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From Train Stations to Pot Dispensaries: Old Oakland Walking Tour is full of surprises (Community Voices)

Oakland Tours Program

Oakland Tours Program

"I must warn you before we begin: I'm an unapologetic Oakland snob," said Don Tyler, a former Oakland High School history teacher, as we began the walking tour of Old Oakland. A group of twenty gathered for the City of Oakland walking tour at G.B. Ratto & Co. International Grocers, one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Oakland, California.

Many of the tour attendees had lived in Oakland for quite some time, but wanted to learn more about what it was like before 1906 and when it was a frontier town. Tyler referred to San Francisco as the "West Bay" and preferred to call the East Bay by a more-fitting name: "the continental side of the Bay."

The tour focused primarily on the architectural history of Oakland's oldest storefronts from the 1860s and 1870s. But far from being a tedious architectural tour, Tyler weaved in stories about the personalities of Oakland's early powerbrokers, some of whom had delusions of grandeur and Kanye-West-sized egos. Many of these historic figures are remembered today for the streets and parks they named after themselves, and some figures had lasting impacts, such as creating the Key System for public transit and bringing the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad to Oakland.

Walking through 7th, 8th, and 9th Streets in Downtown Oakland, tour participants saw the buildings used for one of Oakland's early industries--shipping produce from Fruitvale across the United States. Tyler also spoke about the mass migration from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire, when Oakland exploded from 66,000 people in 1900 to 150,000 people in 1910. And he told stories of early Oakland cultural icons, like famous dancer Isadora Duncan, and writers Jack London and Gertrude Stein, who were contemporaries at Oakland High School.

On the Old Oakland walking tour, Tyler recounted colorful tales about Oakland pioneers who dreamed big, like Borax Smith who had a ballroom in his Oakland mansion that could fit 3,000 people, and one of the largest organs West of the Mississippi in his entranceway. Using the early architecture as a focal point, Tyler weaved in how the railroad came to dominate local politics, and how Governor George Pardee (whose house is in Old Oakland) was one of the first non-railroad governors of California. He recounted Pardee's clashes with the Southern Pacific Railroad over control over the Port of Oakland.

One of the tour guide's stories that has particular relevance to today was Tyler's story of Samuel Merritt. Merritt bought land in Oakland in the 1850s and 1860s and built houses around the tidal slough and dammed it to create Lake Merritt. However, Merritt didn't want people hunting waterfowl near his new exclusive houses, so he worked to get the area protected as America's first wildlife refuge. Scholars point to this as a precursor to the National Park system. This historical record is relevant to today because the Lake Merritt Master Plan is under way to reopen the Lake Merritt to allow water to flow to and from the Bay and allow fish and animals from the Bay to enter Lake Merritt.

Tyler highlighted the architectural history of two buildings in particular. The popular pub The Trappist is in a Victorian from the 1870s, and it's next to the oldest two-story masonry building in Oakland, the Sanford Building built in 1865. This Civil-War-era building now houses the Starbucks on the corner of 8th and Broadway.

Central Pacific Railway Depot then and now. The former terminus of the transcontinental railroad is now a medical marijuana dispensary. Image on left courtesy of Oakland History Room, Oakland Main Library.

And the original terminus of the transcontinental railroad is now where the Oakland Police station is located at 7th and Broadway. In an interesting twist of history, the old Cental Pacific Railway Depot at 464 7th Street now houses a medical marijuana dispensary called Oakland Organics. If you compare the historic photo to present-day, you can see the three center arches from the old train building.

To find out more about the walking tours going from now until October, see Oakland Walking Tours.

Click HERE for photos of the walking tour.

By Matt Werner, author of Oakland in Popular Memory. Email Matt at editor[at] This post was originally published here.

About Matt Werner