< Previous Chapter | Table of Contents | Next Chapter >

League of Women Voters of Oakland
Waterfront Study

Chapter 2. Watermarks
(Highlights in the history of Oakland's Waterfront)

There are few texts which describe the history of Oakland's Waterfront comprehensively. This may be because the Waterfront itself is so varied.

As the terminus of the transcontinental railway, Oakland gained the character of a mixing pot of people, goods and ideas. For many, Oakland was where they first set foot in California. The railroads also gave impetus to new opportunities and a new society . Consequently by 1930 the first major labor union open to Blacks, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, found a home in Oakland.

Oakland thrived from the early railroads. The main passenger depot was at Seventh and Broadway. Hotels and restaurants sprang up along Eighth, Ninth and Washington Street to serve the travelers. Trains continued west from Broadway along Seventh Street to the Waterfront where in 1871 the Central Pacific opened a two-mile Long Wharf where passengers and freight made connections to San Francisco.

The harbor shaped Oakland in different ways. Early industries located ne'4f the docks for convenience. While San Francisco established itself early as a commercial center, the actual goods passed through or were manufactured in Oakland. Oakland became a hub of shipping, not only for California, but for the western United States. With all types of cargo passing through Oakland, it was not long before factories and warehouses multiplied here.

As ferry travel developed, West Oakland emerged. By 1877, ferries had made more than four million crossings in the East Bay. West Oakland thrived as the center of activity and the heart of industry and entertainment.

Later, the airport made Oakland emerge in an entirely different way, as the birthplace of transcontinental and trans-Pacific air travel. Doolittle, Earhart and other early adventurers came to Oakland to make their mark.

As the years have passed, the technology of human and cargo travel has changed. The impact of change has been profoundly felt in Oakland. The disappearance of the ferries and the rise in containerized cargo have combined to create the most dramatic effect in West Oakland. As industries have lost the reed to locate on the shoreline, manufacturing jobs have migrated from the Waterfront. As package express services have risen, Oakland Airport has captured new opportunities.

As a ground/sea/air transportation center, Oakland is always at thc center of technological and social change. From history we learn the special place our city holds in the social and economic dynamics of our nation. History also teaches us the importance of recognizing the changing opportunities of Waterfront cities and the continual need to anticipate and capture these opportunities.

The following is a brief outline of some of the key points of change in the history of Oakland . s Waterfront.

<Oakland's seaport develops amid the struggle for its control>

1851 First regular commercial ferry service established between Oakland and San Francisco.

1854 Oakland is incorporated and Horace W. Carpentier is elected as the first mayor. Thirteen days later, Mayor Carpentier obtains exclusive use of the Waterfront for a period of thirty years.

1855 In reaction to Carpentier's land grab, he is expelled from office. A lengthy court battle ensues over ownership of the Waterfront.

1868 The possibility that Oakland might be selected as the western terminus for the transcontinental railroad brings the dispute with Carpentier to a head. Carpentier agrees to deed his rights to the Oakland Waterfront Company. It is later discovered that Carpentier is President of the Oakland Waterfront Company!

<Courts place the tidelands in public ownership>

1907 The Courts finally determine that the City of Oakland owns the Waterfront, ending a fifty-five year fight with Carpentier and the Central Railroad.

1926 City voters enact a charter amendment transferring administration of publicly owned tidelands to the Port of Oakland, a new semi-autonomous agency governed by the Board of Port Commissioners.

1927 The first Board of Port Commissioners takes office.

 <Oakland Municipal Airport's historic beginning>

1930 Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith wings into Oakland Municipal Airport from the east, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world in an airplane.

1937 (May 20) Amelia Earhart takes off from Oakland Municipal Airport for her fateful attempt to circumnavigate the world.

<The rise and fall of the Waterfront as a passenger transportation hub>

1931 Francis Marion ("Borax") Smith dies. Possessing a $30 million fortune from twenty mule team borax, he had settled in Oakland in the early 1900s and began buying streetcar lines. He called his system the Key Route. These transit lines converged at the Waterfront, where a major ferry system linked the East Bay and San Francisco. The Key System continued in service throughout the East Bay until it was absorbed into the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District in ) 960.

