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Waterway Created the Island City

It took from 1874 until 1902 to turn Alameda from a peninsula into an island.

On Sept. 15, 1902, Alameda began a three-day celebration to mark its new status as an Island City. The accomplishment marked the finish of a plan that the United States Army Corps of Engineers had put in place in 1874. The Corps began by surveying the land it planned to cut through to create the waterway.

In a story he wrote for the March 2019 Alameda Museum quarterly newsletter, historian Woody Minor described the property the Corps would carve through as “a treeless expanse bordered by marsh and traversed by Park Street and High Street, as well as train tracks at Fruitvale Avenue.”

Alameda Post - 1865 map
This mid-1860s version of a map that the United Coast Survey created in 1854 shows the land that became the Island City of Alameda. Alfred A. Cohen’s San Francisco and Alameda Railroad tracks cross the peninsula on the way to its wharf. Nearby, William Worthington Chipman and Gideon Aughinbaugh’s wharf pokes into San Francisco Bay on the site of today’s Encinal High school. Across the way, Hibbard’s wharf juts into a patch of deep water at the foot of Leviathan Street, today’s Grand Street. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map.

The first order of business was settling with the owners who would lose their property to the project. That took some six years and $40,000 to complete. Everyone was paid with the exception of the largest landowner, A. A. Cohen. He sued to stop construction but lost.

Finally, in 1888, some 14 years after the Corps of Engineers surveyed the land, Congress awarded an additional $40,000 to begin cutting through the earth. Alameda’s own Hermann Krusi won the contract, and his San Francisco Bridge Company turned the first “spade” of earth on Feb. 18, 1889.

Minor describes the scene: “A rail-mounted steam shovel broke ground at a point in a field of wild mustard near Fruitvale Avenue.”


Alameda’s Changing Shoreline

Saturday June 11 — Alameda becomes the Island City

Learn about the Oakland Estuary construction from 1874-1902, Brooklyn Basin, and the Tidal Canal over a two-and-a-half hour walking tour led by Dennis Evanosky. Meet at the Bridgeside Shopping Center at Broadway and Blanding Avenue at 10 a.m.
Tickets available

 
A dredge created a dam just west of modern-day Park Street Bridge to keep the Brooklyn Basin waters from flowing into the freshly cut canal. Krusi’s men cut into the soil deep enough to lay rail and bring in locomotives to pull the shovels that began digging westward toward Oakland. They finished cutting through the earth from Fruitvale Avenue to that dam in 1891. Now it was time for the bridges. The first to appear was the Park Street Bridge, which was scheduled to open to traffic on Dec. 7, 1891.

A worldwide financial crisis struck, and work stopped. The bridge did not open as scheduled. deepening financial crisis and the lack of political will then brought the work to a halt. Heavy rain also held up the project, flooding Krusi’s handiwork. Sewage flowed from both sides of the unfinished channel and created a noxious mess. Work finally resumed in 1899.

Alameda Post - Caroline Dixon at Park St Bridge
The scow schooner Caroline Dixon docks near the Park Street Bridge as it awaits the unloading of its cargo, wood for the match factory that once stood at today’s Oak Street and Blanding Avenue. Photo Edgar Cohen.

Although his company lost thousands of dollars, Krusi stepped up, and his company took on the second part of the project, which involved cutting through Brickyard Slough on the eastern end of the cut. The marshland gave way easily to the San Francisco Bridge Company’s huge shovels. Dredges help shaped the new waterway.

The second bridge was built to accommodate traffic on High Street. It was scheduled to open in 1901, but, like the Park Street Bridge, it ran into difficulties, and did not open. The Fruitvale Bridge opened to rail traffic in 1902.

Finally, contracts were awarded to complete the project. A dredge went to work shaping the west end of the channel, as the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Co. got busy cutting and trimming its way through to San Leandro Bay.

Krusi and his men used several temporary dams to coax water through the channel. At last, on Aug. 7, 1902, Alameda was a peninsula no longer. Water from the San Leandro Bay met the water that Krusi’s men were holding back, creating the Island City that we know today.

This called for a party, and for three days, from Sept. 13 to 15, Alameda celebrated with a water carnival. The fireworks lit the night sky as small boats lined up and made their way through Krusi’s creation.

Alameda Post - Gaskill & Vandercook 1888 map
This 1888 map by Gaskill and Vandercook shows the Oakland Harbor and the San Leandro Bay not yet connected. Map courtesy Alameda Museum.

The creation of the tidal canal was one chapter in our story. This waterway consists of three parts: the tidal canal described in this story, San Antonio Slough, and the Brooklyn Basin. A slough is a tidal creek as large as San Antonio Slough or as small as East Creek Slough in San Leandro Bay. Sloughs ebb and flow with tides and mingle with fresh-water creeks like Glen Echo, Pleasant Valley, Bushy Dell; Wildwood and Indian Gulch (Trestle Glen) creeks. These creeks feed and help form today’s Lake Merritt, which is part of San Antonio Slough.

Brooklyn Basin makes up the third element of today’s Oakland Estuary. The shallow catch basin captures the waters as they ebb and flow. This basin carries the name of the former Town of Brooklyn that once lined it northern shore. That town, in turn, bears the name of the Brooklyn, the ship that brought the Mormons into San Francisco Bay.

Alameda Post - Alameda's changing shoreline
Alameda’s changing shoreline. Diagram by Adam Gillitt.

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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July, 2022 – Alameda’s Innovative Streetcars​

Saturday July 9 — Alameda’s Horsecar Lines

Join Dennis Evanosky for an imaginary ride on two of Theodore Meetz's three horsecar lines and a visit to Fassking’s Hotel. Meet at Union Street and Santa Clara Avenue. at 10 a.m.
Tickets available
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