The Jungle Hill landslide

Jungle Hill is an odd plot of city-owned land off 38th Avenue in East Oakland. It’s been something of an embarrassment since it collapsed in landslides in the 1910s, marring the carefully tended image of a new and very desirable neighborhood. Landslides are more common in Oakland’s low hills than people think.

Jungle Hill is east of Fruitvale and west of High Street, making it sort of an in-between spot in terms of today’s neighborhoods. Here it is, marked with a red asterisk on the street map.

The area was empty countryside until 1906, when things changed dramatically with the San Francisco earthquake on 18 April. Oakland’s population essentially doubled overnight, and the big landowners leapt into action, putting their long-planned schemes into action as fast as they could. The default scheme at the time was to set up a streetcar line serving a tract of land, then subdivide the tract and sell the lots to people who would build homes on them. The developer would impose various restrictions to assure buyers that they would have neighbors like themselves building houses like their own.

Such was the case in the area of Jungle Hill. Beyond the presence of the streetcar line, the big attraction of the area was its elevation. Here’s the exact same area on the geologic map.

Long-time readers will recognize the orange blobs as the set of ancient gravel hills that I call the Fan. They stand above the flats by a hundred feet or more, which made them desirable home sites, and they’re still Oakland’s homiest middle-class neighborhoods, delightful for rambling. Foothill Boulevard runs along their lower edge. Jungle Hill sits on the western edge of Lobe 6 of the Fan. With that background, let’s zoom in and get oriented.

The streetcar line, spine of the development, went up 38th Avenue, which was named Liese Avenue at the time (a little spur up by the freeway still has that name). The street is still extra wide and displays the slope above Foothill Boulevard well. In 1906, Foothill Boulevard was the brand-new road to Hayward, a great source of city pride and the key to developing the lower hills.

The tract extended several blocks on either side of Liese Avenue. This area was developed starting in 1906 as Boulevard Park, “the most desirable property for home sites that has ever been placed upon the market.” Soon the ads proclaimed, “Elevated land! Magnificant marine and landscape view. All streets macadamized, curb and stone gutters, with 5-foot sidewalks. Water, gas and sewered. Trees and palms in profusion. New electric car line through the tract.”

After listing the prices and terms, they ended, “No Mongolians need apply.” This is how Oakland used to be.

Now we zoom in to the Jungle Hill site.

During heavy rains in January 1911 the hillside north of Ransom Street, overlooking that dogleg at the north end of Santa Rita Street, gave way. Three years later, early in the morning of 20 January 1914, in the midst of a series of storms that ravaged the whole west coast, the hillside farther downhill started moving. The Joneses across the street nearly died when their gas line broke. More sliding happened a few days later.

Here’s what the hillside looks like today from the north (well, in 2014 when I last wrote about this area). Santa Rita Street is hidden at the foot of the hill. The slope to the right of this view (visible in the newspaper photo) is even higher and steeper, but no one seems worried about it and I saw no obvious signs of ground movement in a visit this week.

This setting is very reminiscent of the McKillop Road landslide, which is also on the edge of a lobe of the Fan. Indeed, both sites hosted landslides soon after their development, in the years before 1910. Unlike the McKillop slide, which was notorious in the 1930s and again in the 2000s when it reawakened, Jungle Hill never appeared in the newspapers again, although a MacArthur Metro story from 2007 claims that more sliding occurred in the 1930s.

In any case, the property was long vacant when an early land trust, the Santa Rita Land Trust, scraped together the money to buy it in 1977. Residents put a lot of work into it, installing a path of railroad-tie steps that’s now crumbling. But when the trust petered out and went defunct, the land went to the city.

The hillside has the hummocky appearance typical of landslide sites.

An old wall that once bolstered a homesite looks to be in good shape.

And the climate and views that once made this area so desirable are still there.

The streets above and below aren’t blatantly crumbling. The site appears to have been so stable since 1914 that it could be built upon today. That would be politically difficult, I’m sure.

While I was visiting, I had to see the Carrington Stairs again, known to generations of local kids as “the 72 steps.” It’s still impressive from the top, if a bit grim.

But when you get down, it is fantastic. Click this picture for its full 1200-pixel glory and pay it a visit whenever you’re around.

10 Responses to “The Jungle Hill landslide”

  1. Stan Korich Says:

    As an old Oakland Boy” who grew up and roamed the Redwood Heights area including the sulfur mine trail to Devils Punch Bowl, Trout Ponds and the like, I never get tired of reading your local geology writings. I can remember the loose Rusty and yellow rock Breaking and rolling apart (trying to down me) as I Descended the trail with fools gold occasionally in hand, it means allot to me.

    Best Regards, Stan

  2. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    Thanks again, Andrew, for another wonderful writeup. I. bet this, like many landslide lots, came to be owned by the city due to tax default, or the building department having deemed it unbuildable, At least one of the lots on the perimeter of the Wilshire Heights landslide has been built on – engineering hubris.

