The Curran Quarry

23 January 2023

Maple Avenue, in the upper Dimond neighborhood, used to be called Quarry Street. It was an old county road that served at least two quarries, starting with the Fruit Vale White Cement Gravel quarry in the 1870s. The road entered a small valley that cut through the southern tail of the Piedmont crustal block and over a small saddle in the ridgetop to the quarry, which exploited the light-colored fault gouge along the Hayward fault. Here it is on the digital elevation map based on a lidar survey of the fault zone a few years back.

This post is about the second quarry, which has had various names over the years. Its old scar is in the center of the image.

It was opened by James O’Brien some time before 1883 and was known as the O’Brien quarry. Later, when John F. Curran took it over, it became the Curran quarry, but it was also called the Fruitvale Red Gravel quarry, probably to differentiate it from the nearby white gravel quarry. Curran, a Canadian-born resident who died in 1912 aged 72, owned land around present-day Curran Avenue.

Like nearly all Oakland quarries, it produced crushed rock. Some jobs, like roadbeds for trains and cars, demanded hard “blue rock,” but there was also a good market for crummier stuff, and that’s what was here. Being so near the fault, the rock was pervasively shattered, which left it open to weathering and alteration. The area is mapped as mixed Franciscan rocks, which doesn’t tell us much because “Franciscan” is a grab-bag term.

Qpoaf is really old gravel, KJf is undivided Franciscan rocks, and Jsv is Leona volcanics. Find it on the main geologic map toward the middle.

In 1904, the county was asked to give Quarry Street the more appealing name of Maple Avenue. (At that time Oakland had not yet annexed it.) Later that year the owner of the 22-acre parcel the quarry sat on offered the “Crescent View Tract” to the county for use as a hospital, but nothing came of it. The state mineralogist took note of the Curran Quarry in 1906: “The rock is termed ‘red cement gravel,’ and is a very much altered rock, recemented by a red clay. Used as a top dressing for roads and walks.”

The area got annexed in 1909 and developed by the 1920s, but the quarry pit was abandoned at an unknown date and sat vacant until after World War II. It’s visible at the top of this photo from the winter of 1945, at which time the city owned it.

Original photo from Oakwiki

The pit was subdivided and filled with homes over the following decade, and today it looks like anywhere else up there.

The house on the corner has a wonderful exposure of serpentinite that deserves its own post some time.

From the street, everything looks green and lush and fine. From across the valley, though, there are spots visible where that “red cement gravel” has been freshly exposed by our recent hard rains.

Quarry pits are wounds to the land that Earth tries to heal.

Oakland stone landmarks: The McElroy Fountain revisited

9 January 2023

I made a brief post about this fountain a few years ago — it was the first “Oakland stone landmark” post — but a reader’s question pushed me all the way into a worthy rabbit hole.

When John E. McElroy died unexpectedly on 24 March 1909 at less than forty years of age, the city of Oakland mourned a public benefactor whose unborn child would never know him. As the City Attorney, McElroy wrested back Oakland’s waterfront lands from the railroad, undoing one of the great crimes of our founder, the scoundrel Horace Carpentier. He also helped establish our reputation as a legitimate City Beautiful in a way that went beyond grand boulevards and splendid public buildings: children’s playgrounds. He was elected four times; the last time both the Democrats and the Republicans endorsed him.

Park Commissioner James Edoff, a close collaborator and friend, launched a private donation drive to honor McElroy’s memory with a large fountain in Lakeside Park. The design, by Park Commission architect Walter Reed, was submitted in March 1910. A scale model was put on display 7 July 1910, and the Tribune reported, “Granite, marble and concrete are up for the consideration of the commission and as soon as the decision is made and the funds which the city will contribute towards its erection are turned over to the commission the work will begin. It is thought that the commission will decide in favor of the use of granite in the construction.”

Bids came in that August from six companies, including the Raymond Company (whose Sierra White granite clads City Hall) and California Granite Company, and the Colusa Sandstone Company won the job. The city chipped in the majority of the $15,000 needed.

I suspect that the bids fell into two categories: the granite companies could supply their own stone while the other firms could emphasize their skills and connections.

Colusa Sandstone Company was a very successful firm whose quarries, just east of Sites and still visible today, supplied the stone and stoneworkers for some of San Francisco’s finest Belle Epoque landmarks: the Ferry Building, the Emporium Building, the Kohl Building, the Spreckels Building and more. They could arrange for premium stone from the best sources and finish it to the highest state of artisanship.

That October the Tribune reported, “The basin and other portions of the fountain will be of white marble, for which the city has provided.” Specifically, as other stories reported, it was Georgia marble.

