Archive for the ‘Quarries and mines’ Category

The changing identities of the Leona Quarry

9 November 2020

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.

Rocks of the Bilger Quarry

6 July 2020

It’s been twelve years since I wrote about the former quarry where the Rockridge Shopping Center sits today. Except for the pond, the whole space has gotten a makeover and it’s time for a fresh look. But first, some nostalgia. Back in 2008 the 24-hour “Big Long’s” was still there. I used to shop there; it had everything.

And flanking it was the big old Safeway with more businesses between and beyond, and the bank in the far corner. I used to bank there.

All of this is now gone, and the site is under intermittent redevelopment. Decades ago this was a giant rock pit, active for more than 70 years, that for a long time was the largest rock quarry in Alameda County. It was started by the Oakland Paving Company in 1870, and the name of Frank Bilger was associated with the succession of enterprises that produced crushed rock here, so it’s usually referred to as the Bilger Quarry. (Bilger learned the trade from his father, a German immigrant, and he surely pronounced his name the German way with a hard G.)

Now the Long’s site is a big Safeway, and the old Safeway and bank buildings are part of an empty lot. Only the water-filled pit on the east side is unchanged, and the walls show no sign of decay, which is a very good thing because it’s right next to St. Mary Cemetery.

The whole quarry site occupies a small body of quartz diorite, an intrusive (meaning it didn’t erupt) igneous rock that’s unusual but not unheard-of for the Franciscan Complex. It’s mapped as the purplish blob in the center labeled “Kfgm.”

It happens to be excellent rock for industrial and engineering purposes. The Tribune in 1890 wrote, “The material used by the Oakland Paving Company is a crushed blue rock, a trap dyke that is practically indestructible, submitting without injury to the hardest usage for eight or ten years without repairs, and with proper care, such as any pavement requires, lasting three or four times longer.”

The east end of the quarry exposes the bluish stuff. This exposure, right behind the Safeway, also has flaky veins of calcite. It’s very tough — not that I’ve used a hammer on it lately, but after seeing lots of rock you get a feel for this.

The west side consists of a much lighter material, a bit coarser grained and slightly less durable.

Between them is a contact zone that I recall as being black and sheared, with mineralization that was probably iron-manganese oxides. It was covered up when the new Safeway went in and parts of the rock face were fixed up for safety. I took this photo in 2018 from the roof parking lot.

There’s chainlink netting on the rock face, just in case it decides to start crumbling onto the roadway.

You’re always cautious about building inside an abandoned quarry, because rocks don’t last forever — that’s why they’re mostly underground, covered with soil. The experts have assured us it’s OK, and I trust them pretty well. The cemetery will last a good long while, and the former California College of the Arts campus, while it looks precarious perched above the other side, has passed muster too and someday will be apartments with good views.

What continues to impress me, every time I visit, is how different Oakland used to be. Throughout the late 1800s, the cemetery on one side and the CCA site (then it was the Treadwell estate) on the other were cheek-by-jowl with this huge operation that blasted three times a day, starting at six in the morning, and employed hundreds of men in producing crushed rock. But back then, rocks were money.

In search of lime

25 May 2020

I like to brag that Oakland contains more rock types within its boundaries than any other city in America. But alas, it’s missing one of America’s most widespread rock types: limestone. Yes, there are pods of dolomite limestone in the Claremont Shale, but that’s a far cry from what Oakland’s first outside settlers hankered for, which was real calcite limestone.

Limestone is essential for civilization because it’s the default industrial source of lime (calcium oxide or hydroxide), without which you can’t manufacture any kind of decent mortar, or plaster, or cement. Lime has been made for thousands of years by simply roasting limestone, which consists of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate). This was traditionally done in a lime kiln, a stone furnace that was loaded with rock and firewood.

The Bay area does have bodies of limestone, and these were staked out early. But the nearby firewood supplies (i.e. forests) were soon depleted, and the industry was fitful and limited until reliable supplies of coal and, still later, oil became available.

One alternative to limestone in Oakland was oyster shells, which we once had in abundance. Unfortunately, many of the old Native shellmounds had oyster shells in abundance too, and this led to the end of them.

A few years ago I had the chance to visit the remains of an old-fashioned lime kiln in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Another old site was on the coast near Rockaway Beach, south of Pacifica. I wrote a piece about it for KQED a while back that explains where most of our local limestone comes from, tectonically speaking.

This kind of industry lasted only a few decades. Around the turn of the last century, big manufacturers started to mine massive bodies of limestone. One was on the Santa Cruz County coast at Davenport; it supported a company town out there for a whole century. Another was in the South Bay near Cupertino, based in a quarry on Permanente Creek. One of Henry J. Kaiser’s early companies operated it, and when Kaiser eventually became head of an industrial giant, during World War II he took the name Permanente for the name of his innovative company health-care plan. The quarry is still digging, almost 80 years later.