1933 (July 9) Thousands gather at the base of Borax Smith's old Key Route mole to watch a dynamite blast, triggered telegraphically from the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, break ground for the $75 million Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge.

1936 The Oakland Bay Bridge opens to traffic. 46, 120 vehicles cross the bridge on the first day paying the 65 cent toll. (Incidentally, passage to South America from Oakland aboard a McCormick Lines passenger vessel cost $3.50 per day).

By 1939 Key System trains had begun regular train service across the Bay Bridge, leading to demise of the Key Route and Southern Pacific ferries and the end of passenger travel through the West Oakland Waterfront

<1936- 1950 Waterfront emerges as a military supply depot>

1936 The U.S. Navy announces plans to construct a $12 million, 390 acre Naval Supply Depot on Oakland's northwestern Waterfront to support ships of its Pacific Fleet.

1941 The U.S. War Department condemns 74 acres for an Army Depot.

By 1950 due to the Korean Conflict, the Oakland Army Base has become the busiest maritime facility on the Pacific Coast.

<The rise and fall of the Oakland Municipal Airport>

1937 United Airlines introduces Douglas DC-3's in its Oakland-New York service.

By 1941 United Airlines' Oakland-New York route boasted the heaviest ton-per-mile traffic volume in the world.

1943 Oakland Municipal Airport has become the marshaling point for all planes bound for the Pacific war effort. Civilian flights cease and Oakland's commercial flights are diverted to San Francisco for the duration of World War II.

1947 Oakland Municipal Airport is returned to Port control by the War Assets Administration. Civilian flights return to the Oakland Municipal Airport, but it fails to recover its Pre-War dominance. The Port launches a Fly Oakland campaign to discourage the wartime practice by airlines of transporting Bay Area passengers to San Francisco Airport.

<Post- War search for a new role for the Waterfront>

1949 Oakland's first freeway, a new 'high speed', six lane artery called the Eastshore Freeway, opens to traffic from Oak Street to 23rd Avenue.

1951 Jack London Square is officially dedicated.

1958 Oakland's first television station, KTVU Channel 2, begins broadcasting and eventually locates in a new studio at the foot of Washington Street.

1961 Construction of a convention hall (Goodman Hall) begins in Jack London Square along with the start of an eighty-nine berth marina.

1961 The Port Commission files a formal complaint with the CAB against eight airlines, claiming that they have accorded Oakland" inadequate and unjustly discriminatory service". The complaint is provoked by a fifty-six percent drop in scheduled departures between 1955 and 1961, leaving Oakland with less than four percent of all Bay Area air passenger traffic. Oakland eventually won this lawsuit, forming the basis for airline deregulation.

1961 The West's first deep-water chemical terminal begins operation at the Port's Seventh Street unit.

1962 The Port plays a key role in formation of the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The Port swaps 157 acres at the head of San Leandro Bay to the East Bay Regional Park District in exchange for 105 acres of park land across the freeway, which the Port in turn donates to the City as the site for the planned Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum sports complex.

1966 Galbraith Golf Course opens on 169 acres south of the approach to Oakland International Airport.

1967 Radio station KNEW goes on the air from the Port of Oakland building.

1977 Dredging begins for four million dollars in improvements at Embarcadero Cove, where the Port will develop a 400 berth marina with state funding support.

<Oakland leaps ahead in containerized shipping technology>

1962 S.S. Elizabethport, the world's largest freighter, arrives at the Port of Oakland's Outer Harbor Terminal to inaugurate inter-coastal container ship operations by Sea-Land Service, Inc. The Port has spent $600,000 to upgrade Berths 8 and 9 to accommodate the line's revolutionary operations. Through the use of sealed trailers the shipper is able to load and unload a vessel in one-sixth the time of conventional ships. This reduces handling costs from some $24 per ton to $4 per ton.

1965 The Port Commission approves a partnership with the newly established Bay Area Rapid Transit District, leading to construction of the Outer and Middle Harbors. In return for an easement to route the BART rube along Seventh Street, (through the old ferry mole which the Port had inherited from Southern Pacific Railroad), BART will demolish the deteriorated Southern Pacific facilities. In addition, as part of the agreement, 140 acres of the adjoining shallow portion of the bay are diked and filled to create land for the Middle Harbor Terminal. The fill material consists of rock, sand and gravel which BART excavates while constructing subways in downtown Oakland and Berkeley.