“Georgia marble” was effectively a trademark at the time. Then and today, this stone comes exclusively from Pickens County in northwestern Georgia, west of the former gold rush town of Dahlonega and home of an annual marble festival. The Georgia Geologic Survey described the rock and the marble industry as of 1907, when the state was second only to Vermont in the value of its output. Many buildings in Washington DC use Georgia marble. The statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial sits on stone identical to the McElroy Fountain.

All the evidence points to the Georgia Marble Company’s Cherokee Quarry, located east of Tate, which at the time supplied a coarse-grained stone of white or “clouded” color with light blue-gray bands. See some of it at the historic Tate mansion on the quarry grounds.

Marble is what happens to limestone when it’s buried and subjected to the pressure and heat found several miles underground. Old geologic reports assign this marble an Early Cambrian age, making it a good half-billion years old. It was originally a body of limestone that collected on the floor of the Iapetus Ocean, which resembled today’s Atlantic in being the result of continental rifting. The metamorphism that turned this stone to marble happened later, in Ordovician time, when plate tectonics forced the coasts of the Iapetus Ocean back together. This continental collision wrinkled and folded the rocks at the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, in the inner Piedmont and Blue Ridge belts.

The bluish streaks are considered to be remnants of bedding in the original limestone. They have a little magnesium in them and a touch of iron.

Cherokee Quarry marble is exceptionally pure and notably coarse grained, both of which account for its strength and endurance.

Now that I know more about this distinctive stone, I expect to recognize it everywhere.

In June of 1911 bids were received on the tiling and mosaic work: “The marble tiling and mosaic work will be one of the most beautiful portions of the fountain. Of four colors of imported marble, the stone will be wrought into designs at the entrances in consonance with the rest of the fountain.” Marbles to be used in the tiling and mosaic are green Verdi antique, white Alaska, or heavily veined Italian, red Numidian, yellow light Sienna and nemesis marble.” (Visit the Getty Museum’s online thesaurus for more on some of these.)

Work on the mosaic was still in progress when the Park Commission formally accepted the fountain on 6 July 1911, only 16 months after McElroy’s death. The fountain was dedicated on 17 September 1911, in an elaborate ceremony attended by thousands. After a series of speeches and musical selections, McElroy’s little boy, John Jr., turned the fountain on. Then Scott’s Band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” followed by “America” with the crowd singing along.

Even the water is special. The fountain lies on top of a reservoir that serves the Lakeside Park grounds. It was once (and may still be) fed with groundwater from two wells nearby, perhaps in one of those nondescript little huts in the park.

The 11 years since my previous post have not been kind to this exceptional structure.

The geo-flaneur

26 December 2022

I’ve always been a walker. As a child I was prone to wandering off; as a teen I learned that if I walked long enough I’d arrive in another town. My legs take my head to a special place. Since moving to Oakland, more than thirty years ago, I’ve gradually transformed into a flaneur: someone who enjoys just strolling around my city, or any city, no particular place to go, free to “lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” I love to revisit Oakland’s places and watch them change along with me.

My special joy and erudition centers on our special geology. The more I see of it, the more it speaks to me. Some times it even shouts. This blog began with an urge to share what I was perceiving, and it nurtured a private dream that the urge might somehow evolve into a book. The work involved was daunting; it started late and took years of one step at a time. It was not something a flaneur would do. But last week the final text was sent to the printer, and the publisher has a page with preliminary reviews.

One of those reviewers, our own Jenny Odell, says the book “has turned me into a newcomer to my own city, but has also changed the way I will view any landscape.” She gets what it’s about.

Oakland is full of flaneurs like Jenny, and for them all I want to do is add a new dimension to their pleasures. For other Oaklanders, I hope to tempt them into the same habit. Deep down, it’s a form of citizenship.

Winter is a good time to look around while the street trees are bare. The Oakland Hills are beautiful all year round, but early winter brings them a special palette between green and brown. In Deep Oakland I say this about them: “Seen from the city below, especially from the Bay shore, the hills may seem like an even wall, or a wave of rock carpeted with woods. But look again when the air thickens with marine haze and they resolve into a series of en echelon ranges, a set of waves with profiles as crisp as if cut from paper.” This time of year, there have been quite a few days like that.

The geo-flaneur takes walks no one else would think of. I seek out the neighborhood’s eminences and declivities, its peaks and valleys. I also relish unheralded details in the views we all see.

I put in my book the geological things and places I love to visit. That doesn’t discount the joys of the everyday views: handsome buildings, landscaping large and small, the state of the sky and the season, the people along the way. I see and celebrate them too.

This city has everything.

This year marked the fifteenth anniversary of this blog. The actual date of my first post was 25 September 2007, but this year I was too busy at the time rolling through the contents of Deep Oakland to make note of it. And I don’t look back much: I’ve observed the fifth anniversary and my 500th post, and that’s about it. But fifteen years, that’s pretty good. The blog will continue as long as I do.