Excerpted from MHS Newsletter 2023 Q1

The Forgotten Redwoods of Moraga (Susan Sperry)

Adapted from ”Moraga Before 1900: A Community’s History” by Donald D. Walker

Two miles west of the Moraga Shopping Center is the Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, where once stood a forest of as many as 2000 enormous, ancient, Coast redwood trees (Sequoia Sempervirens). The second-growth trees found there today are the only reminders of what was once the site of a thriving lumber industry! The original forest covered an irregularly shaped tract about three and a half miles long by two miles wide, extending across the top of the Oakland hills from Diamond Canyon on the western slope to San Leandro Reservoir on the eastern side. Known as the San Antonio redwoods, trees in this grove were as large as any on the Pacific Coast, some measuring as much as thirty-two feet in diameter and three hundred feet tall. The towering trees were grouped in three separate groves: the San Antonio Redwoods along the top and western slopes of the hills; the Middle Redwood in the canyon formed by Redwood Creek; and the Moraga Redwoods, further north in the canyon of the upper San Leandro Creek. As quoted from Sherwood Burgess’s “The Forgotten Redwood of the East Bay” California Historical Society Quarterly(March 1951), “They were known as the “Blossoms Rock Trees” because they were used to lay a sailing course that would avoid an underwater rock hazard between Alcatraz and Yerba Buena Island.” A narrow strip on the east side between San Leandro Creek and the ridge to the southwest was part of the Rancho Laguna de Los Palos Colorados (Palos Colorados named by Padre Juan Crespi in 1772). Timbers from this forest were apparently used in building Mission San Jose since the grant to Moraga and Bernal stipulated that the mission was to have continued use of the redwoods.

Logging began in a small way about 1840 when a couple of British sailors jumped ship and cut timber to sell to John Sutter in the Sacramento Valley. About the same time two French carpenters, also deserters, cut planks and sent them to the tiny town of Yerba Buena (San Francisco). Activity increased when American immigrants began to arrive in 1848, among them Elam Brown, founder of Lafayette. Brown, Jacob Harlan and Richard Swift spent a month splitting fifteen thousand shingles from a single tree to sell in San Francisco for five dollars per thousand. Before 1848 lumbering was the only industry in the East Bay. Then, with the growth of San Francisco during the Gold Rush, there was an overwhelming demand for lumber. Prices skyrocketed from $30 per 100 board feet to $350 and finally $600 per thousand. Many of our present-day road patterns were formed by early logging operations.

By 1850, as the lure to the gold fields diminished, activity resumed in the redwoods. That year, William Taylor and James Owen built the first steam powered mill in the Moraga woods, ignoring the fact that they were on private property, probably on present day Pinehurst Road near the Canyon School. Most of the lumber was hauled to the town of Martinez, via Lafayette, for shipment but by 1852 much of it was going to the farmers and ranchers who were settling in the eastern valleys. Lafayette at this time became an important commercial center.

The most important mill in the area was that of William and Thomas Prince, from Ohio, located in the heart of the valley that is now Redwood Regional Park. The 1852 Census of Contra Costa County showed William Prince, aged 32, as a sawmill owner, with 30 lumbermen, laborers, and teamsters as well as a cook and engineer. The redwood lumberjacks, as many as 300-400, were rough, violent, and lawless. They gambled, drank, caroused, brawled, stabbed, and stole. In Oakland they were known as “that notorious mob element from the redwoods”. There are rumors of murder, lynching and cattle rustling. When things got too far out of hand the more law-abiding citizens formed vigilante committees and rendered “severe punishment including hanging”. During the heyday of lumbering on the Moraga grant, several hundred lumberjacks lived in the canyon. Of the three precincts in the county set up to ratify the state constitution in 1849, Moraga Redwoods outstripped the other polling places with 61 votes! Hiram Thorn and William Hamilton built a $20,000 mill in late 1852 on 330 acres of land claimed by Joaquin Moraga as part of his land grant. In February 1853 Elam Brown of Lafayette purchased the tract from Moraga and ordered the mill owners off his property. Thorn and Hamilton contended that Moraga’s claim had yet to be recognized by the U.S. courts and was therefore public land. They finally came to terms with Brown and agreed to give him $60 in lumber each month and purchase the land ifthe Moraga claim was approved. When the redwoods were gone, the mill operators moved on and Brown kept the land and lumber. By 1860, the Moraga redwoods were decimated, and the once great trees were reduced to “decaying” stumps. Not a single tree was saved, not even the two giants which guided the sailing vessels across the harbor waters!

Who was Elam Brown? (Susan Skilton)

Elam Brown was born in 1797 in Herkimer County, in Northern New York. He was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth (Lyons) Brown, who married in 1791 in Worcester County, Massachusetts, and who started Elam on a life of migration by taking him to Massachusetts and then to Ohio in his childhood. Elam Brown moved quickly around the country, marrying his first wife, Sally Allen, on 9 January 1823 in Greene County, Illinois. He was the captain of an overland company that traveled to California in 1848. His wife having died several years earlier, he brought his children to Santa Clara County, where he became involved in politics. He acquired land, including the Acalanes Rancho in Lafayette, and married a second time to Margaret, the widow of Isaac Allen. Known as the founder of Lafayette, Elam Brown died at the age of 92 years on 13 August 1889 in Lafayette and is buried in Alhambra Cemetery in Martinez.


Was the Bay Area once blanketed with redwoods? (John Kaiser)

As somebody who has lived in Moraga for three decades I am used to seeing redwood trees everywhere. I assumed this was their natural habitat and with the help of tolerant residents redwoods were reclaiming the land after intensive logging during the 1800s wiped out the old growth forest ringing San Francisco Bay. Unfettered regrowth when allowed is what I see when I drive along Pinehurst Road through Canyon or hike in Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park. While researching the Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour I was struck by the barrenness of present-day Moraga’s hills in old photos as late as 1960. Why did the trees rebound in Canyon but not Moraga where residential development did not start until the 1950’s? Decaying stumps generate new growth and the huge diameter of these stumps made it impractical to remove them. Further research drawing on organizations such as Save the Redwoods League revealed that redwoods thrive in only a few parts of the Bay Area, and the area straddling the Oakland Hills was the biggest and only part if you ignore Marin and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The 1881 compilation map by Special Agent C.S. Sargent, which records what was logged and still standing, reveals the limited extent of old growth redwoods before lumbering decimated them.

The SRL map shows the historic range of redwoods, protected second growth forest, and where 5% remains as old growth. In the Bay Area old growth is found only at John Muir Woods and Big Basin. Most of the Bay Area, including Moraga, never had redwood trees because these trees are water-thirsty and during the dry summer depend on sweeping water from the sky when fog rolls in at night. Redwoods thrive in Moraga only because the residents plant and irrigate them. The irony is that one day if climate change has driven away the fog, causing the second growth redwoods to fail in the Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park and adjacent Canyon, Moraga may be a place people visit to admire redwood trees.