Posted in Black History, History, People, Then and Now, West Oakland

Royal E. Towns – Engine Company No. 22

Royal Edward Towns (February 10, 1899–July 23, 1990) was one of the first African American firefighters in Oakland and was instrumental in helping desegregate the fire department.

Royal E Towns

Royal Towns joined the OFD in 1927 and was assigned to Engine Company No. 22, a segregated firehouse in West Oakland. The station was located at 3320 Magnolia Street.

Exterior of Oakland Fire Department Engine no. 22
3320 Magnolia Street

Three firefighters sitting in Oakland fire truck parked in driveway of fire Engine no. 22

Royal Towns was the 11th black Oakland fireman in 1927. The 12th wasn’t hired for another 15 years. In 1971 there were only 35 black firemen. Towns became the first to be promoted in the OFD. He became a chief’s operator in 1941 and retired as a lieutenant in 1962.

Royal E. Towns (center) and his colleagues with Engine Company No. 22
of the racially segregated Oakland Fire Department. (1943)

Towns was instrumental in helping desegregate the fire department. He helped train many other black applicants to pass the fire department test

Royal Towns on the left with Oakland firefighters standing in front of fire engine no. 22 – Circa 1943

Personal Life

Royal Towns was born in Oakland on February 10, 1899, to William Towns and Elizabeth Towns.

Towns married Lucille Dennis May 26, 1920. Together they had three children. The family lived in various locations within Oakland

Royal E. Towns died July 23, 1990 and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery

More Photos

The photos are courtesy of the Royal E. Towns papers, MS 26, African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California. Photos at Calisphere

3320 Magnolia Street Oakland – Then and Now
It is no longer a Fire Station
Rolling Hoses in front of Engine No 22
Two firemen attaching hoses to fire hydrant, firefighters practicing with fire hoses in park in the background – on Peralta Street
Peralta Street – Then and Now
Firemen holding fire hose in street next to
Gleason and Company building – Circa 1950s
at the corner of Magnolia and 34th Street

34th and Magnolia – Then and Now
Firemen holding fire hose in street next to Gleason and Company building
Circa 1950s – 34th and Magnolia
Across from the Gleason Company today
Firemen holding fire hose in street next to Gleason and Company building
Circa 1950s – 34th and Magnolia
Looking down Magnolia towards 34th St.
Circa 1950s
Looking down Magnolia towards 34th St.
Then and Now
Dog climbing ladder to get apple in front of Oakland Fire Department Fire Engine No. 22 – circa 1950s
Fireman jumping off ladder in front of Oakland Fire Department fire Engine no. 22

More on Royal E. Towns

Posted in East Oakland, History, Oakland, West Oakland

Backyard Fence War

In June of 1965 the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) began what was called a “Beautification Program”.

Under the housing authority’s plan, fenced in yards were to be removed and replaced with turfed areas in the following projects:

According to the tenants of the Peralta Villa housing projects in West Oakland, they first heard about the program when the a group of boys from the Alameda County Central Labor Council (funded by a grant from the War on Poverty) started demolishing the backyard fences and flower gardens.

The fences were removed, Housing Authority officials say, as the first step in a program of “beautification”

The tenants were really angry because some had paid the OHA for the fences and planted their gardens. No advance notice was given – the workers just started tearing everything up.

They Organize

The War on Poverty ran into a major obstacle this week – the War on Poverty

Oakland Tribune June 30, 1965

As a part of the War on Poverty‘s a work-study program was funded to provide the salaries of University of California students to work with the tenants .

The students worked with the residents of Lockwood Gardens to help them develop a sense of community identity and to learn how to help themselves.

It was these students that encouraged the tenants to form the Lockwood Improvement League .

The program funded by the War on Poverty the same people funding the “Beautification Program” and removing their fences.

The tenants of Peralta Villas met at Cole school and formed the Peralta Improvement League. Thirty tenants volunteered to form their own “human fence” they wrote up a list of demands and began their fight to save their gardens.

  1. Stop tearing down the remaining fences
  2. Rebuild the fences already taken down
  3. Reimburse the tenants whose private property was destroyed
  4. Consult the tenants first before doing any further work
Oakland Tribune July 1965

The labor for the “Beautification Program” was provided by the Alameda County Labor Council through a grant from the War of Poverty.

Lockwood Gardens

The OHA decided to on June 25, 1965 to “beautify” the projects. They started with Lockwood Gardens.

The people of Lockwood Gardens newfound sense of community identity was outraged.

Each of the thirty- plus dwelling units in Lockwood Gardens had its own yard and most had fences. Some had lawns and some had shrubs and flowers.

The enclosed yards gave the tenants a sense of individuality, security, and pride.

All backyard fences would come out, the lawns, shrubs and flowers would be dug out. A common turf area without fences would replace individual yards.

Oakland Tribune June 30, 1965

They had been using my yard as adverstiment for years.

Jim Sorenson 1137 65th Ave – Oakland Tribune
Oakland Tribune June 30, 1965

They were also upset by the lack of advance warning. They got 200 signature in favor of keeping the fences.

