Archive for the ‘Landslides’ Category

The Jungle Hill landslide

23 November 2020

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.

The Lincoln Square landslide of 1958

10 June 2019

The Lincoln Square shopping center, which I featured in my previous post, has nothing to do with President Lincoln, just as Lincoln Avenue has nothing to do with Honest Abe (it was named for Lincoln Rhoda, son of landowner Frederick Rhoda). It wasn’t on the Lincoln Highway either. Nope, it was named by the prominent citizen and developer, Luther H. Lincoln, on whose land it was built, to honor himself. Admittedly, Lincoln had his own measure of fame from serving as Speaker of the state Assembly in the late 1950s.

The shopping center, which opened in 1963, sits on the site of a messy, sensational landslide.

When it comes to landslides, the blame usually lies uphill. And in the late 1950s one of Oakland’s largest suburban developments, Crestmont, was under construction on the steep hillside above Lincoln’s land.

The hillside of Crestmont was acquired and developed by Andres Oddstad’s residential construction company. He made his name building whole neighborhoods of “economy homes” in South San Francisco, Pacifica (Linda Mar was his work), Redwood City and other West Bay localities. Crestmont was Oddstad Homes’ big splash in the Oakland market, a luxury development tagged “Riviera of the East Bay.” The ads in the Tribune cried, “Grand, sweeping panoramic views from your home in Crestmont leave you breathless day or night. Here is the charm and freedom of country living only 15 minutes from downtown Oakland!” The redwood-and-stucco houses cost $30,000, a premium price in those days. And the views truly are terrific.

Oddstad worked big and fast, leveraging its economies of scale. This aerial photo shows the state of things in early 1957.

And here’s a similar oblique view from Google Maps with the street names. The landslide I’ll describe was on Van Cleave Way, down at the bottom of the development. You can see from the airphoto how much digging and grading was involved. The serpentine rock making up the hillside was . . . mostly strong. The homesites built up on filled land were . . . mostly reliable.

Luther Lincoln and his family lived on the large lot of 4000 Redwood Road, just below the bottom of the image, as early as 1952. As Crestmont went in on the hillside above him, Lincoln built a big new home and arranged to have part of his land rezoned from residential to commercial. It was an ideal site for a shopping center to serve the new residents. And the land was largely waste already: The defunct Alma Mine, with its 5000 feet of abandoned tunnels and piles of waste rock, sat next door.

Oddstad’s project went well until the winter of 1957-58, the wettest season in 50 years. Ten inches of rain occurred in February, another ten in March. Two more inches fell during the last weekend of March, and just past midnight on 30 March, in the midst of a pounding rain, about 300 feet of landfilled hillside on the west side of Van Cleave Way began to crumble.

The Tribune reported that Mrs. Walter Horberg was moving the furniture out of 79 Van Cleave Way. “At 2:45 a.m., as beams groaned and snapped, the rear portion of the handsomely designed ranch-type home sagged and then, with a mighty crash, tumbled down the hill. The rear rooms of the house tumbled 100 feet, most of it straight down, and were carried along by the mud slide. The front section dropped a lesser distance. Somewhere in the rubble, the Horbergs’ family parakeet, Nickie, chirped on.” No one was hurt, but six homes on the block were lost or endangered; two of them hadn’t even been sold yet.

This photo from the next day’s paper, one of many from the catastrophe, was reproduced in US Geological Survey Professional Paper 944, “Relative slope stability and land-use planning in the San Francisco Bay region, California,” published in 1979 and still a good read. You can see that there’s no bedrock visible in the landslide scar, just dirt.

Here’s the scene below Van Cleave Way today. The lots for the five lost homes were rebuilt, turned into four larger lots, and developed 20 years later. The leftmost house, its roofpeak just visible, is one of the original ones from 1957.

This was not the last slide in Crestmont. Two new houses on Kimberlin Heights Drive were lost in June 1958 when the concrete piles holding them up failed. (A mild earthquake on 31 May was made the scapegoat.) And in 1962 a mudslide from the hill above Kimberlin Heights Drive swept a 5-year-old girl to her death.

But back to the Van Cleave slide. The wall of mud poured onto Luther Lincoln’s new home directly below, destroying the house and all of its contents except for a car. A few years later, Lincoln turned the scene of ruin into the Lincoln Square shopping center, and the textbook exposure of serpentinite in the hillside behind it that I showed you in the last post dates from that time.

