Moraga History – Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour

The Old Moraga Town Site was an ambitious undertaking in 1913 by James Irvine’s Moraga Company which never flourished. Only a few buildings were developed of which even fewer remain standing today. By 1935 Moraga had reverted to an agricultural region growing a variety of fruit, vegetable and grain crops among which pears and walnuts can still be seen today in the form of fading, wild orchards. When the development of Moraga resumed during the 1950s the old town site remained relatively unchanged until the 1970s when Russell Bruzzone undertook development of the Moraga Center. The Old Town Site Walking Tour has been designed to help people contemplate and ponder what Moraga could have become and to visualize what Moraga Valley and the surrounding area once looked like prior to Moraga’s incorporation as a town in 1974. (See AllTrails Map).

Walking Tour Old Town Site Photo
(Unless otherwise noted, all images occur courtesy of the Moraga Historical Society. Google Maps (https://maps.google.com), accessed March 2022.)

Start your Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour near the Canyon Club Brewery where Country Club Drive intersects with Moraga Road. There is plenty of parking on Country Club Drive. Follow the walking tour guide until its completion at the Moraga Ranch buildings where the Moraga Ranch House Cafe is a good place to take a break. To return to the Canyon Club starting point you can retrace the Walking Tour or take the shortest route back by heading south on School St, turning left on Moraga Way, right on Viader Drive, and left on Country Club Drive. Alternatively you can start at the Safeway parking lot opposite Moraga Ranch Stop 8 and follow the route in verse or walk toward Moraga Barn Stop 1 and follow the route as presented. Click on each Stop below to view a web page with images and details about that stop.

Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour QR Code
The QR Code above will take you to this Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour main page.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Moraga Map

Step by Step Walking Tour Instructions – Be Safe – Use Crosswalks

Start your tour on the north side of Country Club Drive near the Canyon Club Brewery. At the Viader Drive intersection turn right until you are looking across the street at Stop 1 – the Moraga Barn, which no longer has its iconic name on it. Right behind you is a big rock with a plaque on it marking the former location of the Sacramento Northern Railway station.

Backtrack to the Country Club and Viader intersection, and use the crosswalk to get to the other side for a closer inspection of the Moraga Barn. Return to the intersection and use the cross-walk to cross Country Club Drive, turn right and walk until you are in front of Si Si Cafe, Stop 2 – Moraga Grocery. If you go around back of Si Si’s you will find outdoor seating and firepits. If you take a break here this is a good place to read the background history of the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour main page.

Next head west on Country Club Drive and turn left on School St. About a block later turn left along the “alley” that leads to front of Stop 3 – Willow Spring School II – today Willow Spring Church.

Return to School Street, turn left and head south until you reach the Hazelwood Place intersection. Do not be tempted to just cross the road as soon as you see the path to Moraga Creek – at the wrong time of day you might get run over by JM students on various motorized devices. Use the crosswalk to get to the other side of School St and head back north a short distance past the EBMUD facility until you encounter a path that connects to the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail. Turn left and proceed to the bridge which is Stop 4 – Moraga Creek.

Do not cross the bridge. Turn around and follow the trail north along the east side of Moraga Creek until you reach Country Club Drive – Stop 5 – Concrete Urn Median. Look to the left across the bridge and try to imagine where the “rose garden” and later the water reservoir would have been located in the middle of Country Club Drive.

Head right on Country Club Drive until School St and use the crosswalk to turn left on School St. You can view the newer former Post Office across the street, head north to Moraga Way, and view the older former Post Office – both are part of Stop 7 – Former Post Offices.

At the intersection of School St and Moraga Way turn left and head west along Moraga Way until you reach Stop 7 – the Husking Shed. The property is now occupied by the Moraga Gardens Farm, a non-profit member based volunteer organization that has 7 acres under cultivation.

Return east on Moraga Way the way you came until School St and then use the traffic light controlled intersection to cross Moraga Way and head north on the west side of School St until you are opposite Stop 8 – Moraga Ranch Buildings, which also happens to be the Ranch House Cafe Moraga. It has outdoor and indoor seating if you desire a snack or meal. You can also start your walking tour here and either do it in reverse, or follow the return route and begin at Stop 1 – Moraga Barn. Across the street is the Moraga Center which includes Safeway and a variety of stores including Loard’s Ice Cream which might come in handy if you brought children along who are not entirely satisfied by the Moraga history lesson you conveyed with the help of your smart phone that scanned the QR code for this Walking Tour.

