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East Bay’s Most Scenic Road Turns 75

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday August 21, 2007

San Francisco shimmers in the distance, across from mountainous Marin. Tiny cars crawl across the Bay Bridge, Berkeley’s biggest buildings are toy-sized at the foot of the hills, and on a clear, fogless day there’s sometimes a glimpse of the Farallon Islands through the Golden Gate. 

Couples snuggle romantically in cars parked in dusty turnouts, facing the view. Locals point out the distant sights to newcomers, while motorcycles growl, sports cars zip, and bicyclists strain along the winding road behind them.  

A drive to Grizzly Peak Boulevard for the views is one of those short local excursions that we take for granted—like a springtime visit to the Berkeley Rose Garden, a fresh pastry at the Cheese Board, or a stroll on the Berkeley Pier. 

Once upon a time, however, ascending the ridge above Strawberry Canyon to see the views took several hours, a pair of good legs, and some vigorous hiking. It was only in 1932 that things changed.  

“A dream cherished by Berkeleyans for many years will come true tomorrow,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported Saturday, Aug. 20, 1932. Three miles of public roadway running north from Fish Ranch Road to today’s intersection of Grizzly Peak and Centennial Drive were to open. 

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 21, 1932—exactly 75 years ago today—the “gates to the road” were flung wide and cars streamed along its length from both north and south, clotting together for a formal 2 p.m. dedication ceremony. 

“At the spot where the new boulevard passes just below the summit of Grizzly Peak, almost 1,800 feet about the level of San Francisco Bay, the vista of the East Bay Cities, rising up from the shores of the blue bay, provided an inspiring sight which attracted hundreds of automobile parties,” the Gazette reported. 

“From this vantage point yesterday afternoon, one could look directly out the Golden Gate with the dull purple of the Marin hills to the right and the shadowy pinnacles of San Francisco to the left—panorama of matchless beauty unequalled any place else in the world.” 

Credit for the road project was given to County Supervisor Redmond Staats, who had, the Berkeley Gazette reported, conceived the project and championed it through nearly a decade of planning, engineering, and funding decisions. 

The road was planned after the 1923 Berkeley Fire as a barrier against, and a way to reach and fight, wildfires before they could sweep down the hills into built-up districts. 

It also added a tourist attraction to Berkeley. By 1932, despite the Depression, automobile touring was popular. Millions of American households had acquired cars (“machines” in contemporary parlance) and street, highway, and bridge improvements were the order of the day.  

The “Sunday Drive”—a leisurely excursion after church to nowhere in particular—was coming into vogue, as was weekend tripping into the countryside, jaunting about town and even commuting by car. Berkeley was no exception. The completion of the crucial stretch of Grizzly Peak was just one of the local improvements under way.  

Down on the waterfront, then befouled by sewage outflow, plans were being made for an Eastshore highway that would allow drivers to bypass the congestion along San Pablo Avenue. The Bay Bridge was almost literally on the horizon; construction would begin in 1933. 

As they gathered at the crest of the hills, and lauded the completion of the Grizzly Peak route, local officials took particular note of its value in a car-oriented age. 

“The road brings to us one of the most beautiful scenic drives to be found any place in the world which will be enjoyed in the years to come, not only by the residents of Berkeley and the Bay Area, but also by thousands of tourists who will be driven over this boulevard by their friends,” said Charles C. Adams, managing director of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. 

A “car equipped with a loud speaker” and loaned by the Howard Automobile Company was positioned near the ceremony to broadcast the proceedings to the estimated 2,000 attendees. 

Berkeley Mayor Thomas C. Caldecott praised the road as “a dream which Berkeleyans have long looked forward to seeing accomplished.”  

Oakland’s Mayor Fred Morcom—through whose municipality the new road actually ran—then took the podium to proclaim it a “wonderful scenic highway” and publicly wishes for the day when there would be “unification of the entire East Bay, from Richmond to Hayward, into a single city,” a prospect which might have made much of his Berkeley-centric audience squirm with discomfort. 

The formal opening came with a snip of a ceremonial ribbon, scissors wielded by six-year old Patricia Connolly, daughter of the president of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.  

The road thus thrown open to traffic was not quite the Grizzly Peak of today. The 25-foot-wide surface was graveled, not paved, and still bereft of finished shoulders, railings, and signage. Tilden Park did not exist to the east. No university developments climbed higher than the Botanical Garden, and no Centennial Drive snaked through Strawberry Canyon to the summit.  

The university had not yet purchased the hillside “Wilson Tract” where much of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory would later be built. Residential subdivisions did not densely crowd the ridge lines north of campus and south of Claremont Canyon. 

Today, Grizzly Peak’s two lanes of asphalt accommodate not only automobile excursionists but motorcycle riders who gather at the vista points, recreational bicyclists and, increasingly, work commuters shortcutting more congested routes at lower elevations. Some commuters to the university’s Space Sciences laboratory even use the shoulders for parking during part of the year. 

