The changing identities of the Leona Quarry

Last week I finally gave in and returned to the high hills — for exercise, as permitted by the county health authorities — and couldn’t resist a reconnaissance of the Leona Heights area. It’s Oakland’s boldest and most rugged region. Here it is from Knowland Park, above the zoo.

Most Oaklanders may know it, though, as the mountainside with the huge scar on it overlooking I-580, the former Leona Quarry.

The quarry was first opened by the Ransome-Crummey Company in 1904 and ended operations under Gallagher & Burk in 2003, but it changed hands (and names) several times over the years, making its detailed history hard to trace. Also, newspaper accounts often confuse it with the Leona Heights quarry, which was at the site Merritt College occupies today.

The quarry was first made feasible by an extension of the Laundry Farm railroad, above Mills College. It was originally high up a steep grade, as shown by the pick-and-hammer symbol in the 1915 topographic map.

I believe it was up there because the bedrock was well exposed, making excavation unnecessary at a time of heavy reliance on hand labor. The 1947 map shows that operations had moved downhill, and quite a bite had been taken out of the hillside.

And the 1980 update of the 1959 map shows the quarry scar at its ultimate size.

The whole time, this hillside was being quarried exclusively to make crushed rock. There was a huge demand for coarsely crushed stone in the days before asphalt and concrete pavement. The gold standard for city streets in the late 1800s and early 1900s was macadam, which has completely disappeared since then. You’ll only see it in silent movies.

A macadam road started with a shallow excavation that was filled with several layers of crushed rock, of successively finer grade, topped with fine gravel or rock dust. The jagged, blocky texture of crushed rock made macadam roads exceptionally firm in comparison to plain dirt or gravel, and they didn’t turn to mud in the rainy season.

As Oakland grew, filling in the harbor and airport and covering East Oakland with suburban tracts on an ambitious street grid, its quarry owners prospered, especially the well-connected ones who could arrange favorable contracts and keep wages low. Plain old crushed rock — road metal — was in high demand. Although there were still good markets for crushed rock after the macadam era ended, things were not the same. The Leona Quarry outlasted all of its competition in Oakland thanks to its remote location, good rail transport and ease of production. But eventually the city expanded to the quarry’s doorstep, the quarry ran out of easy rock and the show ended in 2003, when I took this shot of the north end of the property.

That’s when the site took on its next identity — a townhome district. The rock no longer matters.

But it used to. I think the Leona Quarry started running into problems as the standards in the rock business grew steadily stricter.

Leona Heights, the mountain, consists of a body of much-altered volcanic material of Jurassic age that I refer to on this blog as the Leona volcanics. Its eventful history left it impregnated with pyrite, iron sulfide, in many places. A little farther northwest, in the valley where route 13 splits from I-580, there was enough pyrite to support at least two mines. Down at the Leona Quarry there wasn’t as much, but it does exist and, as it does in the old mines, pyrite decays in the air and rain into iron oxides and sulfuric acid. The oxides turn brown, staining the Leona volcanics this typical color.

They also stain the stream water, as seen here in the headwaters of Chimes Creek above the quarry (and elsewhere in the hills).

The west side of the quarry was full of this “red rock” while the east side consisted of a dense blue-gray siliceous rock, more like this specimen I collected there back in 2009.

Whereas the red rock was useless for things like concrete aggregate because of its pyrite content, this was the good stuff. Nevertheless, the market for excellent road metal came to be dominated by huge outfits like Granite Rock — whose co-founder, Arthur Roberts Wilson, started his career at the Leona Heights Quarry back in the 1890s.

Meanwhile today, the former quarry is now a townhome plantation, set at the bottom of a high, steep rocky bowl.

There is no guarantee that the quarry’s second identity will last forever. Fire, earthquake and rockfalls can overcome any defense given enough time (although the Leona Quarry development has a GHAD that maintains the defenses). Zoning changes and real-estate fashions can undermine such enterprises as surely as physical hazards. There is no guarantee that anything we build will last a century, like the quarry did. Like the ancient philosopher said, everything flows.

2 Responses to “The changing identities of the Leona Quarry”

  1. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    Fascinating! Andrew has answered many questions in this wonderful post.

    One area I want to research is who, exactly, were the Gallagher family of Gallagher and Burk. Were they related to my ancestors Stephen and Mary Elizabeth Gallagher, who came to Oakland in 1876 and built a house in Fruit Vale in 1905?

  2. Julie Says:

    I use to ride my bike and dirt bike all over those mountains. It sucks that houses were built there and now you can’t even go all the way to the top. That was our hang out as children.

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