Early Development in Moraga from 1914-1964

Edited by Susan Sperry

Under the supervision of James Irvine, California’s most powerful entrepreneur, the Moraga Company was the first to develop parts of the Rancho Laguna de Los Palos Colorados (the Rancho) into agriculture commercial centers and residential subdivisions. Land not under cultivation was marked for real estate through the sale of property to developers and subdividers by the company. In 1912 Robert Burgess became Irvine’s selling agent for 500 acres that had been set aside for a townsite to be known as “Moraga”. When the Oakland, Antioch and Eastern Railway was completed in 1913, development became a possibility, and thus began the first real estate venture!

Frank Draeger Surveying

Plans were drawn up to carve part of the Rancho into 200 lots but only one was sold. The project failed! Burgess then began to draw up the Rancho into lots. In 1914, he proposed a 400-acre subdivision on what is now the eastern portion of St. Mary’ College, calling it Moraga Country Club. This project failed! Valle Vista became a reality in 1914, only to be bought by the East Bay Water Company in 1923 to construct the San Leandro Reservoir.

Irvine’s next project was initiated in 1914 and turned the “old timers” section of Moraga into ranchettes, now known as Orchard Dell. A large parcel southeast of Camino Pablo owned by Charles Hooper was sold to John Metzler Carr for his son Alfred J. Carr and his son-in-law, Frank G. Sanders. In 1914, Irvine moved the ranch operations from Burton Valley to the Morage Townsite to create a commercial center to supply the physical and social needs of the Portuguese sharecroppers and farm owners. The Moraga Hotel had been built to draw attention to the Moraga Company’s Rancho subdivisions and the area.

In 1923 Irvine paved the Bryant-Martinez Highway (now Country Club Drive) to make the area more accessible to potential buyers. To enhance the image of Moraga, and make it look like a well-established-community, Irvine offered 100-acre parcels of land to St. Mary’s and Holy Names colleges.

In 1928 another master plan was developed with bridle and bicycle trails, major boulevards, home sites, shopping centers and a golf course, even an airstrip. The stock market crash in 1929 and the Depression halted this plan!

In 1936 fifteen tracts were developed in Orinda, ten in Moraga and one in Canyon. After World War II, the Moraga Company went back to selling its land to developers. Next, Irvine tried to promote the idea of the United Nations headquarters in Moraga-Lafayette, only to have John D. Rockefeller fund the purchase of 6 blocks in New York City! The opening of the Caldecott Tunnel in 1937 promoted more movement through the tunnel to Orinda and Moraga.

During 1945-1947 Irvine continued to sell chunks of the Rancho lands to individual developers. In 1947 James Irvine died while on a fishing trip in Montana, and the Moraga Company presidency was turned over to Senator Breed and the original directors. Initially Donald Rheem had a deal to purchase the Moraga Company but it fell through when a shareholder refused to transfer his shares. Through the persistent work of realtor Ed Wallace a new buyer was found and on December 21, 1953 the company was sold to Utah Construction and Mining Company.

In 1949 Donald Rheem had developed his first residential development known as Rheem Highlands on Rheem Blvd on property he had purchased in 1936, followed by thirteen more subdivisions from 1955 to 1961. A theater was constructed in 1957, and 1964 saw the construction of the Rheem Center.
Utah Construction and Mining Company continued to subdivide the Rancho lands. In 1964 Transamerica purchased a parcel of land from Utah and constructed Miramonte Gardens.

In the early 1960’s Utah decided to reroute roads in the Moraga Townsite area to accommodate a regional shopping center. Frank Draeger’s firm drew up plans rerouting Moraga Road to provide additional level land for the Moraga Center. Utah applied to the County to rezone the area for retail business and the Board of Supervisors agreed to the rezoning. When rezoning of several parcels in the area was complete and construction had begun in 1962, Utah decided not to develop the center and sold the 108-acre Moraga Center to Russell J. Bruzzone in 1964.

1914 Old Moraga Town Site as it looked in 1971

The Moraga Historical Society has created an Old Moraga Town Site Walking Tour which includes stops at key surviving sites from the original 1914 Moraga Town plan.