The Lincoln Square landslide of 1958

10 June 2019

The Lincoln Square shopping center, which I featured in my previous post, has nothing to do with President Lincoln, just as Lincoln Avenue has nothing to do with Honest Abe (it was named for Lincoln Rhoda, son of landowner Frederick Rhoda). It wasn’t on the Lincoln Highway either. Nope, it was named by the prominent citizen and developer, Luther H. Lincoln, on whose land it was built, to honor himself. Admittedly, Lincoln had his own measure of fame from serving as Speaker of the state Assembly in the late 1950s.

The shopping center, which opened in 1963, sits on the site of a messy, sensational landslide.

When it comes to landslides, the blame usually lies uphill. And in the late 1950s one of Oakland’s largest suburban developments, Crestmont, was under construction on the steep hillside above Lincoln’s land.

The hillside of Crestmont was acquired and developed by Andres Oddstad’s residential construction company. He made his name building whole neighborhoods of “economy homes” in South San Francisco, Pacifica (Linda Mar was his work), Redwood City and other West Bay localities. Crestmont was Oddstad Homes’ big splash in the Oakland market, a luxury development tagged “Riviera of the East Bay.” The ads in the Tribune cried, “Grand, sweeping panoramic views from your home in Crestmont leave you breathless day or night. Here is the charm and freedom of country living only 15 minutes from downtown Oakland!” The redwood-and-stucco houses cost $30,000, a premium price in those days. And the views truly are terrific.

Oddstad worked big and fast, leveraging its economies of scale. This aerial photo shows the state of things in early 1957.

And here’s a similar oblique view from Google Maps with the street names. The landslide I’ll describe was on Van Cleave Way, down at the bottom of the development. You can see from the airphoto how much digging and grading was involved. The serpentine rock making up the hillside was . . . mostly strong. The homesites built up on filled land were . . . mostly reliable.

Luther Lincoln and his family lived on the large lot of 4000 Redwood Road, just below the bottom of the image, as early as 1952. As Crestmont went in on the hillside above him, Lincoln built a big new home and arranged to have part of his land rezoned from residential to commercial. It was an ideal site for a shopping center to serve the new residents. And the land was largely waste already: The defunct Alma Mine, with its 5000 feet of abandoned tunnels and piles of waste rock, sat next door.

Oddstad’s project went well until the winter of 1957-58, the wettest season in 50 years. Ten inches of rain occurred in February, another ten in March. Two more inches fell during the last weekend of March, and just past midnight on 30 March, in the midst of a pounding rain, about 300 feet of landfilled hillside on the west side of Van Cleave Way began to crumble.

The Tribune reported that Mrs. Walter Horberg was moving the furniture out of 79 Van Cleave Way. “At 2:45 a.m., as beams groaned and snapped, the rear portion of the handsomely designed ranch-type home sagged and then, with a mighty crash, tumbled down the hill. The rear rooms of the house tumbled 100 feet, most of it straight down, and were carried along by the mud slide. The front section dropped a lesser distance. Somewhere in the rubble, the Horbergs’ family parakeet, Nickie, chirped on.” No one was hurt, but six homes on the block were lost or endangered; two of them hadn’t even been sold yet.

This photo from the next day’s paper, one of many from the catastrophe, was reproduced in US Geological Survey Professional Paper 944, “Relative slope stability and land-use planning in the San Francisco Bay region, California,” published in 1979 and still a good read. You can see that there’s no bedrock visible in the landslide scar, just dirt.

Here’s the scene below Van Cleave Way today. The lots for the five lost homes were rebuilt, turned into four larger lots, and developed 20 years later. The leftmost house, its roofpeak just visible, is one of the original ones from 1957.

This was not the last slide in Crestmont. Two new houses on Kimberlin Heights Drive were lost in June 1958 when the concrete piles holding them up failed. (A mild earthquake on 31 May was made the scapegoat.) And in 1962 a mudslide from the hill above Kimberlin Heights Drive swept a 5-year-old girl to her death.

But back to the Van Cleave slide. The wall of mud poured onto Luther Lincoln’s new home directly below, destroying the house and all of its contents except for a car. A few years later, Lincoln turned the scene of ruin into the Lincoln Square shopping center, and the textbook exposure of serpentinite in the hillside behind it that I showed you in the last post dates from that time.