    Betty Marvin led an OHA walking tour a couple of summers ago of this area; there is a neighborhood called Steinway Terrace – I don’t recall how the piano connection went – perhaps the original Mr. Tupper and Mr. Reed had some interest in the development. I wonder whether Jungle Hill was a part of Steinway Terrace?

    Calling the site Jungle Hill sounds like what the neighborhood kids would name it. The old 38th Avenue Key Line was the way the picnic’ers would access Leona Heights a century ago.

    — Amelia

    [A small correction: It was the line up High Street that brought people (and quarry freight cars) to Mills College and Leona Heights. The Liese Street line went up only as far as Hopkins (now MacArthur). See it all on the 1912 street map at

    That map also shows both the Steinway Terrace and Boulevard Park tracts. — Andrew]

  3. oaklanddots Says:

    Here is an article from 1961 – explains “the neighborhood children” named or called it “Jungle Hill” Dorothy

  4. Dakota Sullivan Says:

    Wow, great history! My father spent his first few years at 2316 Ransome Ave. (1908-1914) in a house his father built by hand. The current home was built in 1917, so it probably replaced the house my grandfather built. My father told a story that probably referenced Jungle Hill. He used to run around Santa Rita/Ransom area with other tough Irish kids and they demanded protection money from local merchants. One store owner wouldn’t pay so they set fire to the grass on the hill behind his store to scare him, inadvertently burned his store down

  5. Dorette Says:

    Thank you for sharing this tidbit! My family lived in this neighborhood and walked those steps daily .

  6. Nathan storm Says:

    The Santa Rita Land Trust was organized by Marques Miller @ 2255 Ransom Ave and other Ransom Avenue homeowners. The land was donated to the trust by various banks which owned the long abandoned plots of land.

    The Santa Rita Land Trust convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to draw up stabilization plans, and the seabees reshaped the land east of the concrete wall. They gentled the slopes somewhat but didn’t put in any structural supports.

    Shortly afterwards, 70s governor Governor Jerry Brown planted a tree on Arbor Day to a crowd of about 25.

    The gully at the far eastern edge eroded about 15 feet to undermine the edge of Ransom Ave sometime in 1980s.

    The name jungle hill was a long established name in the 60s used by adults and children. As children we used to skateboard, skate, and bicycle in a loop beginning at the sidewalks at the top of jungle hill, down to the corner of Ransom and Santa Rita, down Santa Rita street to jungle hill and run up jungle hill pathways back to the top. This happened every sunny afternoon after school.

    80% of Jungle hill was covered with 3’ or taller anise plants, which smell like licorice. These bushes were perfect for tunneling and rolling around to make circles where smaller children could be hidden from view. The hardy anise plants recovered and rebuilt within days. I suspect the anise “jungle” contributed to the name jungle hill.

    The anise were breeding grounds for dozens of anise swallowtails. The whole area used to be full of butterflies until the Medfly spraying in the 80s. The anise never recovered after the reshaping of the hill.

    [Thanks for this comment! — Andrew]

  7. Rita Frances Sokolowski Says:

    Don’t know what got me wondering about the 72 Steps this morning that I took to and from school in first and second grades. I googled and came across this photo
    Then I wondered about Jungle Hill (landing me here) which was right behind our grandmother’s house on Harrington where we lived those two years. Her sister lived in the house next door. The next four years were spent on the beautiful dead end of the 2300 blk of Hughes Ave in the most beautiful Craftsman home. Sadly it was torn down by it’s owner BB Patten University. A fugly pink thing was put up in it’s place. We used to roller skate from that house to our grandma’s house on Harrington. It was our base for lunch and snacks while we played on Jungle Hill and the 72 Steps.
    I hope to read your blog to my husband. Not sure if he will be interested or comprehend it. He has glioblastoma/brain cancer. He can no longer read or write. He had planned on researching Denver history for many more years. His blog was
    I will go down the history hole reading yours. Thanks for the memories.

  8. Victoria Says:

    I did not know the history of the 72 stairs or jungle hill, however I lived on Davis St. and went to Jefferson elementary school until 1961. So you see I used those stairs every school day and played on jungle hill where the fennel grew taller than me. I still love the smell of fennel. Thank you for the history.

  9. Rita Sokolowski Says:

    I still smell the fennel too! My grandmother lived at the bottom on Harriington. I went to Jefferson for about one year probably in 65

  10. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    I would be very curious as to how long ago the fennel invaded. When we got our lot on Peralta Creek in 1987, it was covered in fennel stalks 8′ tall. We have saved a few stalks for decorative purposes, but no longer do our coworkers comment on Monday mornings that we smell like licorice, after a weekend of cutting the stalks in our backyard.

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