With nearly perfect weather, the Walking on Wednesdays group had its biggest turnout so far this year with 18 people. The group was especially pleased to welcome first time walker Haybert Houston.
The walkers enjoy local history and find it is often helpful to put what they see into a historical context. So, drawing once again on information provided by Piedmont Historical Society, an account of Piedmont’s early development was told. Gold was discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and the 49ers soon followed, many coming to San Francisco. Trees in the East Bay were cut to satisfy the construction needs. This opened large areas in the Oakland foothills, and what is now Piedmont, for ranches with livestock and grain.
The Reed Ranch covered much of what is now Piedmont. In the 1860s a person bought part of the ranch and “rediscovered” a mineral spring that a Mr. Holmes had discovered years before. After Holmes died the springs were forgotten. However, as they were only three miles from the Oakland railroad station, the new owner thought a mineral spring with perceived health benefits was a big business opportunity.
He recruited San Francisco investors and they built the Piedmont Springs Hotel in 1876 on the very spot where the Exedra stands today. The hotel burned down in 1892, but this created a new business opportunity. Frank C. Havens, a developer, bought the land and opened Piedmont Park in 1898 with the mineral springs and two grottos as attractions. Another attraction was a large hedge maze where Witter Field is today. The main entrance to the park was at the current bus stop across from the Wells Fargo bank, but visitors could also access the park by a path from Grand Avenue on what is now Palm Drive.
The walkers decided to walk through Piedmont Park, see the site of the mineral springs with Havens’ grottos, and on to Palm Drive. They saw children playing near the upper grotto, and one exploring the drought-depleted water flow of Bushy Dell Creek. They took the lower path through the park to the site of the lower grotto, where they read a historical maker about Mark Twain’s visit to this location in 1868 when he was on a lecture tour in Oak- land. On the marker there is a picture of the event with Twain identified.
The group continued to another marker that showed the “Eucalyptus Amphitheater” that Havens built in 1908. The marker has a picture with a large group of the Sons of Norway holding annual meeting in 1915. They noted the location of Piedmont Play School for preschoolers. The school was moved to Hampton Field when Witter field and track were expanded in 1998.
The walkers emerged from the park and read about Havens’ “Maze” on another historical marker. They entered Park View Avenue at the base of Witter Field, and followed Palm Drive, noting some unique, colorful homes and gardens.
The majestic palm trees are over 125 years old, and are the last remaining trees that lined the path from Grand Avenue to the lower entrance of Piedmont Park and the Maze. The palms are in the front yards of the homes, not on city property. Sherry Jacobs, who lives nearby, told the group that some trees have been removed over the last few years. It had been a beautiful morning with lots of Piedmont history and good conversations with friends.