El Cerrito Neighborhood History

Here’s some fun history from my neighborhood in El Cerrito.  (Adding panoramas Sep 2013)

El Cerrito Neighborhood 1932

El Cerrito Neighborhood 1932 – Red X marks my house, not to be built for almost 20 years.  Harding School was rebuilt in 2010 and Kennel Club is now El Cerrito Plaza


Cerrito Creek from Albany Hill Annotated.  Red X marks my future house.  Friends of Five Creeks works every month to restore Cerrito Creek

Cerrito Creek from Albany Hill Annotated. Red X marks my future house.  Building below and slightly to the left may be Balra Dairy.  Friends of Five Creeks works every month to restore Cerrito Creek


Looking Southeast toward El Cerrito High and Albany Hill 1945

Looking Southeast toward El Cerrito High and Albany Hill 1945.  This view is about the same.  Portola Middle School has come and gone

1,500 Chickens on Navellier

Our Environmental Quality Committee recently helped sponsor changes in the city animal ordinance making it legal to keep chickens in the City.  Looking at history, it’s back to the future.

Mr. Reinecker, who lived in the 1500 block of Navellier not too far from Ernest Navellier, came to the city in 1904 to live with his uncle, Mr. Renkwitz, who lived here quite a few years before Mr. Reinecker. Mr. Reinecker lived on the property, which was 5-1/2 acres. The old farmhouse had been remodeled a number of times and was set among the big eucalyptus trees. They raised all kinds of vegetables for the market and had about 1,500 chickens, 3 horses, and a couple of cows.

He can remember walking several hundred feet south of his property, just south of Gladys Avenue to an old Indian mound and picking up wagon loads of clam shells to feed his chickens. He gave up the chicken business just after World War II as his stock had dwindled down to 104 chickens and one night on December 10, 1945 at 6:51 a.m. a bobcat got into his pens and killed 102 of them. He then decided to give up the chicken business entirely.

After Mr. Reinecker passed away, the ranch was demolished, the land subdivided and new modern buildings were constructed on the property. [Editor’s note: the Wildwood Subdivision.]

Potrero Hill Climb

The EQC is  working to restore and maintain the 90 acre El Cerrito Hillside Natural Area. battling sudden oak death and invasive French Broom.  90 years ago, the hillside was the site of the National Motorcycle Hill Climb.

On the north side of the Reinecker property, or to the left of the present Potrero Avenue, at the end of Blake Street, was the hill climb, about where the Schmidt Dairy stood. On Sunday, crowds of people would gather to see the motorcycle riders try to get to the top of the hill. This was a very rugged hill and few ever made it to the top.

Click for current view from the end Blake Street from Google Earth

In later years a fellow who started a garage on San Pablo and Cypress Avenues by the name of Corey, assembled a machine with which he tried to make the climb. The machine was able to travel only a very few feet as it was a very rugged hill.

You can see hundreds of cars in the background in some of these shots.

Indian Motorcyle- Peralta Hill Climb

Going up this hill climb the motorcycles would bounce like a cork on a strong sea. The steepest part of the hill climb course had an average 74% grade with cuts and ruts one to two feet deep in places. The course was rough and steep. The record time for the 650-foot climb was 27-1/5 seconds from start to going over the top to the finish line.

Orrie Steele, of Patterson, New Jersey, who held the eastern championship, attempted to ride and take the championship from Dud Perkins of San Francisco, who held the western championship. Dud Perkins was known as the Daddy of the Hill Climb and had been competing since 1916. He was always a consistent winner and held the record at the hill. This hill where the Oakland Motorcycle Club held their meets was often referred to as Peralta Hill, but later usually referred to as Thulin Hill.

The hill was marked in white lime and the date the hill climb was to be held was in big white letters that could be seen from all along the avenue. Cars would be parked for blocks and blocks around the area as thousands gathered to watch the fun and competition. At that time, most of the streets were not paved and were very dusty.


Dudley Perkins wins 1928 National Hill Climb in El Cerrito

The California contingent of motorcycle racers would go back East and really smoke the Eastern riders. This went on for decades (1925-1960). It’s a long and somewhat involved story with more than its share of intrigue. Some of the key players from 1910 to 1975 were Ray Elam, Dudley Perkins, and Bob Chaves. The above picture was taken at the National Championship hill climb at El Cerrito. You can see San Pablo Bay in the background.

