have an extra path that’s not in the book. The numbers represent the photos in this post.

walk 35 route

Next is the topography . . .

walk 35 topo

. . . and here’s the geology.

walk 35 geologic map

The geology’s pretty simple: the hill itself is typical Franciscan sandstone of the Novato Quarry terrane, surrounded by Quaternary sediment shed from the Berkeley Hills. Cerrito Creek runs past its north end, and Marin Creek’s drainage lies to its south. The divide between them is a low ridge of older alluvium where Solano Avenue runs. This accident of topography, making Solano a ridge route, is a subtle but important part of that street’s charm (like Park Boulevard in Oakland).

We start to hit bedrock around the first set of steps—duh! That’s what makes the hill so steep. This set of steps, Catherine’s Walk, is the worst.


Now it’s worth looking around as you proceed. First come views west over the Bay. Click this one for a 1000-pixel version: in the Bay, left to right, are the Albany Bulb, Brooks Island, Point Isabel and Point Richmond; across the Bay are the Golden Gate, Marin Headlands, Angel Island, Tiburon Peninsula and Mount Tam, each and all worthy geological outings.

bay view

Once you enter Albany Hill Park the bedrock starts to emerge more. The real opportunity to inspect and sample it comes later, though.


The trail winds up the crest of the hill through eucalyptus woods, for a special experience. The people who planted these didn’t have anyone’s pleasure in mind: they were dynamite-makers who needed a fast-growing screen to help muffle explosions. (The same thing happened up at Point Pinole.)


Up here you start getting views to the east. The rocks in the Berkeley/Oakland Hills are much younger than where we stand: about 10 million years old as compared to the 80-ish million years of the Franciscan here.

berkeley hills

At the park’s north end we hit the top of Taft Avenue and take it down the east side of the hill. Don’t miss the view south. Behind the downtown Oakland skyline is Black Mountain, south of Palo Alto.


Along Taft is a long roadcut where you can poke and bang the bedrock to your heart’s content. Unfortunately it’s pretty featureless sandstone. It points to a geographic setting, long ago, when huge quantities of fresh sand were being generated and carried offshore to waiting basins, perhaps at the bottom of submarine canyons like today’s Monterey Canyon.


Now if you scrap the last part of the route given in the book, and instead stroll north on Adams Street to its end, you’ll find a cute little path running along Cerrito Creek back to San Pablo.

creek path

Albany Hill and Cerrito Creek have a history of neglectful exploitation, but they have allies today in the Friends of Five Creeks.

Radio Beach

8 November 2011

Radio Beach is Oakland’s nearest thing to a natural beach. It’s city land, on the north side of the Bay Bridge approach past the toll plaza. There is no lonelier or prettier spot on Oakland’s waterfront. This is the view toward the bridge as you enter the beach.

radio beach

This was near low tide yesterday, and the mudflats stretching all the way to Emeryville were tempting. Here’s the view back from the other end, with some of the radio towers.

radio beach

And here’s the view out, with Mount Tamalpais, Angel Island and the Tiburon Peninsula on the skyline. Click the image for a 1000 pixel version.

radio beach

The sand is very fine grained, given the energy of the waves and the available sediment in the Bay. It collects here where a little extra wave energy gets focused, against the buttress of the bridge approach. Not a super beach, but a real one.