History, Landmarks, Local

Our Beloved Oak Tree

I was on a walk in my neighborhood several weeks ago and I came to a stop to stare at an oak tree.  I can’t really explain why; maybe it was because it at the top of a hill and I needed to catch my breath.  Perhaps it’s because things often catch my eye and I pause to take a closer look.  In this case it was the way the huge limbs swept up and over my head; a canopy to filter cloud and fog.  I snapped a picture and kept walking.  A week later my family enjoyed a Sunday morning at the Oakland Museum of California and I spent some time in front of the exhibit about the oak tree.  A blog post was born.  I have been asked how I come up with what to write about; well there you go.  My busy mind got to work.  Why is Oakland named after the oak tree?  How did it become the symbol of our city?  From our garbage cans to our T-shirts; its roots symbolize our civic pride.  What started as a momentary stare at an old giant turned into a quest to learn more about Oakland’s beloved oak.

The answer to my question is quite easy; Oakland was an oak forest.  The combination of the rich marine soil and large creeks which carried nutrients from the hills created a natural environment for Quercus agrifolia, also known as Coast Live Oak, to thrive; likely right up to the bay shoreline.  The Ohlone, the Native American people who the land belonged to, relied heavily on the oak tree and the fruit it bore.  The acorn was a staple of the Native American diet, as well as sustenance for the squirrels, birds, deer and grizzly bear that roamed the hills and marshlands.

The arrival of the Spanish to San Francisco in the 18th Century meant imminent change to the landscape.  By the 19th Century, the Gold Rush brought immense population growth.  Thousands headed inland, and the subsequent development of the East Bay shoreline was the beginning of a fast decline of the established oak forests.  When Rancho San Antonio was granted to the Peralta family in 1820, much of the oak groves seemed to still exist.  A map of the area from 1857 shows much of modern Downtown Oakland and the island of Alameda still shrouded in oak canopies.  It is believed that the rapid removal of the trees took place in the 1860’s-1870’s.

Evidence of appreciation of these majestic trees is seen in imagery from the late 19th Century.  Life along the lanes and new streets of Oakland show large sections of the groves still intact.  However, development was swift and trees were being felled at a fast rate as Oakland grew from a small township to an urban city.  While ordinances were in place as of the 1850’s that stated a tree could not be removed unless city council approved it, so many still stood that it was not heavily regulated.  Trees were removed as needed, in some cases they were left standing in the middle of the road and horse-drawn carriages could easily move around them.  However, as the railroad came to Oakland and the wharf was developed, they were seen as a nuisance as larger loads of goods were moved to and from the wharf.  Large oak branches hindered speedy travel.

A divide quickly developed; those who felt they should be saved at all cost vs. those who felt they were problematic, providing too much shade which some felt was bad for health.  Oakland Mayor Nathan W. Spaulding, in office from 1871-1873, wrote a moving message to the street committee of City Council in 1873, pleading that the trees be seen as valuable assets:

“As many of our grand old aboriginal trees must of necessity give place to required improvements, and as many have already fallen by the ruthless hand of vandalism, their places may be to some extent successfully supplied and with trifling expense, by a little well directed effort on your part.  It is not necessary to remind you how much the natural beauty of Oakland depends on her evergreen and majestic oaks.  It is truly its mark of favor and the one distinguishing feature which has allured to this chosen spot a citizenship which may well distinguish it as the Athens of the Pacific Coast.  Nature has provided nothing which inspires man with greater reverence for the Creator that a beautiful tree.  It has been fitly said, ‘They are God’s first temples’.”

Image titled “Oaks of Oakland”, dated 1874.  Found in the Oakland-Trees Clippings file, Oakland Library, Oakland History Room 

Ferdinand Richardt, Oaks at Madison and 8th Streets, 1869. Oil on Canvas, 14.25 x 21.25 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Mr. Lester M. Hale.

Oak Tree in center of 12th Street, Oakland circa 1870

Alice and 12th Street, Oakland circa 1900

Harry Courtright, untitled (photograph of City Hall Plaza), 1916. Gelatin Silver Print. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Herrington & Olson.

As development of the road system brought paving and sidewalks to the city of Oakland, the random oaks that still remained met their demise.  Removal was allowed where sidewalks were installed, and when left standing they were often taken out at a later date when the root systems caused the sidewalks to buckle.  Oak defenders did still exist, George C. Pardee famously stuck a shotgun in the faces of city workers who tried to remove the stately oaks that stood in front of his now iconic home.