Along about 1906, looking up at the hill area from anywhere along the avenue, one could hardly see any trees along the ridge at the top of the hills. Eucalyptus trees along about this time were planted all across the ridge and one of the workers was Louis Nickelson who drove teams horses that plowed the furrows so that when they planted the trees they would all be in a fairly straight line. Small trees were planted every so many feet. It is believed that most of the trees were planted so the owners of the property could call it timberland and get a grant reduction on taxes for property they owned at that time.

Oakland Motorcycle Club hill-climber

Oakland Motorcycle Club hill-climb, about 1924

Oakland Motorcycle Club hill-climb event, Sep 28, 1924 on Peralta Hill– Digging in with tire chains.

Oakland Motorcycle Club hill-climb, circa 1924.

oakland motorcycle club-hillclimb 1924

Sunset View Cemetery

This cemetery is just across the street from my house.   Occassionally sounds will waft through the breeze.  Amazing Grace on bagpipes is inspiring and brings a tear to the eye ….  the backup alarm on the backhoe –  beep, beep, beep, dust to dust, better to laugh than to cry.

In the early days most of the people had wells for their water supply and later water was purchased from Peoples Water Company, now the East Bay Municipal Utility District. The Sunset View Cemetery at the top of Fairmount Avenue still gets their water supply from half a dozen drainage areas that run into large wells at Carlson Boulevard near Lassen Avenue. They have tunnels that branch out in various directions accumulating the water. The water is pumped up Fairmount Avenue for over a mile through a 6″ pipe to serve some of the needs of the cemetery. It has been said that these wells once supplied water to the Judson Powder Company behind Albany Hill. Judson had employed a number of Welch coal miners to construct the wells for them. Welch coal miners were plentiful at that time as the Pittsburg-Antioch part of the county had a number of coalmines in existence.

San Francisco Bay from Sunset View Cemetery

The cemetery was started in 1908 and rock for their roads was from property near the site. This rock was crushed and had to be hauled several hundred yards to be in cemetery property. The cemetery had a horse drawn passenger coach wagon driven by Mr. Curry to carry the passengers who got off the streetcars at the County Line. Mr. Curry would haul these people up to the cemetery at Colusa and Fairmount Avenue. Later on in years they had a motor vehicle take its place.

Albany Hill from Sunset View Cemetery

The old crematory at the Sunset View Cemetery was constructed from rock gathered on the cemetery property as were the rock pillars on either side of the entrance and the fence. Both the crematory and the pillars have been torn down during expansion and remodeling at the cemetery. [Editor’s Note: The expansion and remodeling took place in 1962.]

The mausoleum is not connected with the cemetery. A portion of the cemetery property was sold and the Sunset Mausoleum constructed in l925. The founder was Arthur Edwards. They had about 7 acre of property, plenty of room for expansion and have added to the building from time to time. When the mausoleum was first built, they put a large electrical sign up that could be seen for miles around. Large eucalyptus trees soon grew taller than the sign, so they had the sign removed. The mausoleum and the cemetery are within Contra Costa County, but just outside the El Cerrito boundary line.

Hagen Ranch

The Chris Hagen family were old timers in this area and consisted of seven children who all lived on what is now cemetery property. They were, William, Sophia, Peter, Anna, Mollie, Josephine and Louis. All of the Hagen children were raised in this area and some of their offspring still live in the city and bay area.

John H. Davis married Sophia Hagen and they had 14 children. Some of the children were Eddie, Mary, Fred, John, Anna, George, Chris, Emma, Harry, and Louis. The Hagen family raised hay and grain and ranched all the way to the top and over the hill.

Josephine Hagen, who married Victor H. Belfils, was born at the Hagen Ranch in 1865 and died in l913. She was buried not too far from the location of her birth.

Louis Hagen was also born in the now Sunset Cemetery area on December 13, 1860. Louis was the son of Chris Hagen, one of the first white settlers other than the Spanish. Louis married a neighbor, Katherine Sullivan, daughter of Patrick Sullivan who came west in the sixties and finally acquired farming land in Wildcat Canyon. He raised wheat, oats, and cattle, and also raised a family, five sons and three daughters.

Patrick, who in March of 1881 was a victim of a slaying, was killed on his return from Oakland to Wildcat Canyon. Robert Lyle was accused of the killing and had to stand trial.

Katherine and Louis Hagen had two children who were named Louis and Blanche. Louis was the first man from this particular area who was killed during the first World War, and they later named the American Legion Louis Hagen Post #340 after him in his honor. Blanche had a daughter Florence who married Al Buchanan.

