Oakland Regains Its Waterfront  

It was the classic situation of nineteenth-century melodrama: everybody knows who the villain is, but nobody can produce the legal proof, and in the meantime the innocent heroine is held hostage.

Beth Bagwell, Oakland, The Story of a City

The villain in this case was popularly perceived to be the Southern Pacific Railroad which held Oakland's waterfront hostage and prevented the city from developing its own port. Then in 1897, a crucial California Supreme Court decision opened the door for the city to regain control of the waterfront.

The Court declared that the original grant to the railroad was legal. However, the Court ruled that the boundary of the grant was the low tide line in 1852. After forty years of dredge and landfill operations in the estuary, the 1852 low tide line was now well inland. So the railroad did not legally control the current waterfront.

The political contest for actual control of the waterfront continued for the next ten years. During this period the Progressive Movement, which was opposed to civic corruption and in favor of limiting the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, gained strength. It was a Progressive mayor in 1909, Frank K. Mott, who finally persuaded the railroad to unlock the waterfront in exchange for a fifty year lease. The City of Oakland now controlled its own waterfront.

By the 1920s, newspapers were reporting a debate about how the waterfront should be managed. On one hand, LeRoy Goodrich, Commissioner of Public Works, argued for improved port facilities for ships and cargo handling, and that a Port Commission be created to "remove Oakland's harbor from politics and make it a business enterprise." On the other hand, Mayor John L. Davie argued for the development of waterfront industries that would result in jobs and increased tax revenue for the city. He was "utterly opposed" to the creation of a Port Commission which would not be subject to the oversight of the voters.

In the end, the voters decided. In 1925, they approved a $10 million bond issue for harbor improvements. And in 1926, they approved the creation of a Port Commission which would control Oakland's waterfront from Emeryville to San Leandro. The economy of the waterfront has changed dramatically since 1925 and so has the nature of government regulation. But the discussion about the relationship between the City and its waterfront continues. What do you think should happen on the waterfront?

Deborah Cooper
Oakland Museum of California

Oakland Museum of California Logo  "Walk Along the Water"
  Oakland Museum of California, used with permission.