Dig into Bay Farm’s oyster farms before April’s tours
Many associate the beginnings of Bay Farm Island with Ron Cowan and the development that we know today. In fact, the Ohlone arrived here thousands of years ago to discover a marsh surrounding a small island. They named the place “Wind Whistle Island” and used the dry land as a base to harvest tule reeds, willow branches, fowl, eggs, and oysters. They were not settlers but hunter-gatherers who tilled the soil very little, if at all.
The Spanish invade
The Spanish arrived in the 1770s. They traveled through what is now Alameda County three times—the last time in 1776. They had come to stay. They used horses, an animal the Ohlone had never domesticated, to frighten and round up the native population. In 1797, the Spanish built Mission San Jose, which they used as a place to force the Ohlone into a “Christian” way of life. The Spanish stole the land, and by 1805 they mistakenly thought they had all the Ohlone under their yoke.
As far as the Spanish were concerned, the lands they had taken from the Ohlone did not include Bay Farm Island. The maps that defined first Don Luis Maria Peralta’s 1820 land grant, and later the land he gifted to his son Antonio Maria Peralta, made very clear that the Spanish were ignoring the place that had already been known for thousands of years as “Wind Whistle Island.”
Chipman and Aughinbaugh purchase Alameda
The land that Alameda founders William Worthington Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh purchased from Peralta in 1851 did not include today’s Bay Farm Island. Alameda County made Bay Farm Island part of Alameda Township on October 2, 1854. This marks the first time “the place referred to as the Bay Farm” appeared in an official document.
That same year, Chipman and Aughinbaugh built a bridge that connected Bay Farm to their Town of Alameda. Bay Farm had little significance in their plans, however. They were more interested in taking travelers south across the marshland and sloughs toward San Leandro and, they hoped, on to Stockton, the gateway to the southern gold mines centered at Mariposa.
Settlers continue to arrive
Powell E. McDonell, Benajah Benedict, William S. Lea, and Asaph Cleveland squatted on what became known as “The Uplands.” As far as they were concerned, the land was theirs for the taking. Henry Bowman joined them, and Captain Niels Anderson built a wharf on the Town of Alameda’s side of Chipman and Aughinbaugh’s bridge. He transported people and goods around San Francisco Bay in his boats Bonita, Caroline, and Jenny Gray. Anderson’s wharf played a role in drawing more attention to “the place referred to as the Bay Farm.”
Daniel Swett arrived, 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 across San Leandro Bay on “The Mainland” were Alameda, Encinal, and Woodstock, incorporated as the “Town of Alameda.” This incorporation also included Bay Farm.
We know from the new town’s assessment records that the original squatters – Benedict, Cleveland, and McDonell – each “owned” 60 acres; Bowman owned about 20 acres and Lea’s widow, Hannah, owned 15 acres. The Lea property was at the western tip of the upland island, followed to the southeast by the Benedict and McDonell farms. Cleveland’s farm stood on the island’s northeast corner, Bowman’s on the southeast corner.
With the 1870s came four key developments:
- The first major reclamation of the marshland.
- Introduction of commercial oyster farming.
- Construction of a permanent bridge to San Leandro.
- 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 “seen the elephant,” but had 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 acres on Bay Farm Island at $1 an acre. He then hired about a hundred Chinese laborers to build the drainage ditches that transformed marshland to farmland.
Mecartney lived there with his wife, Dolly. They raised five daughters on Bay Farm Island: Pearl, Meda, Myrtle, Mignon, and Leta. In 1874, when Mecartney learned that the old Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco was about to be razed, he arranged to purchase all of the building’s undamaged wood and have it delivered to his Bay Farm property using Anderson’s packet boat, 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 a whopping $25,000 (several million dollars in today’s money).