After Stop 8 head south on School St and use the traffic light controlled intersection of School St and Moraga Way to cross twice to reach the southeast corner and head east on Moraga Way. Turn right on Viader Drive and continue past Stop 1 – Moraga Barn. Turn left at the intersection of Viader Drive and Country Club Drive to arrive at your starting point near the Canyon Club Brewery which also provides indoor or outdoor seating for food and refreshments. If you linger a couple minutes at each stop, this walking tour, which is about 1.5 miles, will take you 35-45 minutes to complete.

(Taking the walking tours is entirely voluntary and participants assume the full risks associated with the activities. The Moraga Historical Society and the individual members of this group make no representation or warranties about the quality, safety, or supervision of these activities.)

Walking Tour Old Town Site Instruction Map

Before you begin…

Each Stop on the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour has its own MHS web page with additional information and images to help you see the past and present. Some people, however, crave historical context, and for them we have provided a snapshot background of the stages in Moraga’s evolution until its incorporation in 1974. So before you embark on your Walking Tour we suggest you review the background stages below. If this piques your interest, we recommend Moraga’s Pride by Sandy Kimball republished in 1981 as a detailed history of Moraga, and for an annotated visual tour we recommend Images of America – Moraga by MHS member Susan Skilton published in 2017. Both are available through our MHS Store or at our History Center.

Background – Moraga and the Anza Expedition

In 1775 and 1776 Juan Bautista de Anza led two expeditions from Tupac in Sonora, Mexico. The first expedition was to establish the ideal locations for missions, presidios, and pueblos (towns). The second expedition included families of the soldiers. These families settled in Alta California. De Anza’s lieutenant, Jose Joaquin Moraga, was tasked with establishing the Presidio at San Francisco. Jose Joaquin Moraga died on July 13, 1785 at age 44.

His son Gabriel Antonio Moraga also pursued a military career, which involved exploring much of northern and central Alta California. Gabriel died on June 14, 1823 at age 53 after achieving the same rank as his father, lieutenant. His sons also pursued military careers. One son, Joaquin Moraga, shifted to a ranch supervision role by 1820. In 1835 he teamed up with his cousin Juan Bernal to petition Mexico for a land grant as compensation for past services. The Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados was granted in 1841 on a 50/50 ownership basis. However, Moraga and Bernal informally split their ranching activities between the southern and northern halves of the large land grant, situated in the area now occupied by parts of Lamorinda and Canyon. Juan Bernal died in 1847, and his widow and children continued to occupy their side of the land grant for several years, even after the widow remarried.

Background – Moraga and the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados Land Grant

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War on February 2, 1848. Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States. The treaty recognized Mexican land grants as valid, but a March 3, 1851 act shifted the burden of proving title onto the Mexican grant holders. As the Gold Rush ended settlers flooded the area and grabbed what they believed was public land. The Moraga and Bernal families resorted to litigation to enforce their title and funded the cost by selling some parcels and mortgaging others which rapidly fragmented ownership of the land grant. Their financial holdings dwindled as ranching for hides became a less important part of the economy, and in part due to costs of the lifestyle of well-off ranchers.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Past Present Moraga Map
(A. Higley, “Map of the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados [Calif.] : comprising 20,464 91/100 acres, confirmed to Joaquin Moraga & Juan Bernal by U.S. Board of Land Commissioners / surveyed under instructions of U.S. Surveyor General by H.A. Higley, U.S. Deputy Surveyor, April 1855”, Online Archive of California (https://oac.cdlib.org), accessed March 2022.)

Background – Carpentier consolidation of the land grant

In 1850 Horace Walpole Carpentier, a lawyer and businessman from New York, came to the San Francisco Bay Area. He helped found Oakland for whom he served as the first mayor on its incorporation in 1854. Among his business interests was the land in the Moraga Valley, where he pursued a multi-decade strategy to consolidate ownership of the increasingly fragmented Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados. This involved buying up mortgage notes and foreclosing on title when the borrowers defaulted, buying parcels from distressed owners, and, buying the (undivided) 50% share held in the entire land grant from Bernal’s widow. Joaquin Moraga’s death in 1855 further complicated matters as ownership fragmented among his heirs. Few of the parties who bought parcels from Moraga or loaned money understood he had only 50% title and soon found themselves dealing with Carpentier’s lawyers. The land grant and its boundaries were not confirmed through a U.S. Patent until August 10, 1878 on the basis of the April 1878 Boardman Survey, with a final decree on January 3, 1887. By then Carpentier controlled almost all of Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados except a few parcels.

