The weather was sunny, clear, and mild last Wednesday morning for our
Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group's special
pre-Halloween tour of the Mountain View Cemetery. It was a perfect fall day,
and a strong turnout of 48 participants and one K-9 best friend were at the
front of the cemetery's main office to enjoy it and the tour. This was the
fourth time in our group's four plus year's history that we have visited the
cemetery, and it has always been one of our most popular walks.
Long time cemetery docent Jane Leroe was back for her second year leading
the tour. Jane is a retired, ground-breaking, trial attorney who described
herself as a "feminist" in her earlier days, and says she still is.
Additionally, Jane and Bob Wong are former Cal classmates. She has developed
an extensive knowledge of the Mountain View Cemetery and has a passion for
Jane told us that in the early 1860s a group of twelve, 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. His group
bought 200 acres of fields far from the center of Oakland for the cemetery
because they wanted it to always be in a rural setting. Mountain View
Cemetery was established in 1863. Twenty-six acres were added later, so
there is a total 226 acres. One hundred and seventy thousand people are
buried in the cemetery, and there is room for an additional 170,000. The
founders paid Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who also
designed New York City's Central Park and much of UC Berkeley and Stanford
University, $1,000 to design it.
Many of California's most important historical figures decided to be buried
in the cemetery. Some of them include: Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan,
Anthony Chabot of the Chabot Observatory, railroad tycoon Charles Crocker,
Domingo Ghirardelli of Ghirardelli Chocolate, and Oakland mayor Samuel
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. After
Jane Leroe concluded her introductory remarks to us, she made Millionaires'
Row a destination for her tour, and off we went.
Jane first took us to other graves and shared the peoples' stories. There
was the "Strangers Plot" where hundreds of poor and unknown people were
buried long ago. Among them were the first and last people hanged in Alameda
County. Next was the Outdoor Children's Plot with pinwheels, flowers,
balloons, other decorations, and a touching statue of two young children at
its front. There was physician, geologist, UC Berkeley professor and early
California conservationist Joseph LeConte, who loved Yosemite so much that
his headstone is a large piece of the park's granite. The mausoleum of
California's first US senator, William Gwin, is huge Egyptian pyramid
mausoleum. Jane shared that the Washington Monument in Washington DC is an
Egyptian obelisk and there are a number of them marking 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.
As Jane led us, she also noted many other people with remarkable histories.
They included: Ina Donna Coolbrith, California's first poet laureate, Frita
Ehmann, an early champion of workers' rights and feminist, and famous
architect Julia Morgan, whose name is included on a plaque with other family
members because she wanted to be buried with them. These women were all
wonderful people, but Jane had less admiration for writer Frank Norris whose
Cal Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers still leave empty gin bottles at his
grave to this day.
Jane and the walkers then made our final climb 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 started
the Millionaires' Row tour at its right side with one of her favorites,
Samuel Merritt. He was a large, 6' 3", 340 pound man, who created many
beneficial things for the area, most still bear his name. 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 steps of Merritt's tomb
provided good tiers for us to pose for the attached group photo. I've also
attached two more of us with Jane.
We were guided down Millionaires' Row by Jane, and she told us the histories
of Charles Crocker, Domingo Ghirardelli, and many others. These stories were
all very interesting, but for many of us 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 go back down the hill to our cars.
However, one extra, bonus stop along the way was the plot for the Grand Army
of the Republic soldiers. They were Civil War Union veterans who died in
California, or whose bodies were moved to Mountain View. It was also an
opportunity for us to thank Jane for a most enjoyable tour on a beautiful