Katherine and Louis Hagen had their home off Arlington where the Mira Vista Golf Course has the third hole. The Le Strange family also had their home near this location, nearby a small lake that no longer exists. Katherine and Louis Hagen also owned the County Line Saloon at the south end of El Cerrito.

Later, after the Hagen and Le Strange families moved from these buildings near the golf course, they became occupied by seventy-five or eighty-five Hindu people. The Hindu’s worked at the Cap Works and the late Louis Navellier, old time resident, who was born in El Cerrito, says he can remember them climbing up the hill in a long line coming back from work with turbans wrapped around their heads. He says the children in the neighborhood would run away when they saw this group coming as they were afraid of them. The Hindu group only lived above the Arlington for a few years. Some of the Hindu people also worked at the Match Factory with groups of Chinese. The match factory was located in Stege and they made sulfur matches. These matches had a very strong odor but one could hardly see the flames. They were sold by five-gallon cans which could be purchased for about a dollar a can. The matches were all glued together and would have to be pulled apart when a person wanted to light them.

Sundar Shadi Nativity

Sundar Shadi Christmas Pagent Bethlehem in El Cerrito

Galpin Ranch and Peter Ostergaard’s Beer Garden

Not far from the Hagen property, across from the San Pablo filter plant where the catholic school is presently located between Colusa and Curry, stood the old Philip G. Galpin ranch.

Mamie Curtin moved to this ranch with her family from Oakland just before 1900 when she was just a little child. Her folks ranch reached all the way to Grizzly Peak raising hay, grain, cattle and selling milk. Mamie was enrolled in a catholic school in Berkeley and neighboring children would take turns in harnessing their horses and driving the wagons loaded with children to attend the classes in Berkeley.

Mamie later moved down to Fairmount Avenue near the present Harding School during the real estate boom in the Henderson Tapscott Tract. This was about l907 and the real estate men had told all of the property buyers that the Key Route right-of-way would be running trains by in a couple of years, but this was never done. The Key Route right-of-way later became Ashbury Avenue.

After the Curtin family moved from the old Galpin ranch the Chapman family moved in. This family had two children who died in a fire in one of the old barns. Not too long after, the whole ranch burned down. It had stood at the location of the former Livingood family house at 311 Colusa Avenue

Where the old Galpin buildings had stood, Ostergaard’s place of business was started, which proved to be a good paying business. His calling cards read “Peter Ostergaard’s Beer Garden, beautiful view, barbecue pit, best wines and liquors, Colusa at Fairmount, El Cerrito”. His place of business was well patronized and well known throughout the bay area. This is the location of the present St. Jerome buildings. He at one time managed the Monkey Saloon on Fairmount at Richmond Street. This building has since been remodeled and moved and now faces Richmond Street behind the present Gas Station.

Balra Dairy

At the left of the cemetery was a large dairy around Colusa Avenue north of Fairmount at the site of the present Weston Subdivision. This was the former McAvoy property. This dairy was owned by John Balra, and Balra Drive later was named for him. His spread ran down to where the present El Cerrito High School stands. Later on in years people would gather on Sundays to watch the polo matches or donkey baseball not too far from the riding stables. [Editor’s note: There were stables both at the Balra Ranch and at the northwest corner of Fairmount and Ashbury.]

Most of the land he owned was rolling, hilly ground, except that land where the El Cerrito High School and athletic field are now located. That portion of his property, next to Fairmount Avenue, from Ashbury Avenue to Colusa, or approximately where Rockway is, was a few acres of pear orchards. A large creek was situated where the El Cerrito High athletic field now stands. Along near the creek was a group of very tall eucalyptus trees, probably planted about the same time that they planted the eucalyptus trees along the edge of the cemetery property.

The Balra Ranch had once been the well-known McAvoy property as shown on the old county maps. All of the Balra Ranch was covered by wild rabbits, cottontail, squirrels, quail, and a variety of other wild animals. Kids hunting on the property had to be careful of the number of bulls roaming on the ranch.

At his ranch, Mr. Balra also ran the Sunset Dairy. Embossed on its milk bottles was “Sunset Dairy, El Cerrito, California, Telephone Thornwall 4100”, with an appropriate emblem of the bright sun going down behind the mountains. John, at one time, was considered fairly wealthy and had one of his many men who milked cows on the ranch chauffeur him around in his 12-cylinder Locomobile. But, his wealth soon dwindled due to the hoof and mouth epidemic and other problems. Balra Drive was named for this rancher.