Background – Moraga Land Association – first development attempt

In June of 1889 Carpentier sold the Rancho to James A. Williamson and Angus A. Grant who had railway business backgrounds and saw potential to develop the Moraga Valley. Their plan was to bring a railroad in from the Oakland side. The challenge facing the eastward ambitions of Oakland and Berkeley was the formidable “Oakland Hills” ridge that runs 23 miles from El Sobrante to Castro Valley, blocking access to “opposite of the coast”, what today is known as Contra Costa County. The California-Nevada Railroad Company started a track in 1883 which went around the northern end at El Sobrante and south along the eastern flank of the ridge on what today is San Pablo Dam Road where EBMUD built the San Pablo Dam Reservoir in 1919. The C&N Railway never made it past Orinda and even before it began operation in 1891 it was plagued by rain-related washouts. Williamson and Grant, who planned subdivisions in the Glorietta and Willow Spring School areas through their Moraga Land Association, hoped to extend the C&N line to what is now the Moraga Commons. The line was quickly graded but the track was never laid because the line’s viability hinged on being extended to Walnut Creek (Williamson and Grant hoped to extend the line to connect with eastern Lafayette where it could be carried on to Walnut Creek). Due to its unreliable service that never happened. The graded track through Moraga Valley became a wagon road which Contra Costa County in 1922 converted into a road for automobiles. The road was first called Moraga Highway and today is known as Moraga Way. Carpentier, who had taken a note as partial payment for sale of the Rancho Laguna to Williamson and Grant, foreclosed on the loan and regained title in 1899.

Background – James Irvine’s Moraga Company – second development attempt

On August 24, 1911 Carpentier deeded a right of way through the Rancho to the Oakland & Antioch Railway whose goal was to connect Oakland to Sacramento with an electric railroad. It tackled the ridge challenge by driving the Shepherd Canyon Tunnel through the ridge, exiting just where Pinehurst Road begins its winding route to the top. The track ran through Canyon along Pinehurst Road, past Valle Vista, headed north along what today is Viader Drive, turned east near the Moraga Commons along St Mary’s Road, and then north toward Lafayette on the east side of what today is the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail. It changed its name to San Francisco-Sacramento Railroad in 1919, and, after it merged in 1929 with Northern Electric which owned the line from Sacramento to Chico, it became the Sacramento Northern Railroad. Its passenger service ended in 1941 and its freight service in 1957. Nothing of the two stations at the Old Moraga Town Site and at St. Mary’s College remains and only traces of the track remain. An excellent online visual resource is the East Bay Hills Project of Stuart Swiedler which includes a set of aerial photos that allows one to see the Old Moraga Town Site from the perspective of 1935 and 1960.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Photo
(“Map of Moraga” as surveyed by John M. Punnett, Civil Engineer & Surveyor, for the Moraga Company and filed 1913 with Contra Costa County, California. Image taken from Moraga’s Pride.)

The prospect of a railway through Moraga Valley attracted the attention of Alameda’s Charles A. Hooper and southern California’s James Irvine who Carpentier played against each other. On July 19, 1912 Hooper’s $1 million offer won out, but within a year he started selling parts of the Rancho Laguna to Irvine’s Moraga Company which acquired the last part on January 15, 1923 for a total purchase price more than double what Hooper paid Carpentier who died in 1918. The Moraga Company retained John M. Punnett to design a 500 acre town site which he turned into 21 blocks containing 200 lots organized as concentric hexagons. Robert N. Burgess was appointed on December 26, 1912 as agent to market the lots but succeeded in selling only 1 lot on which 5 cottages were built that were eventually burned down as part of a fire department training exercise. Burgess went on to sell other subdivisions within the Rancho Laguna, including Valle Vista, but the Old Moraga Town Site remained undeveloped apart from a handful of buildings that are featured in this Walking Tour, as is evident in the photo from 1950.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Moraga Map

