History in our own backyard…

We live in Richmond, the so-called “City of Pride and Purpose,” which is located in southwestern Contra Costa County, or CoCoCo to us locals. Having toured most of the Historical Landmarks of our neighbor to the south (i.e., northwestern Alameda County), we decided it was time to see what our fine county had to offer. As we are quickly finding with this landmark business, it was a mixed bag.

We hopped on the tandem and headed out to the first spot, which is only about 4 miles from our house. The Alvarado Adobe (Historical Landmark #512), was built in 1842 by Jesus Maria Castro for his mother, Dona Gabriela Berryessa de Castro, widow of Francisco Maria de Castro, who had been granted Rancho (Cuchiyunes) San Pablo in 1823. When Don Gabriela died in 1851, the adobe became property of her daughter, Martina Castro de Alvarado, wife of Juan Bautista Alvarado, who was Governor of California from 1836 to 1842. The adobe has become the centerpiece of the the City of San Pablo’s civic center. San Pablo has decided to carry over the adobe theme to the rest of the civic center structure. The book claims that there is a Historical Marker at this site but neither Gail nor I were able to find it. There is, however, a very attractive sheet metal sign (like the ones you see on the highway telling you that you are approaching a Historical Landmark) slammed onto the side of the adobe. Heaven only knows where the plaque went…

Since both Gail and I are working stiffs, we typically have to do our Landmark adventuring on weekends. Thus, we hit this one on May 1. After finding that the adobe museum was closed and that no tours were being offered, we started to do a little exploring of our own. The parking lot (on the north end of the civic center) was closed off and several of San Pablo’s finest were guarding the entrance. After checking out the Blume House, which is next to the adobe, from the outside, we rolled over to the officers and asked why the parking lot was closed off and if they knew where the plaque was located. After a little friendly back and forth (“We closed it off for you.”), one officer told us it was on the ground by the adobe. The rest nodded their heads in agreement. Not wanting to be contrary (since they had closed the parking lot in our honor), Gail and I rode back to where we had just been to “look again.” Not surprisingly, the plaque STILL wasn’t there. I sure hope that when it comes to taking evidence and investigating crime scenes that these guys do a better job of observing their surroundings.

After we waved goodbye to the officers, we rolled up San Pablo Avenue toward our next destination, the Site of Giant Power Company (Point Pinole) (Historical Landmark #1002-1). Even though we had left Richmond to go to the Alvarado Adobe, we were now heading into another part of our fair city, which is a sprawling town with industrial, urban, suburban, and rural areas.

I had high hopes for this landmark, given the description from the book: “Pt. Pinole is the last site of the Giant Powder Company, the first company in America to produce dynamite. Following devastating explosions in their san (sic) Francisco and Berkeley sites, the business moved to this isolated location in 1892. Incorporating the established Croation community of Sobrente, the company town of Giant quickly grew into one of the North Bay’s industrial centers. Explosives were produced here until 1960 and were essential to mining, dam and other construction projects throughout the Western Hemisphere.”  Explosives! Devastation! Now we are talking!

(A short side note to the observant reader: do you really believe that this company used to make high explosives in SAN FRANCISCO and BERKELEY??? Just imagine trying to get a permit to do that today. It makes the head spin…)

Unfortunately, the reality wasn’t quite as thrilling as the write-up had led us (or at least me) to believe. When we arrived at the “location” of the Landmark (the corner of Giant and Atlas Rds…how great is that for an address?),  we found a very nicely landscaped industrial park. No sign of the town of Giant. No craters from high explosives experiments gone terribly wrong. And no plaque. Just a locked gate across one road (maybe where the carnage was to be found?), a road into the industrial park, and Giant Highway. We didn’t feel like hopping over the gate and the industrial park didn’t look too promising, so we took off down Giant Highway, hoping to find some evidence of the town. No such luck. Nothing to suggest that there ever was such a place or a plant. The photo tells the whole story.

We were 0-2 on the plaque count for today’s adventure (for those of you keeping score at home). Ever the optimist, I said that we should continue on to Crockett, which was the next landmark on our list. Gail was skeptical but since we had only ridden about 10 miles so far, she relented and off we went (I also tempted her with the prospect of lunch at the Nantucket restaurant). It turns out that I had actually seen the sign for the next landmark when riding through Crockett in the past so I had reason to believe that we would find something interesting. Even if the landmark (“The Old Homestead” – Historical Landmark #731) wasn’t very interesting, we would get a chance to ride past a cool oil refinery (the ConocoPhillips Rodeo Refinery, which is on both sides of San Pablo Avenue in Rodeo) and, as an added bonus, get to see the C&H Sugar Refinery in Crockett! (If it wasn’t obvious, I have a professional interest in both oil refineries and the C&H Sugar Refinery, having had both as clients in the past).