Not all the cars stay on the shoulder. Tom Klatt, who manages a number of university projects in the Strawberry Canyon area, says that over the past several years he’s arranged to have 34 vehicles that came down from the road hauled out of the steep ravines of Strawberry and Claremont canyons. One area dubbed “parking lot gulch” yielded no less than eight old wrecks.  

Some tumbles are caused by crashes. Others, Klatt says, are pushed over the edge by joyriders and thieves. That practice has slowed since large logs, from eucalyptus clearance operations, were placed along the shoulders. 

Grizzly Peak remains a popular spot for sightseeing. Local historian Paul Grunland points out that with private development over the years, homes and trees have come to block once-public views from most other points along the ridgeline. 

Klatt adds that recent eucalyptus thinning operations, primarily carried out to reduce wildfire risk, have also opened up the Grizzly Peak views. Outdoors writer Tom Stienstra noted last December in the San Francisco Chronicle that Grizzly Peak was one of the “five best photo spots” of the Bay Area. 

“The sunsets, views and photo shots available from several turnouts on Grizzly Peak Boulevard can stun even longtime residents of the East Bay who have never taken the time to chase this one down,” he wrote. “This is one of the best spots close to an urban area to take in a sunset anywhere.” 

Most of those enjoying the photo and view opportunities today probably have no idea of the third justification for building the road: providing work for hundreds of Alameda County unemployed men, as the Depression deepened. 

The work crews, the newspapers reported, were divided into teams of “blue collar” unemployed who constructed the road and “white collar” jobless who did the finishing work.  

This fairly substantial project took place before Franklin Roosevelt’s election, and well before any of his New Deal programs that provided public works funding. In fact, as the road opened, Herbert Hoover was beginning his formal re-election campaign by telling the Republican National Convention that cutting taxes, not public spending, was the proper approach to economic ills. 

Many locals were in sympathy. Two days before praising the opening of the road, the Berkeley Gazette had editorialized that federal relief should be “a minor function of the federal government, and even a doubtful one,” and local communities should provide for their own.  

There’s a postscript to the grand opening. A few days later, the Gazette reported, “Berkeley’s new scenic boulevard … has been padlocked for being none too dry.”  

County Surveyor George Wilhelm had decided that “there are still quite a few finishing touches to be made, such as the building of shoulders and the installing of safety posts and fences … in places the road is being kept wet for several days in order to make the wide gravel highway solid.” Wilhelm soon relented, however, and the road was closed only at night. 

Perhaps the opening had been intentionally premature. Supervisor Staats was running for Congress, and the public lauding he received as visionary promoter of the new road was good publicity just before the primary election. The Berkeley Gazette—which endorsed Staats early and often—ran a front page photo of him below the headline “Dream Realized” on the day of the opening. 

It was a heated contest—with murky allegations of separate political scandals involving Staats and a candidate for his supervisorial seat—and less than two weeks after the road dedication, Staats was bested by a margin of only a few votes in the Republican primary.  

Back then, the Republican nomination for Congress was tantamount to election in a one-party town like Berkeley, just as the same is true for Democratic candidates today. Ralph Eltse took not only the primary from Staats but also the general election, despite the national Roosevelt landslide. 

Staats does not seem to have held elective office after his defeat, and today seems largely forgotten in the East Bay. Others who helped bring about the road—or who at least were prominent dignitaries at the opening—are better remembered.  

The name of former Berkeley Mayor Thomas Caldecott (who was elected supervisor to replace Staats) adorns the highway tunnel through the Berkeley Hills. Oakland Mayor Fred Morcom, who had also been in that 1932 Congressional primary scrum and placed fourth, behind Eltse and Staats, is remembered by Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden.  

Even County Surveyor George Posey, who had managed the technical planning of the road, has his name on the Posey Tube, the underwater traffic tunnel from Oakland to Alameda. But Posey never lived to see Grizzly Peak Boulevard’s dedication. He died—an apparent suicide—a few weeks before the opening, as his office came under scrutiny for possible connections to a real estate scam.  


How To Get There: 

Grizzly Peak Boulevard above the UC campus can be reached from the south via the road up Claremont Canyon north (left) of the Claremont Hotel. Ascend the canyon and turn left at the four way summit intersection.  

From the UC campus, head up Centennial Drive behind Memorial Stadium to the top of the ridge above the Lawrence Hall of Science, and turn right.  

Spruce Street and Euclid Avenue in North Berkeley climb to Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Turn right and go south through the residential neighborhoods to reach the vista road. 

There are several dirt turnouts / viewpoints along Grizzly Peak. Take care with the blind curves, fast traffic, and steep shoulders along the road, and share the lanes with bicyclists.