Moraga's History - Extract from Moraga's Pride

Extracted from Moraga's Pride, published by the Moraga Historical Society in 1987, Revised and Expanded in 2002


Jose Joaquin Moraga was the top aide to Juan Bautista Anza, who in 1776, under orders from the Spanish government, sent a colonizing party to the San Francisco bay area to found a town, a presidio and two missions. Moraga arrived in the bay area in June of that year and spent the next 9 years implementing a system of government and community life in the bay area. Jose's son, Gabriel Antonio Moraga, served in the army in California for 40 years, and it was Gabriel's fifth son, Jose Joaquin de la Santisima Trinidad Moraga, who was to become the grantee of the vast Moraga Rancho and the first settler in the Moraga Valley.

Joaquin served in the military from 1809 - 1819. Not much is known of Joaquin's activities after that until he and his cousin Juan Bernal petitioned the acting governor in 1835 to process their request for "the land named Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados (Ranch Of The Lake Of The Redwoods)." (The practice of asking for land in return for long, unpaid military service had become popular soon after Mexico passed a law in 1828 authorizing such grants.) The deed to the 13,316 acres of land was finally signed in 1841, although it appears as though Moraga lived on the land during the interim. The grant was: "Bounded on the North inclusively by the Spring of Water which is next to the Old Corral, and on the East by the Las Trampas Ridge; on the South by the lands of Mission San Jose, and on the West to the Sierra to its summit." It included not only the present day community of Moraga (including Rheem), but also portions of Orinda, Lafayette and Canyon. When the Moraga family came to settle the land, the only inhabitants were the Indians of the Saklan tribe.

Joaquin Moraga built an adobe on a hill overlooking the Moraga Valley in 1841. The original adobe was built with three rooms; living room (salon-dancing room), bedroom, a long veranda, and an outside kitchen. In 1848, when Joaquin's son Jose De Jesus moved in, the adobe was expanded to accommodate a large growing family. The Don Manuel family made considerable changes in a remodeling done in the 1960's. The adobe, still standing on a knoll in Orinda above Miramonte High School with a poplar tree-lined driveway going up to the house, is a private home and not open to the public. It was designated a California Historical Landmark in 1954 and is probably the oldest existing building in Contra Costa County.

The Moraga rancho was a cattle ranch. Hides and tallow were sold to San Francisco shipping lines or exchanged for merchandise. Life at the adobe was successful and comfortable for the Moraga Family. It included Indian servants that lived in a lean-to on either side of the adobe. There were many fandangos (festive dinner-dances), barbecues, and all night dancing in the adobe salon, which was the only room in the house with a wooden floor (built with Canyon redwood).

It is unclear how active Bernal was with his northern half of the ranch up until his death in 1847, when he left half (of his half) to his wife and the other half to his children. Moraga lived on his half until his death, having filed in 1851 a petition to settle his land claim under U. S. law (California had become a state the year before). In early 1853 Moraga sold the redwoods on his land (505 acres) to the new owner of the Acalanes Rancho, Elam Brown (Joaquin Moraga was a cattleman, not a lumberman, so his property in the Redwood Canyon was overrun with trespassers. Many were disappointed goldminers who, looking for means to make money, destroyed the magnificent redwood grove in a rush to fill the demand for lumber. As a result, Joaquin was glad to sell the Redwoods to Brown, the founder of Lafayette). He also sold 6 acres in 1854 to John Courter who established the Moraga Valley Store on the road (at what is now the intersection of Larch Avenue and Canyon Road) that led from The Redwoods to the shipping port at Martinez. In 1855 he sold 40 acres to Issac Gann, who was a squatter from Tennessee - his ranch was in today's Sanders Ranch. When Moraga died in June, 1855, he still owned 5,642 acres of the original ranch.

