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Bay Farm Island History

Preview Bay Farm Island history before Saturday’s walking tour.

Alameda Post - Home on the edge of the marsh in Bay Farm
By 1920, developers Andrew and Edgar Stone owned more than 1,000 of Bay Farm’s 1,600 acres of marshland. They built homes on the edge of the marsh, including those depicted here, likely on Maitland Drive. Photo Alameda Museum.

At 10 a.m. on September 10, join me for a walk through the “East Side” of Bay Farm Island. We’ll meet at Godfrey Park and discuss the story behind the park and the move afoot to change its name. As we walk, I will share the history of Bay Farm Island—one that starts, as all local history does, with the Native American tribe, the Ohlone.

The days of the Ohlone

When the Ohlone gathered eggs on “Wind Whistle Island,” they were working on today’s Bay Farm Island. It wasn’t actually an island, but some 230 acres of upland surrounded by 1,600 acres of marsh. The Ohlone also harvested oysters and clams in the waters near the marsh. The area was so isolated that it went largely unnoticed by Don Luis Peralta. His son Antonio did include it in the deed when he sold the Bolsa de Encinal to W.W. Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh. On Oct. 2, 1854, Alameda County made Bay Farm Island part of Alameda Township. The official document included “the place referred to as the Bay Farm.” That same year Chipman and Aughinbaugh built a bridge from the Town of Alameda to Bay Farm.

Northern Europeans move in

The upland’s first Northern European settlers were squatters: Powell E. McDonell, Benjah Benedict, William S. Lea, and Asaph Cleveland. These men and their families farmed the land’s rich soil. They made their money primarily from asparagus and hops. Henry Bowman arrived in the 1860s.  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.

In 1872, the towns of Alameda, Encinal, and Woodstock incorporated into the City of Alameda. Other than taxing its residents, the new city did not include Bay Farm. Assessment records show that the original squatters—Benedict, Cleveland, and McDonell—each owned 60 acres; Bowman owned about 20 acres and Lea’s widow owned 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.

Gold rush brings new traffic to Bay Farm Island

With the 1870s came four key developments:

  • the first major reclamation of the marshland
  • the introduction of commercial oyster farming
  • the construction of a permanent bridge to San Leandro
  • the rebuilding of Chipman and Aughinbaugh’s road to San Leandro.

Reclamation began in 1872 when Amos Mecartney arrived. Mecartney enjoyed great success in the gold fields. 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 (some sources say Japanese) laborers to build the drainage ditches that transformed marshland to farmland.

In 1874, when Mecartney learned that the old Tivoli Opera House was about to be razed, he arranged to purchase all the building’s undamaged wood and have it delivered to Bay Farm aboard the 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 Mecartney $25,000. He lived here with his wife, Dolly. They raised five daughters Pearl, Meda, Myrtle, Mignon and Leta.

Oysters and pirates

Oystermen arrived in the 1870s. The Mulford Company beds extended from Bay Farm Island’s south shore to what is now 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 watches. During one of these patrol’s his boat, The Starlight, was swamped and washed up on Bay Farm Island. Unfortunately, pollution from Standard Oil’s operations on the West End and later from Oakland’s airport irreparably damaged the beds.

Other settlers in the 1870s included George Anderson, Adrian Hamlin, J.E. Ellis, Daniel Swett, Thomas Miranda, and John Titlow. Anderson and Miranda were brothers, Portuguese emigrants from the Azores. Rather than keeping the family name, Anderson 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. By the 1890s, the list included the Duarte, Flores, de Souza, and Silva families.

A school is born on Bay Farm

Mecartney offered to build a school on Bay Farm if the Alameda school trustees would provide a teacher. The trustees accepted his offer. In December 1882, construction began on a one-room school house on the northern end of the upland. The school opened the following February.

When a syndicate wanted to buy the entire island to create a new city, 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 - a sepia photo of the Ratto family
The Ratto family gathered for this photograph on their Bay Farm Island farm in about 1920. Italians, like the Rattos, were members of the third and final wave to arrive around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Photo courtesy the Ratto Family.

The Ratto Family moves to the island

Italian families began to cultivate Bay Farm in earnest at the beginning of the 20th century. The Italian newcomers included Thomas and Vittorio Lagorio; Giacomo and Domenico Lavagetto; Domingo Parodi; Carlo Cotella; Antonio Ferro; and Antone, Andrew, and Joe Ratto.

“The story of Ratto Bros. began in 1905 when Antone L. Ratto, son of Italian immigrants, started a vegetable business on Bay Farm Island near Oakland, where he delivered produce to customers from a horse-drawn cart,” the family shares on the Ratto Bros. website.

Antone and his wife Johanna were blessed with five sons who followed in their father’s footsteps to become farmers themselves. “It has been said that Antone and his sons were so skilled at farming that they could magically make the water run uphill to irrigate their crops,” the Ratto Bros. website states.

While these families were farming the uplands, the Stone brothers—Edgar and Albert—purchased the marshland that later became Corica Park. Their work prevented the frequent flooding that once occurred there. By 1920 the brothers owned more than 1,000 of Bay Farm’s 1,600 acres of marshland. A.M. Parsons owned most of the remaining property. Dollie Mecartney had sold all but 10 acres to Parsons. Bay Farm had become fruit, ripe for the developers to pick.

Dennis Evanosky is an award-winning East Bay historian and the Editor of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Dennis-Evanosky.

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