Saturday, December 14, 2013

Walter Blair (1830 - 1888) - Early settler of Piedmont; Noted businessman

Walter Blair and his home on Highland
Walter Blair (1830 - 1888)  Plot  28, Lot 11

Walter Blair and his brother William, Vermont natives, came to California via Cape Horn in 1852, and settled in Alameda County in 1853.

The area that is now Piedmont, and parts of Oakland, was originally a community of ranches. The Beard Ranch is now Trestle Glen; the Biglow and Gladding ranches are now Pleasant Valley and Vernon Heights. Walter Blair created the largest of these - 600 acres for which he paid the Peralta family the grand sum of $1.25 per acre.  

James Gamble & "The Highlands," home of the Requa family
Other landowners included early Piedmont pioneers Isaac Requa, Hugh Craig, Jesse Wetmore and James Gamble. The estates generally were self-sufficient with their own water, fruits & vegetables, livestock and chicken.

A farmer and dairyman, Blair’s dairy farm property ran from the cemetery wall (on the Moraga Avenue side) to and beyond Blair Avenue in Piedmont. He bought the land from the US Government, which now owned most of the original Vicente Peralta land grant. 

Blair’s Dairy was at the southwest corner of what is now El Cerrito and Blair Avenues. The dairy supplied milk and butter to the surrounding area and San Francisco. He raised cattle and planted wheat and barley. Old-timers referred to it as “Blair’s Pasture.” 

Boundaries of Blair Park
In 1862, Walter married fellow Vermont native Phoebe Harvey, with whom he had two daughters – Ethel (aka Florence) and Mabel. They lived in a house on Highland.

Blair and his brother planted Eucalyptus trees, which still provide the border between Mountain View Cemetery and Piedmont. These trees were known as “Blair’s Gum Trees” and ran from Moraga Road to Montclair. They were removed in 1936 for street widening. 

The Blair Quarry #1
Diagonally across from the dairy, Blair developed a quarry where Dracena Park was later located, and sold the basalt and chert to pave streets in Oakland and Piedmont. Some of the rock from the quarry can still be seen at MVC where it was used to make gravestones. When the quarry filled with water, the quarry became a favorite swimming hole. When someone drowned in the 1920s, the city filled the quarry with construction debris. 

Blair Park Trolley and Piedmont Cabel Car
Blair made his major mark was made in the field of transportation. Along with Montgomery Howe, he founded the Broadway & Piedmont Railroad horsecar line. He was also involved in lines that ran up H Street, Market and Adeline. Both James Gamble and Montgomery Howe were investors in his transportation companies.

Not only did the streetcars provide service for Oakland, but it brought prospective property owners and homeowners to Piedmont. This was also why both the Key System, developed by Borax Smith in the 1890s and early 20th century, and rail lines in L.A. built by Henry H. Huntington at the turn of the 20th century were built.

The Key System served a number of neighborhoods, particularly where development was happening.
·      The B served Lakeshore and Trestle Glen
·      The C served Piedmont
·      The E served Claremont

It was Blair who designed the cable car grip that replaced the original one of Hallidie’s -- the basic design still in use today. 

Piedmont Springs Hotel and visitor Mark Twain (taken by Eadweard Muybridge)
In 1870, Walter Blair built the Piedmont Springs Hotel where natural sulpher springs bubbled from the ground. The hotel became the terminus for one his streetcar lines. The streetcars ran hourly, connecting the hotel to Piedmont Avenue, where riders could transfer to Oakland or head to the ferries to travel to San Francisco.

The hotel had 20 bedrooms and five dining rooms. The main dining room featured a crystal chandelier, fine china and velvet drapes. It could seat up to 35 guests. The water of the spring was thought to have curative powers. Wealthy San Franciscans journeyed to the hotel during to visit "the country" and often stayed for a week. It was considered one of the finest resorts in California at the time. One of the most famous visitors was Mark Twain, who arrived in 1871. 

