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Bay Farm Island, B. C. – Before Cowan

While this week’s story focuses on Bay Farm Island of the 19th century, we will come across a pair of very intriguing 20th century intrusions, an airport that thrived in the Roaring ’20s until the larger Oakland Airport took its place, and a string of World War I destroyers placed in the late 1930s which created a breakwater that did its job until the mid-1960s.

Alameda Post - 1920s map of Bay Farm Island airport
In his book Aviation in Northern California, Alan Herr relates that Pilot W. A. “Sandy” Sanders made a forced landing on Bay Farm Island in 1920. He was so impressed with the firmness of the ground that he brought his airplanes there and used “an existing abandoned building” las his headquarters. We’ll explore the area and see if we can determine what that abandoned building could have been. I have a theory, but I won’t tell you now… Map from Alan Herr’s book, An Airport on Bayfarm.

Not a trace of the airport or the destroyers remain but we will see first-hand where they were. But let’s go back to the beginning of Bay Farm’s story through the late 19th century.

Wind Whistle Island stolen and given to Peralta

Native Americans called Bay Farm Island “Wind Whistle Island,” an isolated spot that originally held some 1,600 acres of marshland and 230 acres of upland. They took advantage of the large flocks of birds that nested there, harvesting the eggs. They also used the upland as a place to berth their boats as they harvested oysters in San Francisco Bay.



These uplands and marsh were a part of land grant that the Spanish government gave to Don Luis Maria Peralta. The Spanish simply stole the land from the people who had lived there for thousands of years. Don Luis gave this land to his son Antonio. The Spanish largely ignored Wind Whistle Island, and Antonio Peralta did not include these acres in the sale to W.W. Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh. In fact, maps of Antonio’s lands do not show Bay Farm Island.

Bay Farm’s first Northern European settlers were squatters. Like the Spanish, they simply helped themselves. These included Powell E. McDonell, Benjah Benedict, William S. Lea and Asaph Cleveland. McDonell may have been Bay Farm’s first settler. Benedict, Cleveland and McDonell were professional farmers. Cleveland and Benedict hailed from Vermont

The Alameda Post invites you to explore Bay Farm Island with me in a series of walking tours and an accompanying PowerPoint presentation. The first tour of the series will be about Bay Farm Island of the 19th Century, we will explore the area that was known as “Wind Whistle Island.” We’ll learn about the early days of oyster farmers before Amos Mecartney created arable land from the marsh. We’ll see how destroyers were sunk and where the airport stood before the Oakland airport took over, and much more along the way. The tour will be held twice, on Saturday March 18 and Sunday March 19. Each day we meet at 10.a.m. at Tillman Park. Tickets are $20 per person, and a limited number may be available at the start of each tour. Purchase advance tickets for Saturday March 18 or Sunday March 19 online now.

Bay Farm becomes part of Alameda

Alameda County made Bay Farm Island part of Alameda Township on October 2, 1854. This marks the first time the place name Bay Farm appears in a document as “the place referred to as the Bay Farm. From the start asparagus was the major cash crop. An 1875 advertisement for the sale of reclaimed marshland mentioned asparagus (and nothing else).

In 1854 W.W. Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh built a bridge to Bay Farm, as well as a roadway across the marshland and sloughs toward San Leandro, the Alameda County seat at the time.

Henry Bowman arrived in the 1860s. We know little about him other than he moved to El Dorado County in 1878; in 1882 he sold his Bay Farm property to Benedict. We do know that Captain Anderson operated three boats: the Bonita, Caroline and Jenny Gray. Daniel Swett purchased 10 acres of upland from Benedict and built a home for himself and his wife, Sarah.

He listed himself as a “capitalist” in the city directories. We know from the first assessment records in 1872 that the original squatters Benedict, Cleveland and McDonell each owned 60 acres; Bowman, about 20 acres and Lea’s widow, 15 acres. The Lea property was at the western tip of the upland island, followed by the Benedict and McDonell farms. Cleveland’s farm stood on the island’s northeast corner and Bowman’s on the southeast corner.

