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Hugh Craig Walk

It was “Piedmont cold” last Wednesday with the temperature in the low 50s, cloudy, but rain was not forecast until the next day. However, the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays is not a group of fair weather friends. There was a strong turnout of 37 walkers and one K-9 best friend at the Exedra for their weekly walk.

The walkers had reason to celebrate some history on this chilly morning. Almost four years before, on April 18, 2018, which was the 112th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake, the group had its first walk together. The pandemic cost them a year of being together during 2020, but the coming Monday would be the fourth anniversary of the group’s walking Piedmont streets.

On their first walk, history had an important role too. Piedmont Historical Society President took the group to see the historic Wetmore House at the corner of Vista and Bonita Avenues and also the home of Hugh Craig, Piedmont’s first mayor, at 55 Craig Avenue. It seemed appropriate for the walkers to revisit these homes last Wednesday. Additionally, they could continue on and see some other great Piedmont streets in this central part of the city.

The group head off down Magnolia to Bonita Avenue, but Noemi Alvarado suggested that since this was Spring Break week and the students were gone, the walkers could take a side trip and go on the high school campus to see the new buildings, and so they did. The group saw the new classroom building, the quad with its wonderful view of San Francisco, Millennium High, and the Middle School before returning to Magnolia. The walkers went back up the street up to Bonita, and soon came to the Wetmore House.

This wonderful house was built in 1878 by Jess Wetmore and his brother without plans. It had only two owners until 2006. After the last Wetmore family member died, the house was purchased in 1942 by Alice Erskine, a Mills College art instructor. She was able to register the house with the National Register, thus saving it from becoming a city parking lot. She also raised three children and lived in the house until her death in 2006 at age 97.

The walkers turned up Vista past the City Hall to Highland Avenue. They crossed the street and soon came to Craig Avenue, and went up it to its end at Mountain, and there on the left was Hugh Craig’s original home. Drawing on the Historical Society's research the group discussed the founding of the City of Piedmont and the role that Hugh Craig played in it.

Craig was born in Sydney, Australia in 1841 to Scottish parents, and grew up in New Zealand before moving to Oakland in 1874. He worked for the New Zealand Insurance Company and opened an office in San Francisco. He married Inez Gilcrest in 1875 and bought five acres on Vernal (now Highland) Avenue. They built a house in the middle of the land, and raised six children.

In the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake many people moved to Oakland and Piedmont. Oakland was looking for property taxes to pay for the additional services it needed to provide. Oakland wanted to annex Piedmont, but a group of Piedmont residents wanted to incorporate and be a separate city. It was race and those who favored incorporation had to move quickly. They needed a map to file incorporation papers in Sacramento, so they used the existing Oakland boundaries on the south and west of Piedmont, and the map from the Piedmont Sanitary District for the city’s north and east boundaries. This explains why some Piedmont homes are partially in Oakland.

On January 7, 1907 Hugh Craig and another Piedmonter raced to Sacramento to file the incorporation papers. This incorporation had to be approved by the voters, and on January 26, 1907, 79 Piedmont men voted for incorporation and 38 voted against it. It was all men because women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. On January 31, 1907 the State approved Piedmont’s incorporation.

However, immediately there were problems and some Piedmonters wanted to vote again about being a separate city. On September 5, 1907 a vote on dis-incorporating and becoming part of Oakland was held. Approval required a 2/3 vote. Ninety-two men voted to dis-incorporate and 62 voted for Piedmont to stay a separate city. The vote to dis-incorporate failed by only 10 votes.

Hugh Craig was elected mayor by the Piedmont Board of Trustees in 1907. To fund the new city, Mayor Craig instituted a new property tax. Prior to incorporation, all residents paid the same, small tax to the County. However, the new Piedmont tax was based on the size of the home’s parcel. Craig’s tax was not popular with residents, and was also an issue for Craig. In 1912 he had his home put on log rollers and pulled by horses to the corner of his property where it is now at 55 Craig Avenue at the corner of Mountain Avenue. He subdivided his land and created Craig Avenue with lots on both sides of the street. Maybe not surprisingly, Craig was not re-elected mayor in 1914.

Craig’s house is a beautiful Victorian and surprisingly large with five bedrooms and three baths in a total of 4,095 square feet, and now sports solar panels on its roof. The walkers admired the house and took a group photo on the stairs in front of it.

There had been a fair amount of history and talking, and it was time to do some walking. The group went up Mountain and Dormidera Avenue with a beautiful San Francisco view, and then up Sharon Avenue with a short side trip up Sharon Court. On this street they met Piedmont High alum George Epstein and his neighbor, Chris Miller Fisher, who told them this cul-de-sac is sunny and hard to find.

The walkers returned to Sharon Avenue and Mountain and climbed it to Poplar Way. Mary Carter had done some research and reported that Poplar is actually not a City street, but rather a private road with back entrances to the garages of Mountain homes. The walkers went down Poplar finding redwoods, lemon trees, a palm tree, and other lovely vegetation, but no poplars.

The group came out on Lakeview Avenue and went down it to Richardson Way. They walked this street, enjoying its homes and yards, and came to Caperton Avenue. The walkers crossed Sheridan Avenue, and came out on Highland. They passed a front yard at Sheridan that still has a set of large plastic Easter eggs that they had seen a couple of weeks before, and then quickly returned to the Community Hall parking lot.

It was warming up, but still cool, and a little shorter than usual walk of about two miles over 90 minutes. However, it had covered lots of lovely Piedmont streets and included the histories of Jess Wetmore, Alice Erskine, first Piedmont mayor Hugh Craig, and their own Walking on Wednesdays group.


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