Saturday, July 09, 2011

History in Your Own Backyard

We all think of history as something that happened in faraway lands. The pyramids, the Palace of Versailles, the hills of ancient Rome. In general, I’ve found that if you scratch the surface of just about any place, you’ll find a fascinating story. Today, I’d like to share a bit of my hometown’s history.

I live in Oakland, California…not exactly a shy, little burg. We nevertheless live in the shadow of that city on the other side of the bay. They insist that they were the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, to which I say “ahem. Trains did not cross San Francisco Bay until after the construction of the Bay Bridge in 1936.” We in Oakland like to point to the actual western terminus near Jack London Square. (A resident of Sacramento once pointed out to me that the original terminus was actually in that city and cars were floated in barges down the river to the bay. See what I mean about every place having a great history?) But, I digress…

One of the most enjoyable stories of Oakland, California involve the San Antonio Slough and a larger-than-life figure, Dr. Samuel Merritt.

Merritt first laid eyes on the slough in 1850 and saw its possibilities. Known by locals as “the lake,” this branch of the Oakland Estuary was close to where the young city was growing. He bought property there and in 1863 he built a wharf and went into business selling building supplies. He’s credited with great forward vision in promoting the building of a dam at 12th Street to control the flow of tidal water and create a real, albeit shallow, lake. The construction was completed in 1868, a year after he’d been elected mayor of Oakland. This great act of civic-mindedness vastly increased the value of his property, of course, as the area became a real estate gem.

With its marshes and wetlands, the area continued to be a major attraction for migratory birds. That made it a major attraction for hunters with guns. As mayor, Merritt became concerned that hunting at the new lake was noisy and dangerous so close to populated areas of the city. He petitioned the state legislature to turn the area into a wildlife refuge.

It was so designated in 1870, making it the first such refuge in the United States. Soon the new lake was ringed by luxurious Victorian mansions. A highly successful real estate development created in large part by one man who profited it from it personally. Doing well by doing good. There are even stories of Merritt himself getting caught in the middle of the night illegally dredging in the lake and depositing the material he’d dug up where it didn’t belong.

The slough now became Peralta Lake, named after the original recipient of the Spanish land grant that covered much of the bayside of the East Bay--Luis Maria Peralta. People generally called it Merritt’s Lake, and that evolved into the current name, Lake Merritt.

Today, the lake is surrounded by a thoroughly urban landscape, only blocks from downtown of a city of over a quarter of a million people. It’s still a rest stop on the flyway for birds during their migration. In fact, the huge numbers of Canada geese (and their poop) are pests as well as an attraction.

All of the Victorians are gone except for the Camron-Stanford House (yes, that Stanford). It escaped destruction when it became the first Oakland museum. If you visit it now, you can still see one of the old displays--the reconstruction of the interior of a pre-Revolutionary house--in the basement.

A note to writers: If you mention you’re working on a book, you often get VIP treatment at local historical attractions. When I was just starting writing romance, I mentioned the fact to a docent at the Camron-Stanford House and got a private tour. It’s a stunningly beautiful building, lovingly reconstructed by volunteers over a period of years. A law office takes up the second floor, but the first floor is still available for viewing.

Search out your own local history. If you can’t put it in a book, the knowledge will still enrich your enjoyment of the place you live. You might discover a figure like Samuel Merritt.


Erastes said...

Very interesting! I once asked a writer why the Americans wrote so much about English history and they said that their own history was so dull--I would think it was anything but!

Wendy Soliman said...

I agree with Erastes. As a new part-time resident of the States I'm constantly being surprised by your sense of history and the manner in which you preserve it. You could teach us Brits a thing or two about national pride.

Claire Robyns said...

What I always find so fascinating is that history, everywhere, is so often created (or at least started) by one individual in that corner of his/her world and point in time.

I agree with the others, America has such a rich history!

Taryn Kincaid said...

Hey, I live in the historic Hudson Valley. We have headless horsemen here! You can visit Sleepy Hollow, NY and see the very bridge where he tossed his pumpkin head. My erotic paranormal, SLEEPY HOLLOW DREAMS, is (sorta) about that! Washington Irving lived here. James Fenimore Cooper. John Peter Zenger. The First Amendment was born here. You can barely move a muscle without tripping over a cannon, a plaque or a statue! And that's just a teensy tiny piece of northern suburbs. You really don't want to get me started on the state. Or New York City!

Susanna Ives said...

I agree. It's always a pleasure to stumble upon some amazing local history. Great post.