The Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group enjoys learning about Piedmont’s history and also how it relates to the streets they walk. It is the start of the New Year, and it seemed appropriate that their walk on January 12th would have a focus on the early period of the region’s history. So, it was decided that this walk would be about Walter Blair, for whom Blair Avenue is named.
A strong showing of 28 walkers and one K-9 best friend were at the Exedra on this sunny, winter morning.
Drawing on the research of Piedmont Historical Society, Walter Blair’s history was shared with the group. Blair’s parents were Vermont farmers of Scottish descent, and he was one of 12 children. He came to California in 1852 during the gold rush and at the age of 22 and became the first European settler in the Piedmont hills. He was a dairy farmer, capitalist, and founder of the original Blair Park.
In 1852 Blair 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 his street “Vernal Avenue” because of its lush ferns and shrubs. The back of the house was on today’s Waldo Avenue.
The walkers headed off going down Highland (not Vernal) Avenue, noting historic homes as they went. They quickly got to 111 Highland and posed for the attached photo in front of the house.
The group continued on to the end of Highland at Moraga Avenue. They looked across the street to the spot where an arched entrance to Blair Park once stood, and more of Blair’s history was told. Blair started as a dairy farmer. He established Blair’s 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 be also profitable. He built the Piedmont Springs Hotel in 1871, which was at the top of today’s Piedmont Park, 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, and went 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 also opened the Dracena Quarry, which is today’s Dracena Park, to sell crushed rock to pave the streets of Oakland, Piedmont and the nearby Mountain View Cemetery.
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.
The walkers made their way down Moraga looking at the homes that Guy Turner built a hundred years ago on the formerly Blair Park land. At the end of the long wall that contains the Mountain View Cemetery the group crossed Moraga and did something they had never done before. They walked the one-way, seldom-traveled, Oakland portion of Ramona Avenue. On the right side of the street was a small house with a full cactus garden that covered all of the front yard except for the walkway to the house. 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. The walkers also looked across the street and admired the Virginia Morgan-designed Chapel of the Chimes and mausoleum.
The group started up Piedmont Avenue towards Pleasant Valley Road, but Pat Keller and some other walkers knew of a set of three hidden paths that cuts across the horseshoe-shaped North and South Pleasant Valley Court to Moraga Avenue. The group walked the paths to and then up Pleasant Valley Avenue, and went up and down the also little-known and seldom-walked Parkside Drive cul-de-sac. Then it was on to Arroyo and Lower Grand Avenues, Holly Place, and a path on York Drive that took them to Ricardo Avenue and the foot of Dracena Park, the site of Blair’s quarry.
The last leg of 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, past the backside of his home at Waldo Avenue, and then down his Vernal, now Highland Avenue, to the Exedra, where his Piedmont Springs hotel once stood.
The temperature had warmed up as the group finished this three and a half mile, ninety minute Walter Blair historical tour. They returned to the Exedra with an understanding and appreciation of the lasting impact Walter Blair made on the city of Piedmont. His story was all around them.