To my knowledge, no slides have occurred in Crestmont since 1958. The streets look sound to my eye. But some empty lots remain below Van Cleave in the landslide scar that could be developed some day.

The pressure to fill open land with traditional suburban houses is relentless. And all the land left open today is precarious.

Edited to correct the date of the fatal slide in 1962, not 1955.

Serpentinite at Lincoln Square

27 May 2019

The Lincoln Square shopping center, on Redwood Road next to Route 13, has textbook exposures of serpentinite. Last week, five years after my first quick visit, I gave it a more searching look. Here’s a view of the terrain.

A century ago this site was the confluence of three first-order streams forming East (Lion) Creek. The largest of these comes down from due north, the western branch descends south-southeast from Holy Names, and the third branch flows due west from just above the “Crest” in “Crestmont” on the map. The Alma Mine, a set of over 5000 feet of tunnels in the hillside that was active until 1921, was about a hundred yards to the east.

In the early 1960s the shopping center was built on fill at least 20 feet deep, with the streams culverted beneath it, and its footprint was excavated into the surrounding bedrock. There are two serpentinite exposures, one above the eastern parking lot by the gas station and the other behind the back of the building next to the Safeway.

The first exposure, across from Sparky’s burger place, displays horizontally streaked rock, an intimate mixture of dark-blue and greenish-yellow serpentine with lumps in it like this.

This is rock that’s clearly been squeezed and stretched, but I see no indicators of the exact direction. Either it went both ways, top-to-the-left and top-to-the-right, or the motion was perpendicular to the rock face such that any indicators would be invisible.

On to the other exposure, which looks a lot fresher.

Here the matrix around the lumps is much better exposed, and lumps of all sizes are easily seen. They range in size up to a meter; this one is more like 20 centimeters long. These are generally elongated and indicate top-to-the-right deformation.

Some of the largest lumps appear to show relict texture — that is, traces of the mineral grains in the original peridotite before it was turned into serpentinite (see my backgrounder on serpentinization).

The matrix is very soft underfoot. Right now the footing is good because the rock is wet. There’s so much moisture coming out of the slope that the drain behind the building has steady running water in it. Soil doesn’t accumulate on it, and only the stubbornest plants, like pampas grass and patches of moss, can get any purchase.

I brought along my acid bottle, as I do, and the matrix fizzes vigorously indicating that it’s full of lime. And patches of moss, like that at the top of this photo, appear to be the site of a chemical reaction that forms little white “popcorn” balls of calcite.

These accumulate where they wash out of the soil. Most measure about a centimeter, but some are several centimeters across.

I took some home for closer study. They dry as light and hard as blackboard chalk, have no internal structure or crystallinity, and fizz away to nothing in acid leaving just a breath of grayish residue, probably a touch of clay. Whether it’s true calcite or an amorphous version of calcium carbonate, I’m not competent to say. Mineral chalk is how I’ll think of it.

The Lincoln Square exposure is a minor part of Oakland’s serpentinite patch, the little ribbon of purple crossing the Golden Gate Academy on the geologic map.

I actually don’t fully trust this map; I’m suspicious of the thin green stripe of Knoxville Formation (KJk) and the exact extent of the pink Leona volcanics (Jsv). But a borehole record from farther up the hill, in the fat part of the serpentinite, describes the rock as “serpentine with lime.” I don’t associate lime, or calcium in general, with serpentinite, but in fact the minerals in the precursor rock, peridotite, do include some (clinopyroxene in particular) with calcium. Clearly I have more to learn.

Return to Sugarloaf Hill

13 May 2019

It’s been almost four years since my last visit, and no locality, even the wildest, ever stays the same. Sugarloaf Hill, that iconic bump in the ridges of East Oakland, is one of the city’s wildest places. It helps being part of the Leona Canyon Open Space Reserve, an odd holding of the East Bay Regional Park District away from the usual watershed lands and coastal strips.

Sugarloaf Hill is the highest point underlain by the Leona volcanics. The drainage is sharp enough to discourage trees, and the EBRPD considers it a good example of grassland that still includes a lot of native species. Last week the peak, like most of the hills, was nearing the end of the green season and starting to turn summer gold.

