It was another beautiful day last Wednesday as the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesday’s once again assembled at the Exedra. There was a large turnout of 45 walkers for a unique opportunity to visit a seldom seen piece of Piedmont, Tyson Lake.
The walkers were able to have a rare visit to the private Tyson Lake because it is in the backyard of former Piedmont mayor Bob McBain’s Sotelo Avenue home; and because Bob had invite the group to come see it. He took the group on a walk around the lake two years ago, just before the pandemic, and generously invited the walkers to return. The word had gotten out and many walkers wanted to come see the lake, including some first time walkers. The group was pleased to welcome Laura Goldman and Susan and Jeff Callen, who are in from Louisville, Kentucky, visiting family in Piedmont.
The walkers headed off for Sotelo, taking their usual route, going up Highland, Sheridan, Wildwood Avenues, and then through the Hall Fenway to Crocker Avenue and Hampton Road past Crocker Park. As they passed the park, Annis Kukulan spotted her friend, Veronique Sumnicht, and recruited to join the group. Along the way, there was also a man wearing a Warriors’ “Strength in Numbers” t-shirt, and it seemed that slogan was also true for the group.
When the long line of walkers reached the foot of the Glen Alpine/Sotelo neighborhood loop, they reassembled, and the first part of a history of this section of Piedmont from Piedmont Historical Society's research was shared. This entire neighborhood was once intended to be the grand estate of Louis Titus, who was a successful Berkeley real estate developer. In 1911 he purchased 50 acres of land in these Piedmont hills. He was going to build a magnificent mansion, but when the new City of Piedmont changed its property tax basis, and increased his taxes to a reported $200,000, Titus dropped his plans and moved on.
The group continued up Sotelo and Bob McBain with his K-9 best friend, Mac, were in front of their house waiting to greet them. There the history of Tyson Lake was also told. In 1914 James Tyson, a successful lumber and shipping businessman, bought thirty acres of Titus’ land to build his own mansion at the top of the Glen Alpine/Sotelo hill. Tyson had three sons and he dammed the small creek that ran through his property to create a reservoir that became a swimming hole for his sons and neighborhood boys. Tyson was also a supporter of the new Piedmont Boy Scouts Council, and he made a portion of his land available for a camp that later became Hampton Park. Up at Tyson’s swimming hole, scouts earned their swimming and other merit badges.
However, in the 1930s Tyson’s health started to fail and he moved to Alameda. He transferred the title of the Scout camp to Piedmont High School and his lake to a homeowners association. During this time and later Tyson Lake became an attraction for teenage boys. In 1949 four of them were caught swimming nude in it, and each fined $25. Tragically, in 1951 a 17-year old boy drowned in the lake, and another 19 year-old also drowned there in 1952. After some failed negotiations with the City, the homeowners spent $6,000 on improvements, and the lake and its dam were declared safe in 1959.
Bob McBain also told the walkers about his history with the lake. The McBains moved to LaSalle Avenue in 1989, and then to their Sotelo house 26 years ago when the family need more space. Bob told the group about the work the homeowners association and also the Piedmont Fire Department have done to improve the lake’s paths and safety.
K-9 best friend Mac was a little tired, so Bob took him inside the house, and then led the walkers around the side of his house to the backyard where a group photo was taken with Bob. It was then down to the lake via a new set of concrete stairs that were built in 2020. They made getting to the path that goes around the lake much easier than it was when the walkers last visited. There was lots of vegetation and many large, purple thistles along the way that seemed appropriate for Piedmont.
Bob said the lake is about 25 feet deep, and there are some fish in it. There was a fountain spraying water in the air and helping to keep the lake clean. A canoe and a rowboat were along the bank waiting to be put to use, but two Canadian geese were already in the middle of the lake. The path around the lake had a few narrow and elevated spots, and some slippery places, but all the walkers safely circled the lake and enjoyed its beauty.
The walk around the lake and the history telling had taken longer than the time of a normal Wednesday walk, so after thanking Bob for his kindness and hospitality, it was time for the walkers to retrace their steps back to the city center. They had enjoyed the history of the area; and seeing Tyson Lake had been a unique, delightful experience thanks to Bob McBain.