To my knowledge, no slides have occurred in Crestmont since 1958. The streets look sound to my eye. But some empty lots remain below Van Cleave in the landslide scar that could be developed some day.

The pressure to fill open land with traditional suburban houses is relentless. And all the land left open today is precarious.

Edited to correct the date of the fatal slide in 1962, not 1955.

The landslides of London Road

29 October 2018

I spent some time last week in a concerted effort to examine the site of the 1970 London Road/Wilshire Heights landslide. (It took me five years to return to this haunted scene!) The effort was fun, but I learned more at home than I did on site. Gather round the campfire and I’ll tell you the whole tale.

To start with, here’s the most visible sign of this notorious event: the missing side of Kitchener Court, a hard-to-get-to cul-de-sac just south of the LDS Temple parking lot. I took this shot through a chainlink fence as a lone crow cawed.

Deep in the night, the land on the left side, along with its houses, fell into the narrow headwater valley of Peralta Creek, where it pushed a row of recently built homes off their foundations down below on London Road. To orient ourselves, here’s a time series of road maps with London Road in the center. Click it to see its full 1300-pixel width.

Today the whole south end of London Road is gone, except for a tiny stub at the top of Maple Avenue. The north end, of later vintage, extends south from Maiden Lane. The 2018 map, from Google Maps with terrain visible, shows the topographic setting well.

Once upon a time London Road ran up a steep, secluded little wooded valley. It was platted in 1923 as part of the Wilshire Heights development and named for Jack London. It was built out by the late 1950s, after surges of homebuilding in the 1920s and 1940s. Meanwhile, East Bay MUD put water and sewer lines through, and Shell Oil emplaced a fuel pipeline down the valley to carry gasoline from its Martinez refinery to the Oakland Airport.

What could go wrong? A lot. Every steep headwater stream in the Oakland hills is prone to landslides. And this particular stream has carved its charming valley into the pulverized rock along the Hayward fault. Here’s what that shattered, highly weathered material — fault gouge — looks like where it’s exposed in the headscarp.

It was mid-February in 1962, on a dark and stormy night, when the combination of heavy rainfall and leakage from a broken water main caused the hillside just south of Maiden Lane to fail. Three homes were destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Who knows how long the main had been leaking, or why. Slow landslides could have broken the main, or steady creep along the fault. Either would suffice, but probably both took part. On top of that, literally, was the added load on the hillslope from the new homes and their construction. No ordinances were in place at the time to ensure good construction practices on unstable slopes. And of course, for their landscaping, homeowners just added water. The land was probably in motion long before it finally slid.

Then came more construction in the 1960s: the Warren Freeway on one side, the LDS Temple complex on the other. People in the neighborhood said they noticed new ground movements during those years, but no cause-and-effect relationship can be confirmed this many years later. It is true, though, that when the Mormons sculpted the hilltop for their temple they disturbed an underground realm of water and soil. This photo shows groundwater coming up through the parking lot pavement, a phenomenon people described as the emergence of “hidden springs.”

But for the catastrophe that followed, the unregulated 1920s-era homebuilding on the bluffs of Kitchener Court was cause enough. During heavy rains in early January 1970, the whole east side of Kitchener Court began to collapse onto the south end of London Road. Within two weeks, some 40 houses were affected as 15 acres of land turned to hummocky ruin. The pipeline full of gasoline held, but Shell shut the whole thing down shortly thereafter. (In March 1969 it had been blown up, down in Redwood Canyon, engulfing the village of Canyon in a horrendous fire. Then this. And opposition continued to grow until the bad idea was safely dead.)

This land at the very end of Jordan Road is still iffy after almost 50 years.

There’s also the rock — you knew I’d get around to that. I don’t quite trust the geologic map in this area, but I can attest that serpentinite occurs here as it does in many places along California’s faults. These two specimens are good examples of our typical mixed serpentine rock and blueschist, and large boulders or outcrops of the same are visible in several places. There’s more on the west side of the temple. Serpentinite makes slide-prone ground, too, even when it’s not steep or waterlogged as this place was.