The loose stones on the peak have been moved around since my last visit. Then, they were arranged in a rectangle, like the outline of a small building. Now they’re piled in a cairn that displays them nicely. The same energetic person or people who did that also brought up a chair, which I found very welcome after scrambling around the steep slopes.

This hilltop deserves a real bench, and a decent path to reach it. The existing trail is steep enough to be tricky footing, and the poison oak keeps edging closer on all sides.

On this visit I made a concerted attempt to find another trail to the top, both from the bottom up and from the top down. And there are some faint paths on the lower slopes. One of them led me past this old city benchmark, undoubtedly recorded on some obscure list but not relevant for quite a while.

This wild place did not start that way. Its wildness is not a primordial state or a static climax; it’s a temporary illusion created by depopulation — in Oakland’s case, the depopulation of genocide, followed by its softer sibling gentrification — leading to “parkification” or managed neglect. Untended, the hilltop will become impenetrable chaparral, the most dangerously fire-prone habitat we have.

For centuries, perhaps millennia, this hill was maintained as grassland by its native caretakers. They did controlled burns to do that, and the deer and the antelope helped keep it grazed. When the Franciscan priests of New Spain captured and enslaved the natives, the abandoned land made its way into the hands of the Realty Syndicate. Cattle grazing kept it in a simulacrum of the aboriginal flower fields.

In the 1970s the developers of Caballo Hills sought to divide this rangeland into premium country estates: nine large parcels of 40 to 50 acres. Someone would surely have stuck a private castle up here. The city of Oakland just wanted to start harvesting property taxes instead of a few steers. Instead, after neighborhood opposition, the developers deeded it to the EBRPD and went on to subdivide the ridgetop of Campus Drive into one-acre lots.

Nowadays what threatens the meadows of Sugarloaf Hill is the relentless growth of brush and chaparral. As decades pass, the ground cover rises, alien broom sprouts without hindrance, poison oak burgeons. Footpaths devolve into deer trails or disappear altogether. Eventually the most intrepid hikers give up, until a well-funded crew can reclaim the way. The EBRPD is committed to monitor the plants and animals in the park, so it’s up to that agency.

A rugged jeep trail used to be here, running up from the north end and circling the peak.

Bits of it are still accessible, but most is heavily overgrown. If EBRPD restores the road, the land would be ready for controlled burns again. The hill is a perfect site — isolated on all sides, yet accessible. The park’s planning document envisages controlled burns here, along with fuel reduction and similar half-measures.

Sugarloaf Hill could be a showcase for this deeply traditional land-management technique. For Merritt College students who already study the park, the rejuvenated hill would enhance their educational resource. It would be kept prime habitat for the Alameda whipsnake and other precarious species. And the views would remain fantastic in all directions.

Next, the park district could advance another item in its planning document: bringing back the historic York Trail. The old right-of-way, still visible in Google Maps, runs along the north side of Sugarloaf Hill, then up to Skyline Boulevard near Brandy Rock Way.

It would open a much-needed connection to Anthony Chabot Regional Park over the Parkridge land bridge.

The Eocene mudstone, part 2: Shepherd and Thornhill Canyons

29 April 2019

Part of exploring Oakland’s geology (and writing the book on it) is digging deeper, ever deeper. Two posts ago I dug into the unsung body of Eocene-age mudstone in the high hills, doing a systematic survey of its mapped extent, and had to stop halfway. Since then I’ve surveyed the other half, and it still feels like I’ve just begun. But so be it.

The ideal is to learn all of the significant outcrops. That would take a trip down every road and byway, and I’ve done that once already just for reconnaissance, not to pinpoint outcrops. Because life is finite, this time I figured out a shortcut based on the geologic map, where significant outcrops are ready-mapped.

The outcrops in unit “Tes,” the Eocene mudstone, are marked by those little symbols: a line with a tick sticking from the midpoint, labeled with a number. Each symbol tells you the orientation of the rock beds at that spot. The long line shows their strike — the direction the beds would align if you shaved the ground level — and the tick signifies their dip direction — the downhill direction of the beds. The number is the angle, in degrees, at which the beds slope in the dip direction.