During the period of dog racing in El Cerrito, a number of dog owners kept their racing hounds in the old Balra stables. Also, during the day, you could see men training their race hounds on a make-shift racing course, at what is now the El Cerrito High School athletic field

1924 was the year of the dreaded hoof-and-mouth disease epidemic throughout the State of California, and all of the ranches were quarantined. Huge trenches were dug and the cattle driven into them and shot and covered over. A number of local cattle ranchers lost their entire stock. Contra Costa County (which means opposite shore in Spanish, as it is across the bay from San Francisco) was one of the counties in the state which ranked high in the animal loss from the epidemic. Almost every rancher in the county was hit by it.

If anyone broke quarantine they were arrested, cattle were not allowed to cross any road, and all animals were forbidden to roam off their ranch. Various states forbid the buying of California meats and vegetables in fear of the disease spreading and anyone handling or tending to the cattle was under quarantine. There was nothing that could be done about the disease so the animals were shot and buried to keep the disease from spreading.

By April 19, 1924, $400,000 had been lost in Contra Costa County in the slaughter of cattle in this plague. By May 19, 1924 the State of California had completed payment of $180,000 to Contra Costa County as compensation for the herds destroyed in connection with the epidemic. This amount was to be at a later date matched by the United States Government. Hundreds of cattle were shot and buried in what is now the property of the El Cerrito High School not too far from where a large creek had run through the property.

Fairmount Avenue

Just east of the Wright property at Liberty Street was the Marion and Raymond Boles property where they made mint wafers and later the building was used for the library. Next door was Mr. Evans’ marble business where he supplied tombstones.

Across from the Wright property was an old chicken ranch where they sold fresh eggs and chickens. The buildings were later demolished and one portion moved to the northeast corner of Lexington and Potrero Avenues.

Behind the Victor Castro adobe one could see the old orchard where children would gather to pick fruit and take it home to their parents for canning. Between the orchard and Fairmount Avenue was a big field where the gypsies would meet once a year. Children were often afraid to go near them as older folks had warned them that they would be kidnapped.

Next to the tracks on the south side of Fairmount was the corral where cattle were stored for shipping by rail or were to be driven to the slaughterhouse on Central Avenue near Belmont.

Later on in years across Fairmount on the north side was a large gravel business and they had a railroad siding where they unloaded gravel cars that had been shipped in by rail. The gravel was raised by conveyor buckets up into the various large bunkers. They stored the gravel until trucks arrived to pick up the gravel for road projects.

At the northeast corner of Richmond and Fairmount stood the Monkey House Saloon whose owner had a couple of monkeys within the building inside of cages.

Near the corner of Behrens Street on the west side stood the Home Dairy operated by W. A. Hinds who in 1926, became the first fire chief and police judge. Across the street from the Home Dairy stood the Eckhart Dairy.

Further up Fairmount between now Ashbury and Colusa on the north side was a large pear orchard that on the property of the Sunset Dairy. This dairy belonged to John Balra who had his ranch building just north of the cemetery above Colusa Avenue.

Along about 1909 one could see Mr. Curry at Fairmount and San Pablo helping the ladies in their ankle length dresses and broad brim hats and men in their derbies, getting into the high passenger coach that he drove from the cemetery, at the end of Fairmount down to San Pablo Avenue to pick up passengers. The coach would carry six people and was rather high off the ground. It had two large wheels at the rear and two smaller on the front with a surrey type top that covered the passengers and driver in case it rained or to protect them from the sun. This spotless coach was pulled by two well-groomed horses who seemed to know every chuckhole up this unpaved street, which was known as Road 4 in those days.

The children would stand around San Pablo Avenue in hopes that he would have no passengers to haul back to the cemetery. If he had no passengers, he would let them ride back with him and Mr. Curry would always give them a chance to drive the team, which was a great thrill to them.

On May 30th (Decoration Day), for years there would be a parade up Fairmount Avenue and services were held on the cemetery grounds. On this day extra help was hired and extra equipment used to haul the hundreds of passengers, who chose this day to honor their loved ones, up to the cemetery.

Later when the automobile became the common means of transportation the cemetery eliminated the horse and coach to be replaced by the touring car which made this trip for years up the hill. They abandoned this service when transportation was no longer a problem.