“The Old Homestead” didn’t disappoint. Standing in the shadow of the C&H Sugar Refinery, “The Old Homestead” was the first American home in Crockett, located on an earlier Indian village near the Carquinez Straights. Constructed in 1867 by Thomas Edwards, Sr., on land purchased in 1866 from Judge J. B. Crockett, its timbers, some of them brought around the Horn, have been well preserved. The grounds were very pretty, with flowers bursting out all over the place. As we rolled into the parking area, we got some quizzical looks from a number of people milling around “The Old Homestead” as we dismounted and strolled in. It turns out that there was some sort of event planned for the day and our attire wasn’t quite up to snuff (although I thought we looked pretty good, all things considered). Gail, being more proper than me, felt that it would be a stretch to ask if we could go into the building (which is apparently open for wedding, bar mitzvahs, and other events). Thus, we snapped a bunch of photos from the outside.

From Crockett, there are a couple of ways to get to Martinez by bicycle, which is where the next landmarks are located. Those that are faint of heart can head back past the oil refinery and ride surface streets to Franklin Canyon. Those with a bit of an adventurous streak (i.e., Gail and me) can take one of two roads to Martinez. Both involve riding on Carquinez Scenic Drive. On one route, you ride on this road until cars can no longer pass, then you walk your bicycles through a landslide, sneak through a fence, ride through an industrial facility, and blast down into Martinez through a park and some city streets. The other route involves less hijinx but has its share of drama: you get to ride the notorious McEwen Road, which is an integral part of the Grizzly Peak Century bicycle ride. The road isn’t L’Alpe d’Huez but the bugger is steep. I have ridden it a number of times and have seen many a couple dismount their tandems and walk them up. Gail opted for McEwen Road. We didn’t tear up it but, I am pleased to announce, we didn’t walk and we didn’t even “paperboy” at all.

Both routes take you past the town of Port Costa. Even though Port Costa wasn’t on the itinerary, we felt that a side trip was in order. Gail had never been there before and, after all, the whole point of this landmark thing was to stop at places that looked interesting. This sleepy little hamlet is nestled in a canyon that runs down to the Carquinez Straits. If you take a train to the San Francisco Bay Area, you will see Port Costa as you cruise along the water between Martinez and Richmond. You have to look quickly, however, since the town itself isn’t too big. Even though Port Costa is small, it is proud. It has a hotel, a couple of bars, lots of motorcyclists, and (allegedly) a warehouse that was the first fireproof building in Contra Costa County (which is now a bar and restaurant). There was an arts and crafts show going on when we were there. Also, the flowers were blooming like crazy down by the railroad tracks, so I had to go and take a peek. I can’t vouch for the food or drink in Port Costa, but from the looks of it, people are willing to travel a ways to get here. I am glad that we stopped.

From the top of McEwen Road, we headed down to Franklin Canyon Road and into Martinez, which is not just the county seat for CoCoCo but is also a font of history. The flowers on Franklin Canyon Road were pretty amazing…

In the shadow of the Union Pacific trestle and State Highway 4 sits two great Historical Landmarks: John Muir Home (Historical Landmark #312) and Vicente Martinez Adobe (Historical Landmark #511). Both are on the same site. However, if you want to do more than just look at the plaques (yes, there were plaques!), you have to pay a nominal entrance fee (the John Muir House is also a National Historic Site). It is well worth the price of admission.

The John Muir Home is a ranch home of John Muir, 1838-1914, explorer, naturalist, author and foremost advocate of forest protection and of national parks. The John Muir Trail through the high Sierra, Muir Woods National Monument, and Muir Glacier in Alaska are named for him. As you would expect for a National Historic Site, the house is just great: period piece furnishing, a very informative ranger staff that were more than willing to put up with pesky questions from the tour group, and a really, REALLY great attic and widow’s watch. Gail and I did a self-guided tour through the house, with us trading off being tour guide and tour. One cool feature of the house was a sliding window that slid to the floor, so that when it was raised, it became a doorway to an enclosed porch. It turns out that Muir was not just a famous naturalist and do-gooder: he was also in the farming biz and had quite the operation. His farm was successful enough to fund his more altruistic efforts later in his life. This is a must-see place that is easy to find.

In the rear of the grounds of the Muir Home is the Vicente Martinez Adobe. In 1849, Vicente J. Martinez built this adobe on rancho Pinole, which had been granted to Ignacio Martinez in 1836. In 1853, Vicente sold the adobe to Edward Franklin, who named the canyon in which the adobe is located, and the adobe was known as the Franklin Canyon Adobe. At first, it wasn’t totally obvious to us that this landmark was here. In fact, I went into the visitor’s center and, like a dope, asked the ranger for directions to the adobe. Seeing that I was a little sweat-stained and a little confused, he gently informed me that the adobe was on the same grounds as the Muir Home. Gail, being the quicker of the two of us, had found the plaque, which was located directly next to the plaque for the Muir House.

The adobe is not in great shape. There is some cracking and it looks a little worse for wear. However, there are some interesting old maps and a “peephole” into the wall of the adobe, for those that are interested in that sort of thing (I found it quite fascinating). The grounds consist of fruit trees and look like they are available for hire. However, your event would be set in the field of a farm, not in lush flowered gardens.

At this point, we were kind of tired and had a choice: do we ride a bunch of not easy miles into a headwind to go to ride to Orinda to see a landmark without a plaque or do we call it a day, ride BART home, and get frozen yogurt. Option #2 won out. Orinda will have to wait…

For more photos, see my Picasa page.


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