A Brief History of Early Albany

MANY MILLENNIA AGO most of the flatlands in the East Bay lay at the bottom of a drowned valley with one point above water — a fist of rock that would later be named Albany Hill.

As the natural forces of the earth moved, what had been water became beach, then land. Oaks spotted the hillsides, while grasses and wildflowers grew near the bogs and marshes created by several creeks snaking toward the bay.

In the beginning, the people who lived in Albany were called the Huchiun, a tribe anthropologists group under the larger name Ohlone.

The people that lived here harvested acorns and berries, hunted and fished, and built a small mountain beside Cerrito Creek from the shells of clams and mussels. For five thousand years they lived, grinding acorns in the rock that is now Albany Hill, weaving baskets, fashioning bows and arrows and jewelry, and raising families.

Recent archeological findings suggest that they traded with other tribes, including the Muwekma Ohlones in San Francisco, where they obtained obsidian and other highly prized items.

From their homes they could gaze out across a pristine blue bay and watch the waves rock. In the spring there were poppies, lupines, and other wildflowers spattered about. There is evidence that Monarch butterflies arrived every year about that time as well, coloring oaks and bay laurels with their orange and black wings.

The Huchiun appear to have lived a good life for thousands of years. There was such an abundance of wild game, ocean life, nuts, acorns, berries, and other edible plants that they did not need to domesticate animals or raise crops.

However there are signs that a great natural calamity struck them about 1,000 years ago, something scientists call “the Medieval Climatic Anomaly.” The climate changed drastically during that period, and there is some evidence to suggest that many of the indigenous peoples in the East Bay left the area for a time, though no one knows for sure.

In the late 1990s, an undisturbed shellmound was unearthed on the south side of Cerrito Creek, where many of the first inhabitants of Albany lived. To this day, signs of ancient habitation by the Huchiun people are easy to find, including grinding bowls dug in the flat rocks on Albany Hill just above the creek.

The City of Berkeley unearthed the ancient shellmound while digging a new sewer line there, one that originated in the Berkeley Hills.

When anthropologists conducted a few sample core digs at the site, they found the remains of five ancient people buried at the shellmound. Artifacts were carbon dated and it was determined people had lived there as long as 5,000 years ago. Sadly, much of the site was bulldozed to make way for the new sewer pipes.

The Arrival of the Spanish

The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle on the marshy soil that was Albany back then. They named the hill that still dominates the landscape “El Cerrito” — the little hill.

In 1841, Jose Domingo Peralta built one of the first European dwellings on land he obtained from a Spanish land grant issued to his father. Peralta built his first house at 1302 Albina Street, near the present site of St. Mary’s High School.

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill spelled doom for the Spanish and the land they controlled. Like the indigenous peoples before them, they slowly lost what they had as people flooded into California in pursuit of gold.

California Pacific (now Southern Pacific) soon built a railroad along the rim of the East Bay, and several companies established businesses there. The first of several dynamite factories appeared at Point Fleming, soon joined by others, all plagued by a series of explosions that occurred in 1879, 1883, and again in 1895.

Eucalyptus groves were planted on and around Albany Hill to help protect residents from a hail of bricks and mortar that literally bombarded them when the plants blew up. In 1905, an explosion at the Judson Power Works killed 23 men. The blast was so powerful it even shook San Francisco. It put an end to the gunpowder industry in Albany and El Cerrito.

However, it was another explosion–of the natural kind–that would change the area forever.

In 1906, the San Andreas Fault moved and San Francisco was rocked to its foundations. Raging fires completed the devastation the quake had unleashed. Families — in particular, Italians — sought refuge across the bay.

Real estate companies touted the advantages of the East Bay, and many families bought property, built homes, and planted gardens. The land was fertile. They grew tomatoes and garlic, oregano and parsley, berries and much more. Anyone who owns or rents a home near San Pablo Avenue, where many of the Italian families settled, need only water their yards and such plants often will mysteriously reappear, begging to be added to a tomato sauce or otherwise find their rightful place at a family gathering.

By 1908, a good-sized settlement had developed, branching out from what is now San Pablo and Solano Avenues, heading east to the steps of Albany Hill.

Yet storm clouds soon gathered, and residents of our town had a disagreement with the City of Berkeley, creating a rift that many believe still exists to this day.

It seems that part of our town was used as a dumpsite by our neighbors to the north. Leading male citizens attended a special meeting of the “Improvement Club,” where they discussed their options to put an end to the dumping of garbage in their town.

A group of women decided to take direct action. Armed with two shotguns and a twenty-two-caliber rifle, they confronted the drivers of the wagons near what is now the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Buchanan Street. The ladies told the drivers of the horse-drawn garbage wagons to go home, which they did quickly and without complaint. Though there is no direct evidence to suggest it, very likely during their trip back to Berkeley, the men driving the wagon discussed the merits of granting women the right to vote.

Shortly thereafter, the residents of the town decided to incorporate, and planned an election where the matter would be decided. Yet one company had other plans for the territory: The Spring Construction Camp had the notion that the area in question would be an ideal location for the state capital, and fervently pursued state officials to buy into their plan.

The company, with their own agenda, apparently convinced — or cajoled — their employees to vote against the incorporation plan. Without their votes, sponsors of the incorporation measure knew the measure would fail.

Smelling a rat, the committee that drew up the articles of incorporation simply excluded the area owned by the Spring Construction Camp from the proposed city limits (which is why the eastern part of Solano Avenue belongs to Berkeley). The plan came to a vote, and on September 21, 1908, a new city was born — the City of Ocean View.

Less than a year later, the City of Ocean View — tired of being confused with other towns bearing the same name — became Albany. That name was selected to honor the birthplace of the mayor, a man named Frank Roberts. And soon the little hill that dominates the landscape in town, previously known as El Cerrito, was renamed Albany Hill.