El Cerrito Historical Society – http://www.elcerritohistoricalsociety.org/nar_community2.html






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18 Responses to El Cerrito Neighborhood History

  1. Martin Snapp says:

    Loved your Sundar Shadi piece – especially since it was ripped off, word for word, from a column I wrote in the El Cerrito Journal two years ago. You owe me an apology and your readers an explanation.

    • markeminer says:

      Hi Martin,

      I’m sorry you were offended, I thought you would enjoy sharing local El Cerrito history. I never dreamed taking credit for your article and clearly footnoted it in sources. I’ll make it even more explicit and add “courtesy Martin Snapp” or if you still don’t like it, take it out all together. This was done for fun, not for profit, credit or hurt feelings.

      Kind Regards, Mark

      Here’s how I should have replied:

      Hi Martin,

      I liked your article and linked to it and intended to include it as a citation. I’m sorry that the attribution was not as clear as it should have been. I have cleaned it up and better highlighted the quotation. Does it look OK now? [Ultimately deleted it]

      The purpose of this blog article was to share happy holiday memories with my family, I love this part of El Cerrito culture and wanted to share the story. I hope you can understand it in the spirit it was given.

      Kind Regards, Mark

      • Martin Snapp says:

        “I’m sorry you were offended” is a non-apology apology. The fault is not mine for being offended, but yours for ripping off my work without attribution. If you’re doing this to other local journalists, I suggest you stop immediately.

      • markeminer says:

        I attributed your article by listing it and linking to it in sources section. I don’t think I was ripping you off.

        I never intended to take credit for your work, but just wanted to share my Christmas time enjoyment of Sundar Shadi with friends and relatives. I’ll remove your text immediately.

  2. Lory Ostergaard Lease says:

    I enjoyed reading about Peter Ostergaard’s Beer Garden, he was my great-grandfather. My father remembers visiting the Monkey House Saloon as a young boy and enjoying the monkeys and the view and I will share this article with him.

  3. Pingback: Favorite Posts 2012 | Miner Descent

  4. Pingback: Favorite Posts 2013 | Miner Descent

  5. Helen Wheeler says:

    Interesting article. I enjoyed reading this history.

  6. Mike Doan says:

    We arrived in 1045, left in 1959. A nice look back…

  7. Nice compilation.

    Might also give credit to the El Cerrito Historical Society. Our site can be searched. Here’s an example as a source: http://www.elcerritohistoricalsociety.org/nar_community2.html

  8. LRStrand says:

    The section about the Balra Dairy was most interesting to me. In the 1960s, I lived next door to the cemetery, on Bonnie Drive, part of the Weston development. The Westons lived in the house on the corner, next to what was still a vacant lot which we would cut through (against my mother’s wishes). During 5th and 6th grade, around 1970, is was on the traffic squad at Harding, back when children were allowed to do this and before traffic on Fairmount got heavy enough that a traffic light was installed. Whenever a funeral procession came up the street, we were to stand at attention and remove our helmets. I remember Miss Begovich sharing with us once that someone had expressed their appreciation for the show of respect. P.S. Do you have a brother named Jeffrey Miner? There was a boy with that name a year behind me in school.

    • markeminer says:

      Thanks for the memory. We live on Seaview Drive and on occasion hear Amazing Grace on Bag Pipes lofting from across the street. When I walk my dogs on our Balra loop, I sometimes wonder exactly where was Dairy

    • Peter McKay says:

      I had Ms Begovich for 6th grade app 1961. Really liked her. Remember her clearly. We l7ved just below the Westons and I loved to play in that vacant lot you refered to.

      Pete Mckay
      Formerly 412 Colusa…

      • LRStrand says:

        Your sisters Sally and Polly were in the same grades as my older sisters. I remember your mom (Audrey?) had a bunch of Oz books that she let us borrow

  9. Peter McKay says:

    Wonderful history. Super well documented.
    I Grew up on Colusa and then Ashbury in the 1950s and 60s.
    I was born in Alta Bates hospital Berkeley in 1950 as was my mother in 1925. She told me she rode horses at the Balra stables (right where our house was in later yesrs) as a young girl.
    I remember the Westons as a nice older couple who lived behind us.

    Thank you do much for this history of our town

    Pete Mckay

    • markeminer says:

      My dog walk is Eureka to Balra to Terrace and back home on Sea View, often adding climb through Huber Park to Terrace higher up. I have often wondered the exact location of the Balra Dairy. Interesting to learn may have been stables too.

    • markeminer says:

      Are you familiar with the El Cerrito Historical Society? They will have a booth at the El Cerrito World One Festival tomorrow

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