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Walter Blair's settlement

It had rained earlier in the morning and it looked like there could be some more this past Wednesday for our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays weekly walk. However, the uncertain weather didn't stop 24 walkers and one K-9 best friend from being at the Exedra at our regular time.

With the uncertain weather, we thought it would be best to play it safe and stay in central Piedmont. We could revisit Walter Blair, the first European settler on the area, and go the site of his original Blair's Park. It was on what is now the north side of Moraga Avenue. This park was an attraction Blair created to get people to come to his Piedmont Springs Hotel that he built in 1872. It was where the Exedra is today. We could also go down Moraga and walk the streets on the north side of Piedmont. However, before we got started, the group was reminded that Piedmont architect, Post columnist, and Wednesday walker Will Adams will lead us on a walking tour of Mediterranean style architecture next Wednesday.

The walkers were also reminded that Walter Blair came to California during the gold rush in 1852 at the age of 22 with $100. He was born in Vermont to farmers of Scottish descent and was one of 12 children. In 1852 he purchased 600 acres in the Piedmont hills for $750. That was just $1.25 per acre. His land was a large piece of what is now the city of Piedmont, and most of the

area between today's Moraga, Scenic, Magnolia and Grand Avenues. Blair's original home was where 111 Highland Avenue is today on the west side of Highland, which Blair called "Vernal Avenue" because of the lush ferns and shrubs that grew there. The back of the house was on today's Waldo Avenue.

Blair started as a dairy farmer and established Blair's Dairy at the corner of today's Blair and El Cerrito Avenues. His cattle grazed in pastures that ran to Grand Avenue. The dairy supplied milk and butter to surrounding communities and San Francisco. He also developed a quarry, where Dracena Park is today, that provided rock for early East Bay construction.

Off we went down Highland Avenue and found the site of Blair's home. When we got to the end of the street more of Blair's history from Piedmont Historical Society President Gail Lombardi's research and Meghan Bennett's History of Piedmont website was shared. Blair was an entrepreneur and found real estate and other interests to be profitable. He partnered with investors to build a horsecar line from downtown Oakland to Piedmont Avenue.

In 1878 he decided to build this own horsecar line, the Piedmont Railway, which ran from where the Piedmont Avenue line ended at the gates of the Mountain View Cemetery through Blair's grain fields to Vernal Avenue and then on to the Piedmont Springs Hotel. To increase ridership, which was 700-800 each week and 5,000 to 7,000 each month in the summer of 1882, in 1884 Blair developed 40 acres of the land between the cemetery and Moraga Avenue as a picnic park, which he named "Blair's Park."

It had an entrance arch at what is now the corner of Highland and Moraga Avenues. The park was promoted as an attraction where families could "spend a pleasant day rambling in the country." The park 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 of diabetes, and was only 57 years old. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in plot 28. Blair Avenue in Piedmont was named for him. After he died, his Blair Park was purchased in 1890 by the Consolidated Piedmont Cable Company that operated a cable car up Oakland Avenue. In 1892 electric car trolleys were replacing cable cars and competing for riders. It was expensive to run a cable line and the Piedmont Cable Company went into receivership in 1893. Its assets were sold at auction in 1895.

Blair's heirs owned the park land, but in 1897 all of Blair's remaining 235 acres, including Blair's Park, were for sale. In 1901 the Cable Company abandoned the park and it did not open that spring. By 1902 Frank C. Havens' land development syndicate owned the park land. Through these years Blair's Park continued to operate, but it was called "Oakland Park" because the

Blair family no longer owned it. By 1905 the park was no longer on city directories. In 1913 the land was still vacant, but in 1917 new homes began to be built on it. Builder Guy Turner built the 11 bungalows on the north (cemetery) side of Moraga Avenue and at least six more in 1922.

We looked across Moraga Avenue where the entrance to Blair Park was in 1884 and took a group photo. We then made our way down Moraga passing Guy Turner's homes. We came to the gate entrance of a nine-unit apartment building that was built in 1914. The gate was unlocked and two gardeners were working in the yard. We recognized them from a previous walk and asked if we could come in for another visit. Permission was granted and we enjoyed not only the beautiful garden, but also the expansive view of San Francisco. Carlene Louie said she had been told the complex was built by the grandmother of the current owner who wanted her friends to live there.

We said goodbye to the gardeners and continued down Moraga to the Oakland/Piedmont city line at Pleasant Valley Avenue. We went up it to Ronada Avenue, but couldn't resist walking down and back the seldom, if ever visited Parkside Drive cul-de-sac.

Then we climbed up Ronada, Ramona, and Estrella Avenues. A right on the aptly named Bonita Avenue and a left on Park Way got us to the one-block Waldo Avenue where the back of Walter

Blair's home once was. At the end of Waldo was Blair Avenue and a chance to once again remember this original Piedmont settler. Blair Avenue took us back to Highland and the Exedra just as the moisture could no longer to be called mist. We had escaped the rain and enjoyed a fun, three mile, almost entirely dry morning together.


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