Blair Park Bridge and Entrance (that's possibly Walter Blair on the bridge)
In 1884, in Moraga Canyon, at the end of his Oakland and Piedmont Railroad horsecar line where the hotel now stood, Blair developed a 75-acre amusement park, Blair’s Park. This was an inducement for people to ride his street railroad, which took someone 25 minutes to travel by horsecar up the hill from downtown Oakland to Blair's Park. At the park you could sail small boats, ride ponies, watch acrobats hang from hot air balloons, have a picnic by one of the waterfalls and listen to music.

1n 1890, the Consolidated Piedmont Cable Company leased the park from Blair’s widow and added attractions to lure more riders to their cable cars. The offered free concerts on Saturday and Sunday and built a dancing pavilion. There were also plans for a 3-story casino with a large veranda, but it was never built.
Newspaper ads for the Park and Hotel
The Park eventually saw it’s demise due to a number of circumstances, including competition from other amusement parks (Bushrod, Idora and Shell Mound), problems with “hoodlums and hooligans,” and a tragic balloon accident involving a 6-year-old boy named Bertram Hills. 5,000 people witnessed the boy fall 1,000 feet from the sky. Newspaper accounts claim that Mrs. Edna Olney fainted when she saw the boy fall from the sky. In 1897, Blair’s heirs put the park up for sale. It was purchased in 1902 by Frank Havens’ nephew, the poet George Sterling. By 1904, it was owned by the Havens Realty Syndicate and developed with homes around 1917.

In January 1891, the women of Piedmont led a temperance movement to block the sale of liquor at the Piedmont Springs Hotel, which was increasingly getting complaints about noise and public drunkeness. They petitioned the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to withdraw the liquor license granted to the owner of the hotel. The liquor controversy ended quickly with the Piedmont Springs Hotel fire in the early morning of November 17, 1892. The absence of any water supply left the occupants of the doomed building no other recourse than to sit down in the shade and watch the building burn. The closest fire station was 5 miles away in Oakland and the horses had a difficult time getting the fire equipment up the steep hills.

Mountain View Cemetery purchased the land between the lower and middle lakes.

This is not the same Blair Park that we know today off Moraga Ave, although it shares some of the same footprint. 

The Gamble House
In 1877, Blair sold 350 acres to James Gamble, then president of Western Union Telegraph.  James Gamble built a large home on the property on Hillside Avenue, established the Piedmont Land Company and planned to sell the rest of the property for homes. The President of the Company was George Beaver, with Gamble as VP. Investors involved in the venture included S.P. Van Loben Sels, T.L. Barker, James de Fremery and L.A. Booth. Directors included Booth, as well as  James Gamble, Henry Bigelow and Arthur Bowman.

With the development of homes, schools were needed. The nearest school was miles down a dusty country road at 28th & West St. Walter’s brother, William, drafted a petition in 1878, which was submitted to the Alameda County Board of Education. The state required that 5 students were required to start a school. 

Piedmont School
George Hume, a local millionaire had two school age children. Along with Walter’s two children and one other local child they met the requirement.

George Hume’s sister-in-law, Zylphia Raymond, was a teacher and was appointed as Piedmont’s first school teacher. The first classes were held in the Hume home. Three years later the first school was constructed at what is now Piedmont Ave and Pleasant Valley Rd. Mrs. Raymond ran the school until 1880, when the attendance “swelled” to ten students and a schoolhouse had to be built. The school was built on land purchased from Montgomery Howe (near what is now Mather Road). 

Not all kids attended the school, as many had home tutors.

Walter Blair did not live to see his ranch become the city of Piedmont.

Centennial Hotel
In 1876, he built the 3-story Centennial Hotel at the corner of 14th and Clay in Oakland, and lived there at the time of his death in 1888. His wife insisted that get away from the lonely and isolated country life of Piedmont. He would die in his apartment there 11 years later at the age of 57 of complications from diabetes

[Biography by Michael Colbruno, Stafford Buckley and Gail Lombardi]

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