Although the Old Moraga Town Site development fizzled quickly the Moraga Company did develop several subdivisions. Valle Vista was one such subdivision, intended to be a suburb of the town site, and another was Subdivision No 9, an area bounded by Canyon Road on the west and Larch and Camino Pablo avenues on the north and south. Farther east Sanders Ranch and Carr Ranch emerged as independent properties; today Sanders Ranch is a gated community while the Carr Ranch has been acquired by the John Muir Land Trust to become part of the permanent open space within Lamorinda east of Rancho Laguna Park. This location also serves as a trailhead for the King Canyon Loop that connects with the Valle Vista hiking staging area. Subdivision No 9 was intended to be a cluster of “ranchettes” which had no water or gas supply, relied on wells for water (the extension from the Joaquin Moraga Adobe pipeline that terminated at the “rose garden” reservoir proved unreliable), and septic tanks flushed into local waterways.

During the 1920s the Moraga Company regrouped its strategy and donated 100 acres to then Oakland- based St. Mary’s College which went on to purchase an additional 300 acres from the Moraga Company to develop the St. Mary’s College campus. The reasoning was that the combination of the Sacramento Northern Railway and the Moraga Highway (paved in 1922 by Contra Costa County) would pull in a student population, some of whose graduates would subsequently settle in the surrounding area. Although this did not evolve on the time scale envisioned by James Irvine, in the long run the population of the Moraga Valley did grow.

The Moraga Company drew up a master plan in 1928 when Moraga’s buildings consisted of five structures along Moraga Way (including the Joaquin Moraga Adobe and the Little Yellow House), eight structures within the Old Moraga Town Site, the “ranchettes” within Subdivision No. 9, the “dozen” homes still left in Valle Vista, the beginnings of St. Mary’s College, and dwellings on seven farms “rented” from the Moraga Company. There was no chance of expansion and little chance of survival when the crash of 1929 arrived, followed by the Great Depression.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Photo

Background – Moraga Company – the Great Depression and Moraga as Agribusiness

Complications from the Great Depression sidelined the development plans of the Moraga Company which pivoted its focus and turned its landholdings in the Moraga Valley into a vast agribusiness. During the Carpentier ownership cycle land was rented out to “tenant farmers”, individuals who provided their own capital and determined how it was deployed, with the goal to generate a profit beyond operating costs and the underlying rent by selling output to the highest bidder.

Under the Moraga Company ownership it shifted to the “sharecropper” model where “rent” was paid as a percentage of the crop yield, with the landlord dictating what crops were to be planted, providing operating capital in the form of loans, and possibly dictating the target market for the output. Whereas during the Moraga-Carpentier period from 1841-1912 agricultural activity within the Rancho Laguna was divided between ranching and growing hay for the winter period, the Moraga Company changed the agricultural focus by pushing ranching activity into the steeper terrain of Moraga’s ridges, and dividing the flatter parts between growing hay and cultivating a broader range of crops, chief among which were pears followed closely by walnuts.

The Moraga Company’s headquarters, originally based in Lafayette’s Burton Valley, was moved to the current location on School Street from which “emperor” Bill Barnes managed the agribusiness. In 1936 the Moraga Company revived its development plans, but this time around the plan was to start with the Glorietta area of what is today Orinda and march eastwards. The idea of the Old Moraga Town Site as a center from which development radiated outwards was dead. This development effort stalled in 1939 when the United States entered World War II. During the war period St. Mary’s College became a pre-flight training base for the US Navy. Although passenger service on the Sacramento Northern Railway stopped in 1941, freight service continued until 1957, and during the war period it was a common sight to see military hardware on rail cars being transported through Moraga. Conspicuous by their absence are railway photos from the war period.

Not much is known about the war period other than that Katherine White Irvine, the second wife of James Irvine, in 1941 adopted the dilapidated JM Adobe, the home built by Joaquin Moraga after the 1841 Rancho Laguna land grant which provided a view of Moraga Valley from its location now part of Orinda. Irvine humored his wife by enabling her to purchase the site and renovate it with stables that would support her affection for horses. They used it as a place to stay when visiting northern California. One hundred years after the Mexican government awarded the land grant to Bernal and Moraga, Katharine (White) Irvine remodeled the structure, making it a contemporary home on its hundredth birthday. Katharine White Irvine is a key reason why today the Joaquin Moraga Adobe is a Preserved Historical Landmark within a new residential development.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Photo