From the time of Bernal and Moraga's deaths to 1885, numerous parcels of land in the rancho changed hands various times as heirs sold land, mortgaged land, had land foreclosed upon, etc. One of these parcels was bought in 1857 by Jesse Williams, a squatter. Horace Carpentier, a land grabbing attorney who moved to the bay area in the late 1840s from New York, was at the forefront of many of these maneuvers, using agents besides himself to gain ownership of most of the original rancho by 1889. But because he was primarily an investor and not interested in what was done with the land itself, on June 1, 1889, Carpentier sold his Moraga empire to James Williamson and Angus Grant, who planned to subdivide the rancho via the Moraga Land Association into town lots and small ranches. To make the area more accessible, they also planned to construct a rail line, The Moraga Valley Railroad, from the Orinda Crossroads to Eastern Lafayette via the Moraga Valley. Despite elaborate promotion the project failed and in 1899 Carpentier foreclosed on the property (the Moraga Land Association defaulted on loans due Carpentier for the original purchase).

In 1912, sparked by news that the Oakland and Antioch Railway was to be built through the Moraga Valley (this line would eventually become the Sacramento Northern Railroad), Charles Hooper of Alameda and James Irvine of Southern California vied for the property. Carpentier sold the rancho to Hooper, who in turn sold it in a series of transactions over the years to Irvine. By 1923 most of the original rancho was owned by Irvine's Moraga Company. Under the Moraga Company the rancho was developed for multiple use, both land development and agricultural. The Moraga Company built a two story hotel in Moraga as a promotion to help the sale of land in the valley. It later became a mercantile store, library, and eventually a bar - today called The Moraga Barn (closed in 1995). Much of the early real estate development for the Moraga Company was in what today is Orinda (Moraga extended to and included he Orinda "Crossroads"). Most of the early Crossroads businesses used the word Moraga in their name. Some of the developments along Moraga Way were Moraga Oaks and Encinas De Moraga. Fifteen tracts with the Moraga name were built in what today is Orinda.

In 1927 100 acres was given to Saint Mary's College of California (who purchased an additional 300 acres) to get the College to move to Moraga from Oakland. Holy Names College had also been offered land but they declined. It was expected that the presence of Saint Mary's would attract home buyers, but these plans to subdivide land into tracts were never very successful. By the late 1940s Irvine had sold numerous tracts to others for development (including a large portion in 1935 to Utah Construction Company), realizing that he could not develop the land alone (although the Moraga Company made one major effort by trying to get the United Nations to build its headquarters in Moraga).

While the Moraga Land Association, Hooper and lastly the Moraga Company had been actively buying and developing most of the rancho over all these years, the only parcel that Carpentier never owned, the Williams parcel, had undergone a number of changes. It had changed hands twice -- first to the Lucas family and then to two young women who had a proposed residence for homeless children built upon it. It was purchased in 1934 by Donald Rheem, the son of a former President of Standard Oil of California. He added to the estate and ultimately bought 1,650 acres of rancho land which he developed into the Rheem center in 1954 and surrounding subdivisions. The estate, now known as the Hacienda de las Flores, was bought by the Christian Brothers in 1961, the Moraga Park and Recreation Authority in 1973, and the Town of Moraga in 1977.

In 1947 Irvine died and in 1953 his heirs sold his remaining 5,000 acres of the original rancho to the Utah Construction and Mining Company. Utah planned to develop a model community with a population of 28,000 but significant opposition forced them to scale back their plans. By the time the county revised Moraga's general plan in 1969, most of these ambitious plans had been eliminated or scaled down in keeping with the wishes of most residents that Moraga remain a residential community. Meanwhile between 1955 and the early 1970s both Utah and Rheem either developed land or sold it to other developers. These included Russell Bruzzone who built the Moraga Shopping Center in 1964, and who bought Utah's last 2,300 acres in 1967. With all this activity the 100 homes in Moraga in the early 1950s had grown to over 4,000 by the time of Moraga's incorporation as the 15th city in Contra Costa County on November 13, 1974 (as a general law city). Since incorporation, Moraga has continued to slowly grow with the addition of developments such as the Moraga Country Club and Sanders Ranch, and today there are approximately 5,600 homes in the town.