By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA – Flickr.com – image description page, CC BY 2.0, from Wikipedia commons

Another big limestone quarry was in American Canyon, in Napa County. But the one that fascinates me most is the former Cowell lime quarry, which sits between Walnut Creek and Concord, on Lime Ridge. For about 40 years, starting in 1908, this quarry exploited a thick deposit of travertine — hot-spring limestone. It supported a company town too. Now some of the workings are in Lime Ridge Open Space, where you can scrutinize these unusual deposits. They aren’t like anything else around.

This post was inspired by my maniac brother Steve, who explores the woods around his Lyme, New Hampshire home to locate old cellar holes. Now he’s branched into old lime kilns.

In other news, I’m happy to report that the latest Covid-19 guidelines now allow the use of public transit for outdoor recreation. This means that all of my geology walks and rambles can be undertaken again, and I’m looking forward to getting out there, taking due care of course.

Sibley South

25 November 2019

The wonderful Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve has a southern extension, still being developed, that opened to the public recently. It’s at the head of San Leandro Creek upstream from the village of Canyon on the west side of Gudde Ridge, a part of the hills that’s always intrigued me. The land is in the foreground of this photo of Mount Diablo I took from Huckleberry Botanical Preserve in April 2009.

The property was homesteaded in the 1860s by Patrick and Catherine McCosker and remained in the family for the rest of that century and all of the next. It was a cattle ranch for most of that time, with a small kitchen orchard. The Oakland, Antioch & Eastern railroad exited the old Redwood Peak Tunnel eastbound near the ranch entrance and stopped there at a station named Eastport, still a locality on the map.

About the time when plans were floated to punch a new state highway up Shepherd Canyon and through the hills to the Lamorinda area, the McCoskers started a rock quarry in hopes of profit during the highway construction. (Transport distance is a very important factor in the crushed-stone business.) It operated from 1958 to 1971, then continued as a rock crushing plant serving various construction projects in the area.

After that business petered out and the land languished for a while, the McCosker descendants sold a 250-acre chunk known as the Texas parcel to the developers of Orinda’s Wilder Ranch community, and as part of a deal the land was donated to the East Bay Regional Parks District. The “McCosker Sub-Area” opened to the public in December 2016.

The parcel occupies most of the valley north of Eastport, as seen here on the 1959 topo map. I’ll show the bedrock map of the same area later.

It’s precious property for native plants and a good wildlife corridor, tucked between the Huckleberry preserve and steep, remote grazing land in the Sibley preserve. The District classifies it as a Natural Unit, managed for its “unique or fragile habitat values with public access primarily limited to trails.” Its permanent stream, a major tributary of upper San Leandro Creek given the name Alder Creek, will have some 1300 feet of decaying culvert removed and be restored to good riparian habitat suitable for native rainbow trout.

To protect this wild country, access for dogs and horses will be tightly controlled. (At present, dogs are not allowed at all.) Plans include a small campground suitable for backpackers on the major Bay trails.

On a misty weekday afternoon, it feels very far from the rest of the Bay area.

On sunny days, though, the views are good. I went back yesterday to capture some.

The rocks here are mainly from three map units: the Claremont Shale (the gold strip along the valley floor), the Orinda Formation (Tor, conglomerate) and Moraga Formation (Tmb, lava flows, and Tms, associated sediments).

The Claremont peeks out of the woods near the entrance with its characteristic, steeply dipping stripes.

The Orinda pokes out of the hillside with its characteristic beds of coarse gravel and cobbles — but only in roadcuts.

Elsewhere, out on the bare hillsides, the ground is nearly pure clay soil with only rare pebbles exposed, tokens of a very different terrain dating from some 10 million years ago.

The Moraga Formation lava is harder stuff, and there are a few actual outcrops in the high hills.

Near the entrance is a flat platform with a large shed, evidently built from quarry waste. It will become a parking lot and recreation area named Fiddleneck Field. For now it’s a parking lot for boulders from other parts of Sibley. Check them out. They represent the Orinda and Moraga formations, plus a few white limestone chunks from the Moraga sediment unit or the slightly younger Siesta Formation.

Some of the lava features the distinctive amygdales, former voids filled with hydrothermal minerals, found at Sibley.

Another thing to notice here and there is small landslides, like this slump at the edge of the Fiddleneck Field platform. Others occur along the ranch roads, which were built long ago by ranchers without the advice of geotechnical consultants.

As far as I can tell, the quarrying took place in scattered pits of no great size. That area is screened by oak/bay forest and cordoned off with barbed-wire fence, so it’s hard to tell. I look forward to seeing this land opened up as the District does more work.

In the meantime, there are splendid views to be had.

Give it a visit some time.

Details of the plans for this area are in the Sibley Land Use Plan, available if you search for it from the East Bay Regional Parks District website.