Background – Utah Construction Company 1953-1966: we develop you build

On August 24, 1947 James Irvine, the visionary behind the Moraga Company, passed away at age 77, and, because the Moraga Company included minority shareholders, it took some time for the estate heirs to figure out the continuing destiny of the Moraga Company. In 1935 businessman Donald Rheem took an interest in the Rancho Laguna and purchased parcels from the Moraga Company along Jonah Hill Road (now Moraga Road). He started developing the Rheem Center, which from 1954 until 1957 was called the Moraga Center. The Moraga Company estate trustees decided in 1950 the best action was to sell the remaining Rancho holdings to Donald Rheem. But the transaction was blocked at the June 10, 1953 special shareholder meeting when a new minority shareholder withheld consent. This party pushed for a better deal and on December 21, 1953 the new arrangement was made. Utah Construction purchased the entire Moraga Company.

Utah Construction was an infrastructure development company that started in the early 1900s and branched into mining during the 1950s. It went public in 1969 and promptly sold its construction division to Fluor Corporation, changed its name to Utah International in 1971, and merged with General Electric in 1976 at a $2.2 billion value that at the time was the biggest corporate takeover ever. G.E. sold Utah in 1984 to BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary), the Australian mining giant, which took on the name BHP-Utah International Inc until 2001 when it merged with Billiton plc to become BHP-Billiton and eventually just BHP Group.

After Utah Construction acquired the Moraga Company in 1953, which included control of most of the original Rancho Laguna land grant apart from what Donald Rheem had acquired, the concern launched a plan that involved developing 31 subdivisions starting with the Glorietta area of Orinda and continuing eastwards, in effect the plan developed by the Moraga Company during the 1930s. Utah’s strategy was unusual in that “development” meant establishing transportation and utility infrastructure, and then selling lots within a subdivision to independent builders with strict architectural control. In this manner it was able to define the “look and feel” of a subdivision while shifting the construction cost and marketing risk to the builders. Utah Construction never constructed a single building from 1953 onwards until 1966 when it sold its remaining stake in the Rancho Laguna to Russell Bruzzone, who in 1958 had emerged as a major purchaser and builder of Utah’s lots.

Walking Tour Old Town Site Railway and Freeway Maps

The 1960s were a pivotal period for the future of Moraga. The Sacramento Northern Railway which ran from Oakland through the Shepherd Canyon Tunnel along Pinehurst-Canyon and then through Moraga on its way to Lafayette had ceased passenger operation in 1941 and freight operation in 1957. During the 1960s Cal Trans began to explore possible freeway routes through the “Oakland Hills” in addition to the Caldecott Tunnel which opened along Route 24 as a two bore tunnel in 1937. One potential path was Shepherd Canyon whose Redwood Peak Tunnel used by Sacramento Northern Railway since 1910 had been sealed off after SNR ceased operating in 1957. Cal Trans contemplated 3 routes, one that tracked the original Sacramento Northern route along Pinehurst Road, then north on Canyon Road into Moraga, and east toward Lafayette along St. Mary’s Road before bending north along what today is the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail, a second that ploughed through Indian Valley before intersecting with Canyon Road just before Valley Vista, and a third which emerged near the JM Adobe and streaked along the north side of the “Country Club Ridge” before heading north along what today is Camino Ricardo and then bending east through what today remains a wild pear orchard before connecting with St Mary’s Road.

Background – Bruzzone and reinventing the Old Town Site as the Moraga Center

Bruzzone, who favored the latter route which would have bent northwards west of the Old Moraga Town Site and connected with St Mary’s Road north of what today is the Moraga Center (ie Safeway), embarked on a plan to develop the Moraga Center as a shopping stop for drivers heading from Oakland to Walnut Creek and beyond. After Cal Trans lost interest in Route 77 Moraga incorporated as the Town of Moraga in 1974 in order to shift power over this remnant of the Rancho Laguna de los Palos Colorados land grant away from major landowners into the hands of residents.

When you embark on the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour, be aware that you are traversing a frozen time between the turbulent period when Joaquin Moraga and his descendants controlled all of Moraga as they gradually lost control to Horace Carpentier, and the 1974 incorporation of Moraga when its destiny shifted to the collective will of its residents.

Walking Tour Old Town Site - Moraga Center

Created by Susan Skilton and John Kaiser