An early look at the Fan

Lots of people love old photographs of familiar places, or old landmarks when they were new. I love old photos of Oakland because they show the land before it was paved over and/or forested.

The early California photographer Carleton Watkins was instrumental in saving Yosemite as a public park, simply because his large-scale images let people see its beauty and grandeur for themselves. But he also practiced his trade up and down the Pacific coast, including Oakland.

Here’s a stereograph he made here in 1876, looking east from the roof of the Grand Central Hotel at 12th and Webster. Click it to see its full 1000-pixel size.

Stereographs were made to be viewed through a simple apparatus that allows you to see a 3D image. You can do it without a viewer if you cross your eyes carefully. (Don’t worry if you can’t; you’re like most people.) To simplify things, I’ve turned one of the images into black and white and zoomed in a bit (800 px).

This is a pretty good image of Oakland’s high hills, the highest of which is Redwood Peak at the left edge. Lake Merritt sits between downtown and the hills of old Brooklyn. That hook in the shoreline is the cove where Wesley Avenue splits from Lakeshore Avenue today, heading left up a little valley. The right edge of the photo is where East 18th Street meets Lakeshore.

Between Redwood Peak and the shore of Lake Merritt, the top one-third is the high hills and the bottom third is the low hills. The middle third, hard to see, is the rocky hills above Piedmont and their eastern continuation in Oakmore and Redwood Heights.

Note that almost all of this is treeless. That was the state of the whole East Bay when the Spanish and the Americans came here. The exception was the redwood groves, which occupied the highest part of the ridgeline until they were logged out before 1860, and the coastal oak groves nearer the bay.

Anyway, what caught my eye in this photo was its view of the undeveloped lower hills that are almost totally hidden by houses today. Those hills were overridden first by wealthy estates, then by homes and apartments whose selling point was their views. To me, the real view was what those structures wiped out. Today only three bits of that terrain are left: San Antonio Park, Home of Peace Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery.

Here’s how the Fan fits into that view. We’re looking east across lobe 4, the central segment of this ancient alluvial fan that dominates central Oakland.

Today, you can walk all over those hills and picture how they would have looked before development, but it’s a struggle. The old photographs are indispensible, and precious.

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One Response to “An early look at the Fan”

  1. deb3901 Says:

    Thank you – I really enjoyed this. Wish time machines were real!

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