Tracing the old Thorn Road

6 August 2018

Hiram Thorn took it upon himself in 1853 to build a road over the Coast Range hills from today’s Montclair to his redwood mill, which was either at the present site of Canyon or farther downstream where the former town of Pinehurst once sat. Thorn’s Road was a toll road for a long time, connecting Oakland to the Moraga Valley agricultural hinterland and beyond. “This was the main road into Contra Costa county in the early days,” wrote the Tribune in 1923, “and a daily stage ran over it to Walnut Creek, Danville and the top of Mount Diablo.”

This piece of the 1897 USGS topographic map shows the Thorn Road running from the lower left to the lower right corner.

There are a few things to point out. Kohler Creek is called Temescal Creek today, but back then Temescal Creek went straight uphill from the Lake Temescal reservoir. That streambed was obliterated by the later construction of upper Broadway, Route 24 and the Caldecott Tunnel bores. The dashed line from top to bottom is the county boundary, and the thick dot-dot-dash line running up the canyon along with the road is the boundary between Vicente and Antonio Peralta’s shares of the San Antonio rancho, the immense royal land grant made to their father in 1820. The Thorn Road was also the official line between the Oakland and Brooklyn Townships of Alameda County.

This 1878 map made by Malcolm King shows the landmarks at the time, including the location of the toll gate about where the Thornhill Coffee House stands today.

In the 1880s it was already being referred to as “the old Thorn road.” In 1889 the Tribune reported on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting of 1 April: “The Committee of the Whole, to whom had been referred the petition asking for the placing in good repair of the Thorn road to Moraga valley presented a report saying, that upon examination of the ground, they were satisfied that it would be utterly impossible to ever make the same a good road on account of the steep grade.” They recommended surveying “a road to the summit over a new route and on an easy grade.” That new road was the Snake–Skyline–Pinehurst Road route. Between it, the existing Redwood Road, the Kennedy tunnel to the north and the Oakland Antioch & Eastern railway to the south, which went up Shepherd Canyon and cut through the hills to Eastport, the Thorn Road was no longer the best way over the hills.

Nevertheless, the 1936 street map showed Thorn Road still following its old route up to the Huckleberry saddle.

The 1947 topo map shows that the top segment of the Thorn Road, and all of it on the far side, had been abandoned. The newly named Thornhill Drive took a zigzag route incorporating what had been Idlewild Drive, and the part of the Thorn Road left behind was named Sobrante Road.

Here’s the modern Google map just to give an idea of the streets and terrain.

The Thorn Road took the gentlest way up Thornhill Canyon to the topographic saddle where the entrance to Huckleberry Preserve is today. It was still a very challenging grade near the top, about a 36% grade or 20 degrees, according to my phone compass. (This would rank among the steepest streets in notorious San Francisco.) It was even steeper on the Contra Costa County side.

For a while after the 1947 topo map was published, street maps connected Sobrante all the way to Skyline, but as of 1967 the upper end of Sobrante had been cut off. However, there’s still a right-of-way and a sewer line running down it.

That’s where I took a walk last week. This is looking back at the end of Sobrante and across Thornhill Canyon.

There are remnants of the old grade, but no path bigger than a game trail. I think a footpath should be built here, as an emergency route if nothing else.

Underfoot is Claremont chert, not a surprise because this is right next to, and a hundred feet downhill from, the endangered chert roadcuts of Elverton Drive.

The habitat has possibilities. The ground was wet during my visit, thanks to fog drip. But crews have dumped a bunch of eucalyptus slash, which not only obstructs passage but also presents a fire hazard.

Also prominent in the human litter is a bunch of slash consisting of For Sale signs. There are still lots available up here.

On the far side of the ridge, in Contra Costa County, a stub of the Thorn Road got the name Winding Way. It was known as a shortcut for motorcylists when CHP Captain George Kallemeyn, chasing a group of hotrodders down the road, went over the edge and died in July 1959. Winding Way was still shown as open as of 1967, though it went only a short distance down the canyon.

