First Person: Walking Through History at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery

By Ruby Long
Tuesday August 21, 2007

One of my favorite places in the East Bay is Mountain View Cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. There you find a great expanse of open space with wide, curving streets and mature trees, beautiful landscapes, a variety of wildlife, and historical artifacts. 

Tombstones, some of which date to the 1860s, of all sizes, shapes and designs, inscribed with names and languages that reflect Oakland’s international heritage, are scattered throughout the grounds. Family crypts of the Crockers, Merritts, F. “Borax” Smith, and other Oakland families prominent at the turn of the 20th century and in California history dominate the upper reaches and form “Millionaire’s Row.” One familiar San Francisco name—Ghirardelli—is there, too. The view of San Francisco from those tombs on a clear day is spectacular. 

Among the graves at the foot of “Millionaire’s Row” is that of Julia Morgan, famed architect of the early part of the twentieth century. Her grave is humbly tucked into a family plot. You’ll have to search for her name among a number of others on a large stone. A more fitting memorial to her lies just outside the cemetery gates—Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum, a beautiful building she designed to hold ashes of people who have been cremated. 

One section of Mountain View, distinguished by cannon balls, is set aside for Civil War Veterans and another, with a near-full-sized bronze elk standing guard, for members of the Elks Lodge. A section for Jewish graves is on one side of the main road. Another, newer area, has predominately Southeast Asian names on the stones. 

But this place serves the community as more than a site for the graves and memorials. In every kind of weather, runners can be seen using the streets to get their daily miles in. It is not unusual to see young mothers from the neighborhood pushing their children in strollers on Mountain View’s streets or sidewalks, or bicycle riders. Birders come here to see a wide variety of species. In winter, especially, migrants stop over, and some ducks spend their winter on the three ponds formed by Cemetery Creek that originates higher up, in the hills. Domestic ducks are year round residents, as well as turtles.  

In addition to being of interest because of its historical and recreational benefits to the community, Mountain View Cemetery took on another historic role in 1991 when it acted as a firebreak in the Oakland hills firestorm. People from the neighborhood stood at the cemetery gates, their hearts in their throats, and watched the flames approach as they worried whether their homes would be destroyed. But the wide expanses of open land at the cemetery and at the adjoining Claremont Country Club, plus turning the sprinklers on at both places, was enough to turn the fire away.  

This is an interesting, beautiful part of Oakland. Open to the public all day, every day, it is well worth a visit. Docent led tours are available at Mountain View. Call them for days and times. Both Mountain View and Chapel of the Chimes can be reached by taking the No. 51 AC Transit bus and walking from Broadway and 51st or transferring to No. 12 AC Transit bus and exiting at the first stop on Piedmont Ave. You can get the No. 12 from MacArthur BART station, too.