Oyster farms spring to life
Oystermen began establishing oyster beds in the 1870s. The Mulford Company beds extended from Bay Farm Island’s south shore to the area where Oakland International Airport sits today. 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. Eventually, pollution from Standard Oil’s operations on the West End, and later from the 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. Though they had different last names, George Anderson and Thomas Miranda were brothers. They were Portuguese emigrants from the Azores, and George had decided to take the last name of the captain of the ship on which they sailed to America. The brothers were the first of a growing community of Portuguese immigrants who farmed on Bay Farm Island. By the 1890s, the list included the Duarte, Flores, de Souza, and Silva families.
In 1874, Hannah Lea opened a restaurant and saloon called “The Beach House” on her 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. Two years later, the Salt Lake Railroad Company wanted to establish a transcontinental railroad terminus on Bay Farm Island, but the Mecartney family reportedly refused the company’s offer of $90,000 for 600 acres.
Bay Farm gets a school and a new bridge
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 trustees accepted Mecartney’s proposition, and construction began in December on a one-room schoolhouse on the northern end of the uplands. The school opened in February 1883, but dwindling enrollment forced closure seven or eight years later.
The year 1902 saw the replacement of the old timber bridge. By then most of the pioneer settlers had died or moved away. Italian farmers moved in and joined the Portuguese who by this time included Mike Silva, Thomas de Souza, Manuel and Joseph Miranda, and the Duarte brothers. The Italian newcomers included Thomas and Vittorio Lagoria, Giacomo and Domenico Lavagetto, Domingo Parodi, Carlo Cotella, Antonio Ferro, and Antone, Andrew, and Joe Ratto.
The Stone brothers
While these families were farming the Uplands, the Stone brothers – Edgar and Albert – formed the E.B. & A.L. Stone Company, a precursor to future developers. They purchased and brought under cultivation the tract that is now home to the golf course at Corica Park, and did much to prevent the frequent flooding that occurred there.
By 1920 the Stone brothers owned more than 1,000 of Bay Farm’s 1,600 acres of marshland. Amos Mecartney’s family owned the rest. In 1914, Dollie Mecartney, whose husband Amos had passed, sold all but 10 acres of the family’s holdings to A. M Parsons. Four years later, Parsons sold the land to the Alameda City Land Company. The company planned to build a 300-acre subdivision called “Alameda Acres” on reclaimed marshland north of the uplands. Around 1930, the company placed seven surplus destroyers to act as a bulkhead along the deteriorating dike that Amos Mecartney had built. On April 20, 1932, fire destroyed the Mecartney mansion.
Farmers move away
One by one, the farming families left. By the summer of 1972, only 42 acres remained of the once vast farmland – 16 acres owned by the Silva family and 26 acres owned by the Ratto family. Ben Ratto, known as “Benny” to his friends, also said he was set to sell. He had come from Alpicella, Italy, in 1930 at the age of 10. In 1936, when his father died, he dropped out of Alameda High School to take over the Ratto farm on the old Lea property at the western tip of the upland. Ben’s Uncle Giacomo had come to Bay Farm Island after World War I, after serving in the Italian army.
On July 3, 1980, a San Francisco Examiner article reported that Ben was still farming four acres of land. His crops varied with demand. In the 1980s they included collards, mustard greens, spinach, beets, and lettuce. He remembered focusing on celery, potatoes, and carrots in the 1930s and radishes and greens in the ’40s and ’50s.
“There were nine farms on 220 acres when I started in the 1930,” Ben told the Examiner. “A few houses were built in 1923 over on Maitland and Garden roads,” he said. “Maybe 500 people lived here (then) at the most.” He and his wife, Teresa, had lived on Garden Road since 1952. They were still living there when he spoke to the Examiner. He remembered the plots of land he farmed over the years, including 17 acres off Maitland Road that he had recently lost to developers.
“I’ve been saying this is the last year for the last three or four years,” Ratto said.
The Ratto farm was demolished in 1986. By then Ron Cowan was busy transforming Bay Farm into the development we know today as Harbor Bay Isle.