How do you develop a booming Oakland when there’s a big creek in your way? Bury it underground, cement it over, channel it with culverts, and turn it into a gravel quarry. Sounds like a plan, right?
Sausal Creek has undoubtedly taken a lot of abuse. But one thing must be said: Oakland owes much of its economy to the roughly 3-mile creek that meanders from its headwaters in the Oakland Hills to the San Francisco Bay.
Without Sausal Creek, there wouldn’t have been the ecosystem to support the massive redwood and oak forests that fed a voracious lumber industry. Nor would there have been water to grow the first orchards that sent fruit as far as the East Coast, or to quench the thirst of a growing East Bay population.
Before the settlers
Long before European appetites arrived, Sausal Creek was part of a network of free-flowing waterways that drained the East Bay’s redwood-covered hills, grassy fields, and marshy lowlands to the ocean. Sausal creek and its banks teemed with life: frogs, snakes, salmon, salamanders, among countless birds like sparrows and wrens, living in the live oaks, red alders, and big-leaf maples on the creek banks. The Ohlone people depended on the creek for fresh water, and hunted and fished along the banks.
This was the Eden that the King of Spain gave to Luis Maria Peralta in 1820 as a gift for his military service. The 44,800-acre parcel – called Rancho San Antonio – encompassed all of Oakland and beyond, from El Cerrito to San Leandro.
The forests easily provided enough wood for the Peralta family. But San Francisco, the boomtown across the Bay that sprung up with the Gold Rush, created a new demand for lumber. Sausal Creek became the site of 10 sawmills, and by 1855 the watershed’s ancient redwoods, thought to be the largest in the world, were completely gone (the trees you see today are plantings or stump growths from the original clear-cutting frenzy).
Striking it rich
Further downstream, the fertile soils of Sausal Creek attracted others hoping to strike it rich – German orchardists. Following a Johnny Appleseed dream, Henderson Lewelling came in 1856 with 700 cherry, apple, and hops seedlings he hauled across the country. He dubbed his property along Sausal Creek “Fruit Vale” (the site of today’s Fruitvale district in Oakland) and began California’s first commercial production of fruit. By 1870, another German agriculturalist, Friedrich Rhoda, was exporting his Royal Ann cherries, grown in rich Sausal Creek soil, as the first California fruit samples to the East Coast.
As Fruit Vale continued to grow, many wealthy landowners built estates that backed up to Sausal Creek. Hugh Dimond, a lucky gold prospector, bought property along Sausal Creek that is now a city park and canyon bearing his name. His son, Denis, built his clubhouse along Sausal Creek and hid champagne bottles in the neighboring oak tree (that tree was believed to be the oldest oak tree in Oakland, but was cut down in 2005 due to disease). The Dimond family also briefly dammed Sausal Creek to make a large swimming hole, near the site of the current Dimond Park Pool.
Sausal Creek’s floodplain provided estate owners with lush gardens; footpaths were often built across the creek to connect estates. Beer gardens sprung up along the banks, such as Teppers, remains of which can be seen today behind 2024 Macarthur Boulevard. Another Sausal Creek neighbor was a wealthy ship captain, who also happened to be an exotic shrub connoisseur, and he built an estate at the creek and planted palms, magnolias, rose bushes, and many other non-natives along the water’s edge.
Horse-drawn streetcars were common in the Fruit Vale area by the mid 1870s, and often brought people up Dimond Canyon for Sunday picnics along Sausal Creek, where they could pluck native strawberries and blackberries right off the vine. Sausal Creek provided water to the residents of Fruit Vale and Brooklyn (East Oakland) when the Sausal Creek Water Company was founded in 1870 (bought two years later by Anthony Chabot’s Contra Costa Water Company).
Improved streetcar technology and the San Francisco earthquake of 1905 led to more population growth along the banks of Sausal Creek. Lower Fruit Vale became home to a cannery, an oil refinery right at the foot of Sausal Creek, and several finishing mills that supplied lumber to build more housing and businesses.
As automobiles came into the picture, grease and oil runoff spilled into Sausal Creek. Those who still swam and played in the creek reported that the fish disappeared. In 1923 the East Bay Municipal Utility District formed, providing the residents of Oakland with new fresh water sources.
Sausal Creek’s powerful flow naturally deposited sediment into San Leandro Bay, so the county decided to use the creek bed as a gravel quarry for the developing city. They dug Sausal Creek out to a depth of 25 feet each year, until the next winter floods refilled it with sediment. The lower part of Sausal Creek was culverted underground in an attempt to control what was seen as its violent torrent, and the former slough was converted to a channel deep enough for ships, making Alameda an island city.
Sausal Creek — a problem?
Throughout the early 20th century, new homes and roads covered soil and vegetation around the creek that would typically absorb rainwater, causing the creek to run higher and faster during periods of heavy rainfall. As the banks eroded, the creek widened, flooding and ruining homes, and residents began to view the creek as a problem rather than an attractive neighborhood amenity. Even today, during heavy rains, parts of Dimond park flood due to the development in the hills.
Workers poured cement into Sausal Creek’s bed to attempt to slow it down, but the creek’s natural ability to evade and erode won out in the end. In areas of lower Fruit Vale where roads needed to be built, the creek was directed underground.
In 1950, the Montclair golf course was built, and another portion of Sausal Creek was buried. In the 1980s, many more sections of the creek were culverted because of safety concerns. Today, nearly half of Sausal Creek lies beneath city streets.
The transformation of Sausal Creek has led to the establishment of a vibrant and multicultural community of 40,000 in the Fruitvale district, but ecological diversity of the watershed had suffered.
Invasive, fast-growing monocultures of Cape ivy and Himalayan blackberry ravage the watershed and out-compete the native plants that are essential for a healthy ecosystem. Underground, culverted creek sections prevent native Steelhead trout from living and laying eggs in the creek. Urban runoff drains contaminants into the waterways and kills aquatic life.
Restoring the creek
Restoring and protecting the creek is the mission of Friends of Sausal Creek an organization established in 1996 with support from the City of Oakland, Aquatic Outreach Institute, and the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Each Saturday the group works with volunteers at one of the 12 active restoration sites in the watershed. They remove trash and invasive weeds, monitor water quality, plant natives with local seed stock, and educate the community about the importance of the watershed.
Along Sausal Creek, opossums from Virginia snack on blackberries from Armenia, but things are improving, said Friends of Sausal Creek Executive Director Kimra McAfee.
“In the creek we have rainbow trout, that’s one of the exciting things about Sausal Creek,” she said. “They cannot make that trek out to the ocean and back, but we see all sizes of rainbow trout from fingerlings to 9 to 11 inch trout, so we know they’re reproducing.”
The Sausal Creek watershed gave all of its resources to developing Fruit Vale. Maybe now the favor can be returned.