Glimpses of Glen Echo Creek

This is an inventory of what’s left of Glen Echo Creek, a stream with an outsized significance in Oakland’s history of development and planning. I used to live in its watershed and retain a strong affection for it. The photos in this post document every bit that’s accessible to the public. But first here’s the watershed map, courtesy of the county flood control district.

I’ll focus on the main branch, labeled “Cemetery Creek” in its upper reach (the Rockridge Branch on its north side is worth its own post). You can see that close to 90 percent of the creek runs underground today in culverts. Cemetery Creek’s headwaters, in Piedmont’s Moraga Canyon, are buried under Blair Park; the creek trickles out below Coaches Field at the edge of Mountain View Cemetery’s property.

From there the water goes through the cemetery’s three little reservoirs. This vintage view over pool number two is from my post celebrating the cemetery as the Bay area’s best landscape.

Once past the cemetery, the stream is known by its developer-inspired name of Glen Echo Creek. The upper portion, shown in this closeup, has four small segments of living water.

The first two are in back yards, and I’ve never seen them. This is the third, a brief flash at the end of tiny Arroyouela Avenue.

The fourth segment is partly public and partly private. The entrance to the Glen Brook Terrace includes two bridges and a sewer line, one of dozens I’m sure.

Just downstream is the narrow preserve, two residential lots wide, named Glen Echo Park. Neighbors help maintain it. The part above Monte Vista Avenue has a bit of the old floodplain. That’s where the stream flowed before white people came in the late 1700s. The disturbances they made to the countryside led all the little streams to cut into their floodplains forming the steep-sided arroyos we know today.

The creek enters a tunnel and comes out a thousand feet away, under I-580. That’s in the lower portion of the map, shown here.

Starting with Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s, thought leaders had a vision of the city laced from the shore to the hills by arterial parklike streets along each of the streams. Charles Mulford Robinson, a leading figure in the City Beautiful movement, was all about using our stream valleys for elegant roads with exquisite views.

The planner Werner Hegemann cited that vision in 1915: “A little suggestion of Charles Mulford Robinson’s plans may be found in the charming piece of a drive following for a short distance Glen Echo Creek under the name of Richmond Boulevard; though this has been carelessly handled by crossing the creek in some places by crude solid fills instead of light bridges, the elegance of a drive along a creek bordered by live oaks in contrast to the baseness of the use of the stream as a storm sewer is very convincing.”

It’s hard to square that picture with today’s dark, overgrown Oak Glen Park.

The envisioned road would never serve serious traffic, and the creek is far from a natural stream. Its fortified banks are choked with English ivy, Himalaya blackberry, French broom and other invasives, with no cleansing floods to clear them.

From here the stream runs privately through front yards, then a concrete ditch behind the Grocery Outlet.

The mappers of the flood-control district missed a final exposure, next to 27th Street at the black dot on the map. This is the last place one can hear the water speak.

Still farther downstream, at the second dot on the map, a ghost of the old creek was exposed as construction began at 24th and Harrison. This is the path of a long-disused culvert, being cleaned out and buried last week.

A photo sent by a reader shows details from a few weeks ago.

Finally we have the wholly artificial channel leading to the creek’s mouth at Lake Merritt.

One of Oakland’s great civic failures was its inability to preserve the natural streams. It took seven generations to reach this state, and it will take seven times seven to undo even part of it. Until then, we can only perceive the moribund creek in the topography of its valley, an echo of the glen it left us.

3 Responses to “Glimpses of Glen Echo Creek”

  1. Christie A. McCarthy Says:

    Thank you for this! I was raised on Richmond Blvd. from 1943-1963. What a lot of fun we had “going down the creek”! It did become a raging torrent when it rained, as I believe that all of the street run-off ended up in the creek. As as adult, I can’t believe that none of us was swept away, down to Lake Merritt.

  2. Arleen Feng Says:

    Andrew, thanks for featuring Glen Echo Creek! As steward for Glen Echo Park, I’ll ask the Piedmont Ave. Neighborhood Improvement League (which brokered the agency partnership enabling public use of the park) to add a link to your write-up. A few additional points:
    1. There is a glimpse of the creek segment below the cemetery through the fence of the pedestrian walkway connecting Piedmont Ave. to the north end of Pleasant Valley Court
    2. A lot of downcutting of creek channels was probably initiated in the early 1800’s rancho period due to cattle overgrazing and trampling. The cemetery ponds (mid-1800s) provided some flood storage to buffer increased runoff from farms and later houses, otherwise Glen Echo Creek probably would be more completely culverted like most Oakland and Berkeley creeks.
    3. I saw a newspaper article from I think early 1960’s that reported residents around what is now Oak Glen Park complaining that the creek was a nuisance, and a state official suggesting a “solution” to replace it with a new state highway. I guess the neighbors passed, or the right of way had other issues, and Temescal Creek took the hit when the Grove-Shafter freeway was built.
    4. Culvert walking has had waves of popularity over the years, though IMO not a good thing to recommend. An acquaintance who grew up near Piedmont Ave. once had a close call when it started raining while he and his buddies were in a long underground segment, and there can be dry-weather discharges that raise the level unexpectedly.

  3. joechoj Says:

    Cool, nice writeup. I feel like you’re me – I’ve spent a lot of time tracing out the stream, and removing ivy from the 2 block stretch at Monte Vista.
    I once donned waders and hiked from Lake Merritt to both Kaiser and Arroyuelo with friends & flashlights. You should try it sometime!
    Have you seen the pictures of Mosswood Park back in the day? It was a gorgeous old oak fairyland. Such a shame they destroyed it. Kind of crazy to climb up a culvert shaft and peek out at the grassy lawn today.

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