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Walking in Walter's shoes

Our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group once again had a clear, sunny morning for our weekly walk after a heavy rain storm the day before. There was strong turnout of 40 walkers and three K-9 best friends at the Exedra. We wanted to get outside and enjoy the beautiful day together.

We had recently visited Dracena Park, once a quarry created by Walter Blair. He was the first European settler in the area that would become Piedmont and for whom Blair Avenue is named. We were at the Exedra, the site of the Piedmont Springs Hotel that Blair also built. However, we had not recently gone to the site of his Blair Park. This was the original Blair Park, not the open area on Moraga Avenue above Highland Avenue that most people now think of as "Blair Park." So, we decided to remember Walter Blair, and make his original Blair Park a destination this morning.

A past Post article by Piedmont Historical Society told Blair's history. His parents were Scottish Vermont farmers and he was one of 12 children. He came to California in 1852 during the Gold Rush at the age of 22. That year Blair also purchased 600 acres in the Piedmont hills for $750. It was most of the land between today's Moraga, Scenic, Magnolia, and Grand Avenues. Blair's original cabin was where the modern home at 111 Highland Avenue is today. Blair called this street "Vernal Avenue" because of its lush ferns and shrubs. The back of the house was on today's Waldo Avenue.

Blair started a dairy at the corner of today's Blair and El Cerrito Avenues, and his cattle grazed in pastures that ran down to the now Grand Avenue. However, Blair found real estate and other commercial interests to also be profitable. He built the Piedmont Springs Hotel in 1872 and partnered with investors to build a horsecar line from downtown Oakland to Piedmont Avenue.

In 1878 Blair decided to build his own line, the Piedmont Railway, which ran from where the Piedmont Avenue line ended at the gates of the Mountain View Cemetery through his grain fields to Vernal Avenue and the Piedmont Springs Hotel.

To increase the number of riders, in 1884 Blair developed 40 acres of the land between the cemetery and Moraga Avenue as a picnic park, and named it Blair Park. It offered picnic tables, paths for wandering, a Japanese Tea House, a dancing pavilion, a Venetian canal ride, a bandstand, swings, bridges over waterfalls and a stream, a fountain, a lake, and balloon

ascensions. Many of these picnickers and hotel guests enjoyed the views and climate in Piedmont, purchased land, built homes, and became Piedmont's early residents.

Blair died in 1888. He was only 57 years old, and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery. After he died, his Blair Park was purchased by another train line, but it went into receivership in 1893, and its assets were sold in 1895. In 1901 the park was abandoned, and the land was still vacant in 1913, but in 1917 new homes began to be built on it. A builder, Guy Turner, constructed 11 bungalows on the cemetery side of Moraga Avenue and at least six more in 1922.

We headed off in a long line down Highland Avenue. As we walked two different cars happily yelled out to the "Wednesday Walkers." We went to the end of Highland at Moraga Avenue, where an arched entrance to Blair Park once stood. We then made our way down Moraga looking at the homes that Guy Turner built a hundred years ago, and took the attached group photo at the corner with Estrella Avenue across the street from some of them. I also resending the attached photo of Walter Blair.

At the end of the long wall that contains the Mountain View Cemetery we crossed Moraga and walked the seldom-traveled, one-way Oakland portion of Ramona Avenue. On the right side of the street was a small house with a wonderful cactus garden that covered all of the front yard. At the street's end was the spot on Piedmont Avenue, just down from the entrance to the cemetery, where Blair's trolley cars started their climbs up to Vernal (Highland) Avenue. We also looked across the street and admired the Virginia Morgan-designed Chapel of the Chimes mausoleum.

We started up Piedmont Avenue towards Pleasant Valley Road looking for a hidden path that cuts across the horseshoe-shaped North and South Pleasant Valley Court to Moraga Avenue. Some walkers found it, but others, including me, didn't. Those of us who didn't walked up to Pleasant Valley and down to South Pleasant Valley Court where we reconnected with the others. Then it

was up to Arroyo Avenue, a path to Ricardo Avenue, and on to the foot of Dracena Park, the site of Blair's quarry.

The return to the Exedra started with the steep 100 block of El Cerrito Avenue to its intersection with Blair Avenue, the site of Blair's dairy. The walk was completed with a hike up Blair Avenue, through what was once his gain fields, to Highland Avenue and the Exedra, the site of Blair's Piedmont Springs hotel. It was about a three and a half mile tour on a lovely morning that made us more appreciative of what Walter Blair did for the area that would become Piedmont.


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