Some time after that a landslide took out the highest segment of the road, and today the Huckleberry Path edges around the scar. About a hundred yards down the trail, a bench marks the spot where the old roadbed, heavily eroded and overrun in roadcut rubble, picks up again. It’s passable on foot all the way down to the hairpin turn of Pinehurst Road.

I recommend visiting this end of the old road starting down at Pinehurst. You can park beside Pinehurst a little bit downhill from the hairpin, where the old rail tunnel came out. (The cut is still there, filled with rubble and leaking a steady stream of groundwater.) But just as convenient, and more tempting, is the new Wilcox Station staging area, an access point to Sibley Volcanic Preserve’s eastern annex where the Eastport station once stood.

The road starts out along San Leandro Creek, then soon starts to climb.

It’s a steady grade, but the road was never more than one lane wide. As you walk it, imagine the work it took to trailblaze by pickaxe and oxteam. Imagine driving the daily stage to Danville over it. Between raveling ground on the uphill side and landslides on the downhill side, this road, once a vital link in the commerce of the redwood era, is reduced to a precarious trail today.

At any time an earthquake or rainy winter could cut it off, either until repairs can be made or once and for all.

An Elverton update

23 July 2018

After a visit five years ago, I had high praise for Elverton Drive: “From end to end, it offers the best exposures anywhere of the Claremont chert.”

This stuff, as seen a few weeks ago during a return visit.

Those of you who’ve followed along know the amazing striped chert of the Claremont Shale, which crops out in a belt from Claremont Canyon along a couple miles of Skyline Ridge to Huckleberry Botanical Preserve and beyond in the hinterland. The fat pale stripes are layers of microcrystalline silica — chert — and the thin dark ones are layers of claystone — shale.

During this visit I walked from the south end of Elverton past the newest set of houses, near Huckleberry, and had a good stop in the old borrow pit. The wall has crumbled a bit since five years ago, opening this fine exposure.

I was hoping to find pieces of dolomite rock, which are present as an uncommon third ingredient, so I gave the rubble a good look. None of that there, but I was interested to see some extra-thick pieces of the chert and shale.

The chert, in fact, was very light. It was barely changed from its original state as diatom ooze on the seafloor, almost the balsa-wood lightness of the Pinole diatomite. I did not expect that.

At the other end of the pit is the same big-ol’ boulder that was lying there in 2013. This is not a decorative rock placed there to look good; no, it fell here from the beetling cliff above and stopped rolling just short of the roadway. I recalled writing in 2013, “if you feel an earthquake while you’re there, step the hell back.”

Every time I visit the high hills, the pleasure of geologizing gives way, sooner or later, to a sense of dread at the state of the roadcuts. The eucalyptus roots in this scene were exposed as the hillside crumbled away, and behind them is a concrete cast meant to slow down a landslide.

But thinking ahead I looked forward to admiring this again after five years away. Google Street View still shows it.

Instead, it’s being shored up and fitted with a shotcrete shroud.

And another splendid exposure farther along is being smothered too, with no finesse.

In fact, not long afterward I started to despair of Elverton Drive. Is this the point of occupying such a spectacular setting? To cover it with property? To look outward and not downward?

The Claremont chert isn’t as solid as it might seem. Given the tendency of these young rocks to crumble, there’s no guarantee a new house in the high hills will survive its first mortgage. Or that the road will last that long.

Look out. Don’t look down. Elverton Drive is falling apart while it’s still filling up.

I already miss the place.

Franciscan landscaping

9 July 2018

This house in Piedmont caught my eye not long ago. Homeowners who live in conspicuous places do their neighborhoods a service by making their properties shine. I appreciated the care the owners of this home displayed not just in their plantings, but also in their choice of rocks.

The site (110 Scenic Avenue) is in the middle of the block of Franciscan sandstone that underlies most of Piedmont and some adjacent parts of Oakland. The massive sandstone, of an unobtrusive tan color and undistinguished structure, makes a serviceable setting for some of the Franciscan’s other, more colorful rock types.

The exposure of bedrock is discreetly patched with concrete, which may well conceal rock bolts set into the hillside. The section of concrete on the right side, below, is surfaced with the same blue serpentinite found at Elks Peak in Mountain View Cemetery, the old pit at Serpentine Prairie, around Butters Canyon, and elsewhere.