1965 Sea-Land signs a twenty-year agreement with the Port for use of a 26 acre, two berth terminal to be built by the Port in the Outer Harbor.

1968 Japan's six major steamship companies locate their U.S. container operations at the Port of Oakland. By this time the Port of Oakland had become the West Coast's largest container facility and the second largest container port in the United States, barely surpassed by the Port of New York. Oakland's annual container tonnage outpaces Rotterdam's.

1969 The Port inaugurates container service between Oakland and Europe. Oakland now handles the second largest volume of containers among ports of the world, with annual container traffic exceeding three million tons.

1974 American President Lines signs an agreement to shift i~ container operations from San Francisco to Oakland.

1975 The 85-acre Middle Harbor Terminal, a $35 million project, is now fully occupied.

1977 A two berth, 32-acre Outer Harbor facility is completed and is occupied by a Japanese four-line consortium, whose ships now carry forty percent of all U.S. West Coast-Japan container trade. By 1978, cargo volume reaches ten million tons.

<Expansion of the Airport Complex>

1965 Following five months of negotiations with a major Boston development firm, the Port decides not to sell the 700-acre Port Industrial Park (now the Airport Business Park). Studies suggest the Port can realize almost $2 million more over the coming decade by developing the property itself. Indeed, in fiscal 1965, Port rental facilities earned more than 2 1/2 times as much as marine terminals offsetting an $815,315 loss from airport operations.

1973 Federal Express establishes Bay Area headquarters at Oakland International Airport.

1975 UPS opens a 150,000 square foot regional terminal in Oakland Airport Business Park.

1980 Construction begins on a new $1.3 mil1ion Executive Terminal at Oakland International Airport's North Field.

<The Waterfront confronts a changing world>

Recovering Oakland's Competitive Position Among West Coast Ports:

  • After seizing the initiative in containerized maritime traffic on the West Coast, the Port of Oakland has slipped to third place, after Los Angeles/Long Beach and Seattle/Tacoma, among West Coast ports.

  • The Port has confronted this challenge by seeking to improve its sea-rail/truck linkages on the shore and by deepening the harbor to accommodate larger ships. In 1986 Congress authorized a $74 million dredging project, and the initial stage of dredging began in September 1992.

Resurgence of Airport Operations:

  • In 1985, the Lionel J. Wilson Terminal opens at the Oakland International Airport, enabling it to achieve passenger volumes which are second in the Bay Area only to San Francisco International Airport.

  • "Spin-off' employment grows with the expansion of airline maintenance operations, air cargo distribution facilities and traveler service industries.

  • Environmental concerns and conflicts with residential developments on nearby land complicate prospects for future airport expansion.

Rethinking the role of commercial development:

  • In 1989, a major office and retail expansion of Jack London Square is completed, but nearly all of the new retail space remains vacant three years later. Setbacks at Jack London Square and continued difficulties at Jack London Village make the Port wary of further commercial projects.

  • In 1992, the Port and Amtrak discuss construction of a long-haul passenger station at Jack London Square and the regional transportation agency considers increasing ferry service at Jack London Square. Both potential developments offer the prospect of increasing pedestrian traffic at Jack London Square.

  • In 1990 - 1992, the Port, Oakland Coliseum and City of Oakland discuss the potential use of the Port-owned land across Highway 880 from the Coliseum. Consideration is given to using the land for either Coliseum parking or major retail tenants.

Response to growing environmental concerns:

  • In 1976, the Port of Oakland donates 135 acres of shoreline and 495 acres of San Leandro Bay to the East Bay Regional Park District for public recreational use.

  • The Port maintains some limited public access areas and mini-parks at sixteen locations along the Waterfront.

  • Environmental objections delay the harbor dredging project for more than five years. Objections to bay fill at the airport confound runway expansions.

  • In 1991, the State Legislature takes the first steps to implement a shoreline trail which will skirt the Waterfront. The Port and City are working to implement this plan in a manner which will increase Waterfront access without interfering with transportation operations.

< Previous Chapter | Table of Contents | Next Chapter >