Alameda Post - 1894 map of Bay Farm Island
In this 1894 map the marsh land dwarfs the Bay Farm uplands that appear as a white leaf. We will see on our tour how that leaf remains today. This helps us define how the Europeans shaped the landscape to suit their needs. Notice the oyster company and the names of the early settlers carved into the marsh and on the uplands. The railroad on the map began as a arrow-gauge train that carried passengers and freight to and from Santa Cruz. From the David Rumsey collection.

Reclamation leads to farming and connections

With the 1870s came four key developments for Bay Farm Island:

  1. The first major reclamation of the marshland,
  2. The introduction of commercial oyster farming,
  3. The construction of a permanent bridge to San Leandro, and
  4. The rebuilding of Chipman and Aughinbaugh’s road to San Leandro.

Reclamation of the marshland began in 1872 when Amos Mecartney arrived. Mecartney had not only had “seen the Elephant,” but made it a success. The gold miner, who joined both the California and British Columbia gold rushes brought his wealth to Alameda in 1872. He purchased 300 Bay Farm Island acres at $1 an acre. He then hired some 100 Chinese laborers to build the drainage ditches that transformed marshland to farmland. He lived here with his wife, Dolly. They raised five daughters on Bay Farm Island: Pearl, Meda, Myrtle, Mignon and Leta.

In 1874 when Amos learned that the old Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco was about to be razed, he arranged to purchase all the building’s undamaged wood and have it delivered to his Bay Farm property using Anderson’s packet, Bonita. He built a two-story home shaped like an octagon complete with a bell tower. It was said that the furnishings in the home cost Amos a whopping $25,000—several million dollars in today’s money.

Farming oysters

Oystermen began establishing oyster beds in the area in the 1870s. The Mulford Company beds extended from Bay Farm Island’s south shore to today’s Oakland International Airport. Oyster pirates plagued the enterprise until the state of California established “fish patrols.” Jack London took a job as a member of these patrols. His boat The Starlight was swamped and washed up on Bay Farm Island while he was patrolling the oyster beds. Pollution from Standard Oil’s operations on the West End and later from Oakland’s airport irreparably damaged the beds.

Among the other settlers in the 1870s were George Anderson, Adrian Hamlin, J.E. Ellis, Daniel Swett, Thomas Miranda and John Titlow. Strangely, despite the differing surnames, George Anderson and Thomas Miranda were brothers—Portuguese emigrants from the Azores. George decided to take the last name of captain of the ship they traveled on. The brothers were the first of a growing community of Portuguese who farmed here.

More amenities

In 1874 a restaurant and saloon called “The Beach House” opened on the Lea property on the western tip of the upland. The place became a popular resort and stayed open for about 10 years.

An 1890s syndicate wanted to buy the entire island to create a new city, but the Mecartney and Miranda families refused to sell. In 1892 the Salt Lake Railroad Company wanted to establish a transcontinental railroad terminus on Bay Farm Island. The Mecartney family reportedly refused the company’s offer of $90,000 for 600 acres.

Alameda Post - The Wilson School as depicted on an early postcard
The Wilson School depicted on an early postcard. Photo Alameda Museum

At first children on Bay Farm attended Wilson School on Van Buren Street in Alameda. They made the daily trip by wagon. In October 1882 Amos Mecartney offered to build a school on Bay Farm if the Alameda school trustees would provide a teacher. The offer was accepted, and construction began in December on a one-room schoolhouse on the northern end of the upland. The school opened in February 1883; dwindling enrollment forced closure seven or eight years later. When the 19th century melted into the 20th, most of the pioneer settlers had died or moved away.

Join us on our walking tours as we meet Amos Mecartney, explore where his house once stood, and talk about two things that would have very likely startled him and his family: airplanes and destroyers.

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Dennis-Evanosky.

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