There are several basins built onto the exposure. The bluish high-grade metamorphic river rock is carefully chosen, too. It comes from outside the Bay area, most likely somewhere on either flank of the Sacramento Valley.

And just beneath it is this little jewel of high-grade blueschist.

Of course a geologist’s first focus is on the stone. But the true beauty of a yard like this is how the rocks converse with the plants set among them over the course of a California year. I’ll be back to see that.

When did everything Franciscan begin?

25 June 2018

A paper I read last week led me a long way in an interesting direction that started in El Cerrito, just up the ridgetop from Oakland, at the property fondly known as the Mira Vista Golf Course (restored in 2011 to its original glory and rechristened with its original name, the Berkeley Country Club).

I first visited Mira Vista in 1999 to see the Hayward fault, which runs through the fairways and helps give the land its picturesque form. Trenching studies there have added to our knowledge of this threatening feature.

But what brought Mira Vista to mind last week was a paper in the journal Tectonics titled “Early Onset of Franciscan Subduction.” A handful of rock harvested here gave the authors a new answer to an old and vexing question.

California is known to geologists around the world as the type example of a subduction zone. Its rocks preserve a record — a messy one — of a long period of geologic time when a tectonic plate consisting of ocean crust was moving toward and diving (subducting) underneath North America, which consists of continental crust. That went on for some 150 million years, interrupted when the San Andreas fault system first formed about 30 million years ago and turned the plate boundary into the sideways-moving setup we have today.

During the subduction period, North America scraped off parts of the top of the oceanic plate. That collection of stuff, analogous to a pile of dirt on the blade of a bulldozer, is a mixed-up lithological scrapple called the Franciscan Complex.

One of the most basic questions we have about the Franciscan is, how old is it? That is, when did subduction begin?

The authors of the paper, led by Sean Mulcahy of the University of Washington, looked for special samples from “high-grade blocks,” lumps of rock that have survived being stirred by the bulldozer blade deep below the crust and returned intact. Most promising of these are the highest-grade rock type I’ve found in Oakland: blueschist. The authors studied just two rock samples, one from the high-grade blueschists of the Tiburon Peninsula and the other from Mira Vista, where high-grade blocks crop out of a matrix of serpentinite along with other Franciscan “knockers.”

The high-grade blocks are part of the golf course as well as the surrounding terrain.

The course is right next to The Arlington. It was easy to get there on the 7 bus line. Getting off near Madera Circle, I spotted telltale boulders at the roadside: Blueschist.

Mulcahy got his team’s sample from this knocker behind the fire station. Their International Geo Sample register says it was collected by “hammer and chisel.”

Close up, a fresh exposure of the rock — maybe the actual collection site — glistened with blue and green crystals: the high-pressure metamorphic minerals glaucophane and omphacite.

The real work began under the petrographic microscope, where Mulcahy had to untangle the complex set of high-pressure events that affected this rock from the geometry of these thin sections.

Briefly, the big garnet grains preserved grains of very old material inside them, protecting it from later reactions. Those grains were about 176 million years old; the same minerals outside the garnets were about 160. Their ages had been re-set during a later episode of high pressure.

Moreover, the earlier episode had a much higher pressure than the later one, high enough that the rock had been not blueschist, but eclogite (ECK-la-jite). It had been carried at least 50 kilometers deep, a depth only attainable by subduction, and just a few tiny shreds protected inside garnet grains, measured in microns, preserved the evidence.

That’s pretty cool. This finding sets a new record back in deep time for the beginning of Franciscan subduction, in the early Jurassic.

It also offers a telling clue about another California geology mystery: What’s the exact relationship between the Franciscan Complex and the Coast Range ophiolite? In brief, there are three main hypotheses, and this evidence weighs against two of them and favors the simplest one. That will change the book I’m in the middle of writing.

By the way, stairs and footpaths lead from here down through Motorcycle Hill to the El Cerrito del Norte BART station. Take that hike some time.