Posted in History, West Oakland

A Forgotten Tunnel…

I recently found an article from 1961 about the discovery of an underground tunnel on what was the MacDermont Mansion in West Oakland. This is what I discovered looking into the mansion. 

MacDermot MansionOakland Local wiki

Forgotten Tunnel Revives Dimming Memories


In 1961 the Peralta Villa a 20-year-old WWII housing unit was being demolished to make room for new low rent apartments. They were located in the area bounded by 7th, 8th, Center and Cypress Streets. Oakland Tribune March 23, 1961

While clearing the land workman discovered a concrete-lined tunnel long forgotten and never recorded on the city records.

Was it a WWII bomb shelter? Did rum runners use it during prohibition?

The guesses proved to be wrong but an interesting story.

The Tunnel

The tunnel (built between 1905 -1910) was the work of Louis MacDermot the son of a prominent early Oakland family who owned the land. Their home (1407 8th St) was built sometime before 1876 (some say it could have been the French consul). Charles F. MacDermont’s name appears on title records as early as 1870.  The home was a showplace with landscaped grounds covering the entire block.   In the 1920s the city proposed buying the site for a park, but the plan fell through. The home stood empty and decaying behind a wooden fence until 1941 when it was razed to make way for the war-time housing. The tunnel went undetected then.

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The MacDermont Property 1407 8th Street Oakland CA

The concrete-lined tunnel ran across the stable yards from the brick boiler room near the family home to a machine shop. It was about 3 feet wide and 4 1/2 feet high. There were L-shaped hooks with oval rollers embedded on the sides.  Conductors for electrical wire had been installed on the ceiling.  The hooks apparently held steam lines which heat the machine shop.

Partial View of the Machine Shop at 1407 8th Street, Oakland
Partial View of the Machine Shop at 1407 8th Street, Oakland – ppie100.org

The man who built Railroads – the small ones

louis 1901
Louis MacDermot- 1901 -From the ppie.org

Railroad buffs might know the name Louis MacDermot. He built miniature railroads. He and his mechanics designed locomotives, freight cars, and coaches in great detail.

carraig
From the ppie100.org

In 1913, he was awarded the concession to build and operate an intramural railway at the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) due to open in February 1915. He started construction in his backyard.  The first completed locomotive was the work engine No. 1500, an 0-6-0T type.

Engine No 1500 – ready to be moved

Swanton Pacific Railroad Society Newsletter January 2012

The Overfair Railway, that ran along the Marina between Fort Mason and the Presidio. A 10 cent fare provided transportation to the Polo Field, State / Foreign buildings, California Building, Exhibit Palaces, Yacht Harbor, and The Zone.

Altoona_Tribune_Wed__Mar_10__1915_
March 1915

Overfair Railway on the Marina –  San Francisco Bay -1915 –SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

Overfair Railway on the Marina –  San Francisco Bay -1915 –SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

The Decline of the MacDermot Estate

After the fair, MacDermot became a recluse and stayed on the deteriorating grounds of the family’s Oakland mansion.

Old house of Chas. McDermott N. E. corner 7th and Center Sts. Oakland.
Showing one of the old cars used in the
Panama Pacific World’s Fair at San Francisco in 1915
Jesse Brown Cook Collection
Bancroft Library

Unfortunately, this fate was also shared by the Overfair Railway wooden passenger and freight cars.  The locomotives had the luxury of spending their “retirement” in sheds. The others did not fare so well.

MacDermont Home C 1930
MacDermot  Estate c 1940 -Swanton Pacific Railroad

Another photo of the MacDermot home with one of cars in the yard – OMCA

Swanton Pacific Railroad Society Newsletter January 2012

In 1941 he agreed to build the “The Mountain Lion Railway” for the Oakland Zoo. He moved three engines and the twelve best passenger cars to the Alameda County Zoological Gardens (today’s Oakland Zoo).  Beginning on August 1, 1941, with two cars running behind a forlorn No. 1913, the operation started.  The faithful Pacific had lost both its boiler jacket and its leading truck, relegating No. 1913 to the status of a 0-6-2.  The Overfair equipment had substantially deteriorated and MacDermot increasingly erratic behavior soon forced the Zoo’s management to eject the railway.  Please see – Swanton Pacific Railroad Society Newsletter January 2008

Oakland_Tribune_Sun__Nov_10__1940_
Oakland Tribune November 11, 1940
MacDermot and Sid Snow 1941
Oakland Tribune 1941

Louis MacDermot with Sid Snow – 1941 from the  Swanton Pacific Railroad Society Newsletter – February 2004

Moving Day 1940 or 1941 and Overfair train coming up the grade at the Oakland Zoo with Sid Snow’s home in the background – (which I believe is from the Talbot Estate and not the Durant Estate as noted) from the  Swanton Pacific Railroad Society Newsletter December 2007

Lost Dream

Oakland_Tribune_Sun__Jan_25__1959_.jpg
Oakland Tribune Jan 1959
Oakland_Tribune_Tue__Aug_27__1968_
Oakland Tribune 1968
Oakland_Tribune_Sun__Jan_5__1969_
Oakland Tribune 1969

The railroad lives on

Swanton Pacific Railroad in Davenport CA

The Swanton Pacific Railroad serves as an operational memorial to Al Smith who acquired and relocated the trains to the Swanton Pacific Ranch. The rolling stock consists of three one-third scale Pacific-type steam locomotives that were built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a diesel switcher locomotive and a variety of passenger and maintenance railcars.

 Cal Poly’s Live Steam Railroad –  Swanton Pacific Railroad

For more on the railroad – 

The End

Author:

I have been an Oakland history buff since going on an Oakland Heritage Alliance Tour of the Fernwood Neighborhood in the Montclair District of Oakland, in the mid-80's. On that tour, I learned that there use to be a train (Sacramento Northern) that ran through Montclair, in the early 1900's and that people lived the area as early as 1860's. I have been hooked ever since. Since then I have spent a lot of time looking into the history of Montclair and I have learned a lot. I feel this will be the best way to get it out of my head and onto paper.

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