For my purposes, all I wanted was the location, which is right where the tick is. I plotted those locations on a street map and set off to visit each one.

Before we start, this is an interesting image. It shows that the terrain where unit Tes is mapped is stronger, more resistant to erosion, than the Redwood Canyon Formation (Kr) to its south and the Sobrante Formation (Tsm) to its north.

This survey will go from east to west, the same way I walked it. The first outcrop, on the rim of Shepherd Canyon at Skyline, labeled “53,” was too far to hike so I skipped it. So we’ll start down in the canyon at the one on Woodrow Drive. I’ve shown you this one before; it’s where I found that cool concretion back in 2008. Supposedly the beds there are vertical, with the original upper side facing south (the black ball on the symbol means that there are indications of the original top and bottom of the beds). You can’t tell that from the outcrop, because it’s pure shale and the rock is so degraded, but there are still concretions weathering out. According to the map, then, we would be looking at the top surface of that concretion.

Around the corner on Paso Robles Drive is this exposure. It matches the map symbol in displaying overturned beds with a 65-degree dip. If you flip it over in your mind, you can see that a layer of fine-grained sand spilled over a muddy seafloor, and the flat surface is its underside.

The next symbol, the one marked “70,” is on Saroni Drive just east of Sayre Drive, but there’s no rock visible there today. It appeared to me that a new house has been built on the spot, or maybe the outcrop is in a back yard and is inaccessible. But farther west on Saroni, right at the edge of the “Tes” belt, some of the rock is exposed: a clean siltstone with the typical blonde color.

Now we cross the crest of Colton Boulevard and enter Thornhill Canyon. The next outcrop, on the east side of Armour Drive, is a roadcut exposing shale that has degraded since it was mapped. But you can still see the bedding’s steep leftward (northward) tilt, along with some near-vertical jointing.

The outcrop just west of Aspinwall Road is on a large vacant lot that used to be accessible (I recall visiting it during a walk led by Dennis Evanosky a few years back), but is now fenced off. Too bad. On the uphill side of Aspinwall is an exposure of clean siltstone, but its orientation is unreliable — these might be loose boulders, not living bedrock. Typically a geologic mapper measures strike and dip at several spots using a special compass/clinometer, often called a Brunton after the most highly regarded manufacturer. I have one, but a smartphone app does almost as well.

Crossing to the north wall of Thornhill Canyon, a steep climb up Beauforest Drive gets you to Valley View Road. The roadcut where the symbol labeled “80” sits is all mossed over. The Eocene mudstone prefers to support vegetation rather than crop out, and until some maniac cleans off the overgrowth or the hillside collapses, whichever comes first, this exposure is retired.

Two more exposures to go. The first of these is farther down Valley View, right next to the uppermost leg of the Upper Merriewood Stairs. It’s a good one, displaying a dip of 56 degrees east just like the map says.

Once you make it up the stairs, the rest of the walk is real pleasant, up to Broadway Terrace and across to the end of little-traveled Virgo Road. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of an outcrop there — either it’s covered with grass at this time of year, or a new house has obliterated it, or I’m just blind. But if you poke around, the views are wonderful. So that’s some consolation.

Getting back home from here is left as an exercise for the reader.

With all that work, I managed to confirm just three of the nine outcrops in this part of the map. Should I, and future mappers, accept the rest of these measurements if they can’t be confirmed? Should we accept them now? One approach to this conundrum is to consider previous geologic maps. I have four of them, and none of them agree. Some of the outcrops on this map also appear, with the same numbers, in the county geologic map of 1996, but that’s because the same guy, Russ Graymer, prepared them both. He measured just two or three outcrops that also appeared in two maps from the 1960s, and his numbers didn’t match theirs. The earliest map, published in 1914, might as well show a different planet. (See how it showed Knowland Park in this post from 2015.)

So I guess the upshot is that every generation of geologists learns the landscape anew, and by extension, that includes me. The certainty of a geologic map is always provisional and subject to correction, or at least to change. It can be disconcerting to realize that geologic knowledge is not necessarily cumulative, authority may not be authoritative, and rocks are not that firm a foundation.