The Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group had a special Halloween week tour of the Mountain View Cemetery last Wednesday morning. A strong turnout of 40 participants that included a number of first time walkers met in front of the cemetery’s main mausoleum for the event. Seeing the cemetery was the marquee attraction, but it turned out there was an additional feature that made the day especially enjoyable.
The group toured the cemetery last spring, as they have in past years, but Mountain View is a very popular destination for the walkers; and Priscilla Wanerus suggested a fall visit would also be enjoyed. Dr. Ron Backman, who has conducted tours for the group in the past, was not available, but long time cemetery docent Jane Leroe was. Jane is a 75 year old, retired, ground-breaking trial attorney who described herself as a “feminist” in her earlier days. In recent times she has developed an extensive knowledge of the Mountain View Cemetery and has a passion for sharing it.
Mountain View is in Oakland at the top of Piedmont Avenue, so the walkers had to drive to it. The group met in front of the main mausoleum. As the group assembled, it was noted that the timing of this walk intentionally preceded a fun holiday, but there is another holiday coming that warranted reflection. There was much for the group to be thankful for. They had their health and ability to be together this day. Another blessing was the weather! It was a glorious, warm, clear, sunny day. The tour had dodged the atmospheric river that had drenched the region the previous Sunday, and the walkers weren’t put to a test of their “we walk rain or shine” mantra. The group was also thankful for Jane Leroe being available and wanting to share her knowledge with them.
Jane told the walkers that in the early 1860s a group of leading local businessman led by Samuel Merritt, a San Francisco physician and also the 13th mayor of Oakland from 1867 to 1869, created the cemetery under the California Rural Cemetery Act of 1859. His group bought 200 acres of fields far from the center of Oakland for the cemetery so that it would always be in a rural setting. Mountain View was established in 1863 and twenty-six acres were added later, so the cemetery is a total 226 acres. One hundred and seventy thousand people are buried in it and there is room for an additional 170,000. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who also designed New York City's Central Park and much of UC Berkeley and Stanford University. The association that the founders formed still operates the cemetery today.
Many of California’s most important historical figures decided to be buried in the cemetery. Some of them include: Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan, Alexander and Josephine Dunsmuir of Dunsmuir House, Anthony Chabot of Chabot Observatory, railroad tycoon Charles Crocker, Domingo Ghirardelli of Ghirardelli Chocolate, Oakland mayor Samuel Crockett, and the “Black Dahlia” Elizabeth Short.
One of the cemetery’s main attractions is “Millionaires’ Row.” It is a section where the most grand, elaborate crypts stand, housing some of the cemetery’s most famous and wealthy residents. It is located at the peak of a hill with an expansive view of Oakland, the Bay, and San Francisco. When the walkers visited Mountain View this past spring they did not go to Millionaires' Row, and they wanted to see it. So, after Jane Leroe concluded her introductory remarks, she made Millionaires' Row the destination for her tour.
Jane led the walkers straight up the hill to Millionaires' Row. She noted that these were smart, very successful businessmen, just about all of whom came to California around 1850. They did not use picks and shovels during California’s gold rush to make their fortunes. Rather, these were the men who sold the miners the things they needed. Jane also pointed out that there were a number of Egyptian obelisks and even a couple of pyramids that mark graves in the cemetery. This is because soon after the time the cemetery was created, Egyptian archeological discoveries were first being made by the western world, and everything Egyptian was the rage. Jane also pointed out that there are actually two tiers of Millionaires' Row. The lower tier was for the wealthy, and the upper tier was for the really wealthy. The crypts are side-by-side, but there is one open space for anyone today who wants to spend a very large amount money for it. There is also one family plot where the grave markers are flat to the ground without a stone mansion housing them.
Jane started the Millionaires' Row tour at its right side with the tomb of Samuel Merritt. He is Jane’s favorite because of all the beneficial things he did and created for the area, some of them still bear his name today. One is Lake Merritt, which he humbly wanted to name for the Spanish explorer Luis Peralta, whose Spanish land grant originally gave him much of the East Bay. However, locals realized it was Merritt who was responsible for the lake and they simply referred to it as “Lake Merritt.” The walkers thought that the steps of Merritt’s tomb provided good tiers for them to pose for the attached group photo.
The walkers were guided down Millionaires’ Row by Jane as she told them the histories of Charles Crocker, Domingo Ghirardelli, “Borax” Smith, Charles Doe of UC Berkeley Library fame, and many others. Jane shared their stories with their accomplishments, but also their personal challenges, conflicts, and failings. See the attached photos of Jane talking to the group with a beautiful view of Oakland and San Francisco as her backdrop. These stories were all very interesting, but for many walkers the most enjoyable aspect of the tour was Jane Leroe herself and her animated storytelling. Her candor, opinions, and especially humor gave life to these long dead people. No matter how hard they might have tried, they were not as interesting, and certainly not as much fun, as Jane.
At the end of the row, it was time to finish up and go back down the hill to the mausoleum and the walkers’ cars. One stop along the way was made for Jane to tell a final story of the Grand Army of the Republic soldiers’ graveyard. They were Civil War Union veterans who died in California, or whose bodies were moved to Mountain View. It was also an opportunity for the walkers to give a warm round of applause and show their appreciation to Jane for a most enjoyable tour on a beautiful day.