But on the whole, my poking around was frustrating because the land is so heavily overgrown and fenced off. Fortunately the US Geological Survey got funding for a lidar survey of the whole San Andreas fault system, including the Hayward fault, and the processed data — a digital elevation model or DEM, available from OpenTopography — is a fabulous resource for this exact area. After subtracting the vegetation and the structures from the data, the DEM becomes a grayscale image representing the bare ground, with the ghosts of streets and houses, here computer-illuminated from due northwest.

What’s handier, here’s the same with the Hayward fault superimposed. I usually have to do a lot of talking and armwaving to explain things, but not this time. Click in and wander around. The blue outline signifies a sag basin.

My final piece is this closeup of the slide area along with the lot lines and rights of way — more ghosts, still there after all these years.

There’s just one little house left on the east side of Kitchener Court, right up against the temple property. Incredible as it may seem, the adjoining lot, half fallen downhill with cliffs all around it, has a For Sale sign posted. Talk about a haunted place!

The Hayward earthquake: 1868-2018

15 October 2018

There’ll be lots of press this week about the anniversary of the “Great San Francisco Earthquake” — the original one, 150 years ago on 21 October 1868, caused by a big rip in the Hayward fault just before 8 in the morning. (Also the annual ShakeOut exercise, this year on 18 October at 10:18 am.) Behind the press stories there’s lots of sound info for you, and I’ll put a list of good links at the end of this post. Rather than write another standard thing about the earthquake, I’ll focus on what I’ve been studying lately, which is the problem of earthquake landslides.

Contemporary accounts of the 1868 quake tended to focus on homes wrecked and buildings ruined, but several geological manifestations were widely recorded: the ground cracked open from Oakland all the way to present-day Fremont, some of the cracks spewed muddy water, streams ran high afterward, and many new springs appeared near the crack.

Only in more distant places like the San Mateo Peninsula did people mention rockfalls and landslides — which tells me those were the most widespread forms of damage that day. Landslides were everywhere, even in places where buildings weren’t bothered. And though our buildings are even stronger today, the landscape is weaker than ever.

Landslides were everywhere in the East Bay hills in 1868 because that’s always what happens. No one made mention of them because they were unremarkable. The hills were empty countryside, a mix of spent rangeland and razed redwood groves. What matter was a landslide in that waste? But nowadays . . . when the next large Hayward fault earthquake comes, landslides will cause widespread and costly misery — in the high bedrock hills as well as the low gravel hills of the Fan and along the fault.

We don’t see the scars of the 1868 slides today because after a few decades, they fade out. Here’s a small slump in Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve that I photographed in 2005, 2009 and 2017.

I think in another 12 years it will be pretty subtle.

The high hills owe their basic shape to earthquakes and landslides. Their sides are steep slopes, swept clean and straight as the Hayward fault raises the heights by about a millimeter a year, one earthquake at a time. So they’re always primed to slide.

USGS landslide researcher David Keefer estimated in a 1984 paper that earthquakes as small as magnitude 4 are large enough to cause rockfalls. A magnitude 6.8 event, the size of the 1868 quake, would cause up to 1000 rockfalls in the affected area.

And up to 1000 slumps like the one at Sibley.

And up to 1000 debris slides, what people usually call mudslides. The majority of these will start along roadcuts, which inherently destabilize hillslopes . . .

. . . and near hillside homes, which do the same.

The city will be overwhelmed. The roads will take months to clear, years to fix.

All these photos show rainfall landslides, or sites where one could happen. They’re the usual kind. They happen where the flow of water, both on the ground and below it, unbalances the slope and makes it fail. They especially tend to form on the sides and floors of valleys, where the slopes converge.

Earthquake landslides, though, tend to start on ridgetops and promontories, landforms that focus seismic energy toward their tops. They also aren’t confined to the wet season. Sites that aren’t prone to rainy-season landslides may instead be the preferred targets of earthquake slides. If we’re lucky during the next big quake, as we were in 1868, the ground will be dry. If we aren’t, and the ground is waterlogged, well, heaven help us because we’ll get both kinds of landslide at once.

This danger is built in with the tectonically active setting that makes Oakland so beautiful. We have to prevent what we can, and cope with what we can’t.

Here’s that list of Hayward fault resources. Actually, the whole list is on one page, from the U.S. Geological Survey:

earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/events/1868calif

In that list I want to single out “What to Expect in a Big Urban Earthquake,” a phone-friendly “geonarrative” aimed squarely at people who live in cities — that’s us.