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Key System Charlene Louie Walk

The Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesday group dodged another weather bullet last Wednesday. The day before had been not just “Piedmont hot,” but really hot with the temperature in the 90s. This Wednesday was warm, but very nice, and a great morning for a walk. There was a solid, first-Wednesday of summer turnout of 26 walkers at the Exedra for the group’s weekly walk.

A few weeks earlier Nancy DeRoche had taken the group on a tour of her upper Oakland Avenue/Scenic Avenue neighborhood and shared its history. It had been almost three years since the group had walked the streets that were on the early 20th Century Key System streetcar lines, and a return to see them was overdue. Additionally, Charlene Louie lives in a home that is on the former Key System No. 10 line, and has researched the system. Charlene said she would lead the group on a tour of the area that was the lower No. 10 line, and that was the plan for the day.

However, before Charlene got the group going there was an announcement. It had been suggested that the group might walk in the Piedmont 4th of July Parade. Interest was not broad, so it was decided that the walkers will be watchers this year. However, it was noted that the next 4th of July to fall on a Wednesday will be in 2029, and it was said that there is an expectation that all those present last Wednesday will mount their wheelie walkers, if necessary, and be in that parade.

It was then time for Charlene to take over and tell the group about the Key System. In the 1890s the area that would become Piedmont was largely dairy farms and open space. As the East Bay population grew in the later years of the 1800’s, land developer Frank C. Havens and his partner Francis Marion “Borax” Smith established "The Realty Syndicate," which acquired large tracts of undeveloped land throughout the East Bay. Potential buyers needed transportation to get from their new homes to work in the area and in San Francisco. From its beginning, the Key System was conceived by Borax Smith as a way to sell The Realty Syndicate’s land.

Borax Smith’s transportation system was a consolidation of several streetcar lines assembled in the late 1890s and early 1900s. After having made a fortune in borax mining in Nevada and gaining his nickname, "Borax", the entrepreneur with his partner Havens, turned to real estate and electric traction for streetcars. The Key System was founded as the San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose Railway (SFOSJR), and incorporated in 1902. Service began in 1903 in Berkeley. In 1904 service started in what was to become the City of Piedmont.

The Key System connected the East Bay to San Francisco by a pier on the Bay where passengers boarded a ferry to San Francisco. Later, after the Bay Bridge was completed in 1936, Key System trains ran on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, with the upper deck reserved for cars going both east and west. The electric streetcars replaced the cable car system in the East Bay, and soon Piedmont had three streetcar lines, the Numbers 10, 11, and 12. The No. 10 line traveled from downtown Oakland along Broadway, to the Piedmont Avenue Key Route station at 41st, along Pleasant Valley and Grand Avenues through central Piedmont to the Hall Fenway at Crocker and Hampton.

These streetcar lines made more neighborhoods in Piedmont desirable. Streetcar lines were routed to serve the real estate properties, thereby enhancing their value by offering convenient, efficient public transportation. In its early years, the Key System was actually a subsidiary of the Realty Syndicate, as was the Oakland-San Francisco ferry. Paths, lanes, walks and stairways were put in place in many of the newly developed neighborhoods, often in the middle of a city block, so that commuters could walk more directly to the new train system.

The Key System ultimately provided mass transit in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, San Leandro, Richmond, Albany, and El Cerrito from 1903 until 1960, when it was sold to a newly formed public agency, AC Transit. The local streetcars were discontinued and replaced by buses in 1948, and the commuter trains to San Francisco were discontinued in 1958.

Charlene started the group off, going down Highland Avenue to explore the lower portion of the former Number 10 route. On Highland they came upon what appeared to be a yard sale, but was actually a big book giveaway by a moving homeowner. Unfortunately, there was no time for the walkers to browse. The group came to Park Way and Charlene pointed out that Highland to this point has four lanes, but from Park to Moraga Avenue it only has two. This is because it was at Park Way that the train line turned off Highland and went down the hill, and over to what is now Ramona and Arroyo Avenues. The walkers went down Park recognizing the construction of the older homes on the left side of the street and the newer mid-century homes on the right. The latter infill homes were built after the trains stopped running, and the Key System right of way land was made available for home construction. These homes have streets on both the front and back of the properties, with no backyard neighbors. Some homes have their front doors and addresses on Park Way, while other homes have theirs on Ramona.

The walkers took the 107-foot path from Park up to Ramona and took the attached group photo on its steps. At the top of the stairs they were surprised to hear the clucking of chickens behind a homeowner’s wall. The group went down Ramona to Monticello Avenue so that they could take a hidden pathway up to the Lorita Avenue cul-de-sac, and then loop back to Monticello and Arroyo. Going down Arroyo only tall walkers could see parts of a mural of Half Dome Mountain painted on the side of a garage that Charlene said a Yosemite-loving family had commissioned long ago. There were also older homes and newer, infill homes across from them to compare; as well as discussions of their different architectural styles.

The group passed Charlene’s home on Arroyo, and she pointed out a tall grove of redwood trees planted in 1959 at the back of her lot. A big windstorm one night more than a decade ago dumped 32 waste bags of redwood branches and debris onto their patio, punching holes in the roofs of two homes. The walkers went down to York Drive and up to a 272-foot path at Holly Place that took them up to Ricardo and Artuna Avenues, and then Dracena Park. The group made their way up through the park’s steep upper path to Blair and Bonita Avenues, and then to their Exedra home base. Along the way, they thanked Charlene for the informative and enjoyable tour of the old Key System Number 10 route and her neighborhood. Everyone agreed it was a perfect 10.


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