Pill Hill

Pill Hill, an odd outlier of ancient alluvial gravel in North Oakland with a long history, rises almost 50 feet above its flat surroundings. Today it’s thoroughly encrusted with buildings, as seen here looking up Broadway from the YMCA gym building and down Broadway from the Kaiser hospital parking structure.

Beginning in the 1860s it was known as Academy Hill or College Hill for its private schools in gracious settings, which included St. Mary’s College, the Pacific Theological Seminary (now the Pacific School of Religion on Berkeley’s Holy Hill), the California Military Academy, the Pacific Female College, Hopkins Academy (where publisher J.R. Knowland started his first newspaper as a student), and other long-gone institutions.

Although the hill started out as bare grassland, after a few decades of landscaping the location was described in 1885 as “healthful, retired, and beautiful” and was served by horsecar lines on both Telegraph Avenue and Broadway.

Anthony Chabot built the first reservoir of his Contra Costa Water Company here in 1868, near today’s Summit Street and Hawthorne Avenue at the hill’s highest point. It held a million gallons of Temescal Creek water, and Academy Hill institutions may have been early customers supplementing their own wells. See its location on the 1878 Dingee Map:

and here’s the spot today.

The 1949 USGS topographic map shows the hill lovingly outlined in 5-foot contours. Given all the construction and digging done here since then, I think not even a modern lidar survey will ever match the fidelity of this map.

You can see that all the academies were gone by then (except for Grant Senior High, now the Zapata Street Academy), replaced by hospitals. Hence today’s name of Pill Hill. Probably the availability of large land parcels, the subsequent improvement of the water supply, the great street access, the advantages of a concentrated healthcare district (including the original Samuel Merritt College) and the attractive setting favored this change. When Pill Hill’s three big hospitals combined in 1992 to form Summit Medical Center, it was the hill they shared that inspired the name. The views from the hill, especially from the higher hospital floors, remain excellent.

Pill Hill is part of the widespread body of old Pleistocene-age gravel that I call the Fan, specifically lobe 2. Here it is on the geologic map.

Where this material extends across 27th Street, there’s a low hump in the road that the builders didn’t bother to flatten.

And at its north end, the construction of I-580 wiped out the hill, but a little bit still extends into Mosswood Park. This cut in the low rise at the park’s south edge may expose the gravel, but of course I can’t dig into it.

The rest of the hill’s periphery is an abrupt edge; this view west from Broadway down 30th Street is typical. I showed a few more views of the hill in this post from 2011.

The gravel of the Fan is considerably older and more consolidated than the alluvial plains around it. Exposures are very difficult to find, which is maybe why I’m a bit obsessed. The official description of this map unit (Qpaf, Quaternary (Pleistocene) alluvial fan) includes the tantalizing bit that they “locally contain fresh water mollusks and extinct late Pleistocene vertebrate fossils.” I did present one good (short-lived) exposure here in 2015.

4 Responses to “Pill Hill”

  1. Charlotte Steinzig Says:

    worked in the Mosswood Bldg at the tip of the Fan, just over the edge of 580 (my window looked down onto it). I felt the slightest earthquake (10th floor) in this bldg that was on rollers. Talked with a structural engineer who worked on new hospital design and he explained why, but now looking at the topo it makes more sense. I like your post of the drone view near the Mountain View cemetery, as I watched this construction during walks. Wish I’d known your terrific blog info then.

  2. Jim Safranek Says:

    Love this blog. In fact California Geology Forum on fb routinely posts these. Would love to have you and your readers join CGF, now with over 3400 members. Thank you for your work. I’m the admin and can add you if interested.

  3. Andrew Alden Says:

    You know, I noticed that as I was walking along the north side of the Mosswood Building. There’s an apron of sheet metal, where the structure meets the foundation, covering the gap that allows the building to shimmy. There’s a similar feature, a bit more elaborate, around Oakland City Hall.

  4. James Rytuba Says:

    Went to Hopkins Academy in Hadley MA and with its sister school Hopkins Grammar School are oldest schools that sent most of their graduates to Harvard. Didn’t know of the Hopkins Academy in Oakland.
    Great info-thanks much
    Cheers
    James Rytuba

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