The Lockwood Gardens tenants were all for beautification but not at the expense of their backyards. One tenant was upset because he had just rebuilt his fence. Not all the tenants of the tenants took care of yards or kept their fences in repair. But they felt the OHA could work it out with those tenants.

The Protests

The tenants of both Peralta Villa and Lockwood Gardens protested and managed to halt or limited the amount of work that could be done at either of the projects.

Oakland Tribune July 13, 1965

The OHA laid out a new backyard fence policy Residents must keep their backyards neat and in repair; no new fences could be installed; no satisfactory fence will be torn down now, but eventual elimination of all fenced areas can be expected”

In August of 1965 the OHA board voted to poll each family of Campbell Village, Lockwood Gardens and Peralta Villa if they want a fence. Everyone was to be asked even the people who lived in the 2nd floor. There was a total of 916 total units in the three projects.

The tenants were given 2 choices in the questions asked :

Oakland Tribune Sep 01, 1965

It appears to be a lower-the-cost- maintenance program

The Pro-Fence group leader

In July 1966 all the fences had been removed and the place looked like a dump reported one tenant. The lawn was dead in most places as it wasn’t being watered.

More on the Beautification Program

The End

Posted in Early Montclair, East Oakland, Oakland, Streets, West Oakland

Naming Our City Streets

Growing up in Montclair (for me) Thornhill Drive was always just Thornhill Drive. But come to find out it was once called Thorn Road (sometimes Thorne Road). Thornhill is a nicer sounding name than Thorn. But there is a perfectly good reason as to why it was called Thorn Road.

Thorn Road

From the 1878 Map of Oakland,

William J. Dingee 1878 Map of Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda . David Rumsey Map Collection –

The name goes back to 1856 when man named Hiram Thorn (Hiram Thorne) built the road at a heavy expense. Thorn’s road brought redwood logs to Oakland out of the vast forest known as the Moraga Redwoods where he ran a lumber mill on Pinehurst Road. Thorn was later given a franchise to run and collect tolls for the road, it was one of 3 toll roads in Oakland. In 1933 Thorn Road officially became Thornhill Drive.

From the 1870 Oakland City Directory

Since I found out about Thornhill Drive I have been very curious about the names of our city streets. If you are interested you can read more at the Oakland Local Wiki page Street Names.

Oakland had lots of streets that seemed to be name for tress. Like Acacia Avenue Beech Street, Birch Street, Holly Street, Linden Street, Locust Street, Palmetto Street, Pine Street, Poplar Street, Plymouth Street, Redwood Road, Sequoyah Road, Spruce Street, Walnut Street and Willow Street. To name a few.

In the Laurel District there are streets named for the states. The streets are Maine, Vermont, Jersey, Montana, Texas, Ohio (now Dakota) Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas. California and Wisconsin Streets. Maine, Vermont and Jersey are no longer due to the construction of the MacArthur Freeway . I happen to live on Georgia Street.

In Sequoyah Hills, which located in the Oakland Hills above 580, off of Keller Avenue, directly below Skyline Blvd. The streets are named Hansom, coach, chariot, phaeton, shay and surrey are varieties of horse-drawn carriages. Better yet, the theme is a pun, considering the wheel-like arrangement of Shay, Phaeton and Coach streets radiating from Hansom.

View Post

In Montclair there is group of street possibly named for early explorers. The streets are Balboa Drive, Cabrillo Drive, Cabot Drive, Drake Drive, Gasper Drive, Magellan Drive and Mendoza Drive. Another group of streets seem to be named after WW I Generals. They are Liggett Drive, Pershing Drive, Sims Drive and Wood Drive.

The following is a group of articles by Albert E. Norman from the Oakland Tribune in 1960-1960.

Oakland Tribune Jan 1960
Oakland Tribune June 12, 1960
Oakland Tribune June 19, 1960
Oakland Tribune June 26, 1960
Oakland Tribune July 03, 1960
Oakland Tribune Julu 10, 1960
Oakland Tribune July 17,1960
Oakland Tribune July 24, 1960
Oakland Tribune July 31, 1960
Oakland Tribune August 07, 1960
Oakland Tribune August 14, 1960
Oakland Tribune August 28, 1960
Oakland Tribune Sept 04, 1960
Oakland Tribune Sept 11, 1960
Oakland Tribune Sept 18, 1960
Oakland Tribune Sept 24, 1960
Oakland Tribune October 02, 1960
Oakland Tribune October 09, 1960
Oakland Tribune October 16, 1960
Oakland Tribune October 23, 1960
Oakland Tribune Nov 06, 1960
Oakland Tribune Dec 11, 1960
Oakland Tribune Dec 18, 1960
Oakland Tribune Dec 25, 1960
Oakland Tribune Jan 15, 1961
Oakland Tribune Feb 1961

If you have wondered about the name of your street, leave message below and I will check it out.

Links

Oakland related links:

Misc Street Links:

Coming soon Gold Star Streets

The End

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