In 1917 the city dedicated an oak tree to its beloved writer who had passed away the year prior, Jack London.  A tree was moved from Mosswood Park to the plaza in front of city hall.  The oak served as a replacement to the century old tree that once stood there (likely pictured in above image).  Considered a “baby” at only ten tons, the tree took eight men to move over the length of four days.  The tree just recently celebrated its 100 year anniversary in its home in front of Oakland City Hall.  The Jack London Oak is the inspiration behind the city’s oak tree logo we take pride in today.

The oldest documented tree once stood in Dimond Park.  Based on a ring count done by Dennis Evanosky, it is believed to be have been “born” around 1801.  According to articles in The Oakland Tribune in the 1940’s which monitored its health, the tree may have once been one of the largest oak trees on the Pacific Coast, possibly the oldest oak of its kind in the world.  However, the Dimond Oak was finally cut down due to disease in 2005.  What remains are its stump and sections of its trunk, seen along the newly renovated sections of Sausal Creek in Dimond Park.

While it is hard to say what trees remain of the original oak forests, it is likely that trees still standing in Dimond Park, Mosswood Park, DeFremery Park and possibly Lakeside Park are remnants of the original groves or very close descendants of them.  I took some time this week to seek them out, and to take a moment to stand beneath them.

Dimond Park Oak Trees

Mosswood Park Oak Trees

DeFremery Park Oak Trees

While Oakland will never again be a vast Coast Live Oak forest, efforts are being made to bring greenery back to our city limits.  Organizations such as Urban Releaf strive to revitalize urban communities through tree-planting events and educational workshops on tree maintenance.  It works to spread the word on the importance of urban forestry, a key component in climate protection and the reduction of air pollution.   In 2015, Oakland resident Walter J. Hood, a landscape architect and U.C. Berkeley professor, took on a project to “re-oak Oakland.”  Students and residents helped plant seventy-two oak trees in Lowell Park.  The saplings were given to Lowell Elementary School last year and a plan is underway to gift them to students and their families to be planted in the neighborhood.

The Coast Live Oak is considered a protected tree by the City of Oakland.  Any tree that is four inches or larger in diameter, measured four and a half feet above the ground, either on public or private land, is considered a protected tree.  Permits are required if work may damage or destroy the tree.

So do you think you might peek up at the next oak tree you happen to pass under and take a moment to consider what its place in our city represents?  Perhaps you will consider it a representative of the native people who once relied on it as part of their livelihood.  It might give you pause to think about the impact our ancestors had on its ancestors.  It could be a simple moment to give thanks.  Thank you for giving me a spot of shade that brings relief, a pile of leaves to shuffle through, a branch to sit on.  Thank you for being simply that…a giving tree.


For more information on the City of Oakland Tree Services please visit their website here.
For more information on Urban Releaf, please visit www.urbanreleaf.org

Historic San Antonio Map of 1857 – sourced with Wikipedia
Image titled “Oaks of Oakland”, dated 1874. Found in the Oakland-Trees Clippings file, Oakland Library, Oakland History Room
Painting of Oak Grove – Ferdinand Richardt, Oaks at Madison and 8th Streets, 1869. Oil on Canvas, 14.25 x 21.25 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Mr. Lester M. Hale.
Oak Tree in center of 12th Street, Oakland circa 1870 – Bennett Hall flickr page, used with permission
Alice and 12th Street, Oakland circa 1900 – Bennett Hall flickr page, used with permission
1916 photo of single oak in city hall plaza – Harry Courtright, untitled (photograph of City Hall Plaza), 1916. Gelatin Silver Print. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Herrington & Olson.
Two historic black and white images of the Jack London Oak – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
All other images by Adrienne Schell – Do not use without permission

Tree Project Aims to Put the Oak Back in Oakland, by Patricia Leigh Brown.  The New York Times – May 23, 2015
The Effect of Development on a Native Species: A History of The Oak in Oakland.  By Mike Greenblatt (date unknown) – sourced in Oakland – Trees Clippings File, Oakland Public Library – Oakland History Room
What I Witnessed: Dimond’s History through the Eyes of Its Most Famous Tree.  By Dennis Evanosky, MacArthur Metro December 2007 / January 2008
City Plants Oak as Tribute to Memory of Jack London – Oakland Tribune, January 17, 1917
Oak Trees, Mayor Spaulding’s Message – From Oakland Daily Transcript, January 9, 1873, p. 3

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  • Reply Ola Bennett January 17, 2018 at 12:42 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. The Jack London Oak is dear to me. How blessed are we to have a living, organic symbol of our marvelous city.

    Ola Bennett

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