Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Captain Thomas Offered City Land for a Park

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:49:00 PM
he Samuel Hume Castle at 2900 Buena Vista Way is located on the
            former site of Captain Thomas “Fort La Loma.”
Thos W. Tenney, 1971
he Samuel Hume Castle at 2900 Buena Vista Way is located on the former site of Captain Thomas “Fort La Loma.”
Richard Parks Thomas.
San Francisco Call, March 15, 1897
Richard Parks Thomas.
Captain Thomas’ estate, La Loma Park, in an 1891 bird’s-eye view
            map of Berkeley.
Captain Thomas’ estate, La Loma Park, in an 1891 bird’s-eye view map of Berkeley.
The eucalyptus trees surrounding the Maybeck Studio are descended
            from those planted by Captain Thomas.
House & Home, Dec. 1957
The eucalyptus trees surrounding the Maybeck Studio are descended from those planted by Captain Thomas.
Captain Thomas arranging a soap exhibit at the Mechanics’ Institute
San Francisco Call, Aug. 17, 1895
Captain Thomas arranging a soap exhibit at the Mechanics’ Institute Fair.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series on Captain R.P. Thomas and La Loma Park. 


Captain Richard Parks Thomas, whose Standard Soap Works was Berkeley’s largest factory, expanded into banking in 1886. Within two years, his California National Bank of San Francisco went into receivership, and one of its stockholders, John Chetwood, Jr., sued the three members of the bank’s executive committee, seeking to recover the bank’s losses from them. 

In December 1892, the plaintiff won a preliminary decision, but before a final judgment had been rendered, Chetwood settled with two of the defendants, who paid $27,500 to have the suit against them dismissed. Thomas was left as sole defendant, owing $139,419. 

Not one to hand over money quietly, Thomas took every measure to make himself judgment-proof. Naturally, he appealed the judgment, but this was only the first step. In July 1894, Thomas convened a meeting of the bank’s stockholders for the purpose of electing an agent to represent them. His own majority stock—1,020 shares out of a total of 2,000—helped elect railroad agent Thomas K. Stateler, who from then on became the person empowered to collect monies on behalf of the stockholders. 

In December 1894, Thomas filed a petition to be declared insolvent, having concealed his most liquid assets. “All of his assets are exempt from taxation,” the San Francisco Call reported. “They comprise five shares in the Standard Soap Company, $200 worth of personal property and a homestead in Berkeley valued at $10,000. Even this however, is encumbered by a mortgage for $7,516.80.” 

Two months later, Thomas was called before Judge Frick on an order of examination to show what property he had in his possession. Although most of his answers consisted of “I don’t know” and “I can’t remember,” it was finally revealed that his 9,500 shares of soap stock had been transferred to J.G. Pohle, one of his allies among the bank’s stockholders, in exchange for a mine in Colorado that proved worthless. Thomas claimed there was no money in the soap stock, although Standard Soap Co. had done $176,000 worth of business in one year. 

His bank stock was also hard to track down, but eventually it was discovered that Thomas had assigned his 1,020 shares to D.E. Dowling, his second-in-command at Standard Soap. Dowling, in turn, told the court that these shares were acquired by one D.F. Parker, who later turned out to be another Standard Soap employee. 

The enraged Chetwood next tried to go after Thomas’ 32-acre North Berkeley estate, La Loma Park, which he said was valued at $40,000. Thomas claimed that as a homestead, the estate was exempt. Chetwood also tried to oust Stateler and have a receiver appointed for the Standard Soap Company, which, so he claimed, Thomas was proposing to wreck in order to keep it from falling into the hands of his creditors. 

In July 1896, Thomas’ appeal finally reached the California Supreme Court and found receptive ears. The court concluded that since Chetwood’s lawsuit had been launched against the executive committee and not against its individual members, his compromise with two of the members was held to be tantamount to a withdrawal of the suit. 

The case was dismissed, and Chetwood next took a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court. That august body ruled in October 1898 that it had “no jurisdiction to review a decision of a state supreme court based entirely on grounds arising under the laws of the state.” The writ of error was dismissed. 

Fighting court cases for a decade did not diminish Captain Thomas’ civic spirit. He continued to attend reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic—a Union army veterans’ organization—traveling as far as Washington, D.C. Certain holidays were celebrated in grand style at La Loma Park. The San Francisco Call twice described these celebrations, and the accounts are worth quoting verbatim. On Sept. 10, 1896, the Call reported: 

Admission day was celebrated very quietly by the town people, but up on the hill, three-quarters of a mile back of Berkeley, Captain R. P. Thomas, the Soap King, kept up a continuous bombardment from daybreak to sunset with his two historic howitzers, stationed at his celebrated “Fort Thomas.” 

Down in the dense grove of eucalyptus trees, planted by his own hand, a short distance from the fort, the captain and his wife entertained between 300 and 400 visitors from San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley, who had come to show their love for the Golden West by feasting together and listening to the patriotic addresses. 

A musical and literary programme was rendered, and addresses in keeping with the occasion were delivered by Attorney George W. Haight, Charles Keeler and Rev. E. B. Payne. Tables were set under the trees and in a huge tent, and refreshments were served by the ladies of the party. 

And here is the story published on May 2, 1897: 

On the highest point of the captain’s land, and at an eminence not far from the summit of the mountain, he has erected what he calls a fort, and which he declares to be the only private affair of the kind in the State. On an esplanade surrounded by a circular parapet three 20-pound guns have been mounted in embrasures, and they command the entire country. On the right lie San Pablo Bay and the straits of Carquinez, San Quentin and the Golden Gate, while a discharge from the piece on the left might rake the streets of Oakland. A house is built within the inclosure and used as a powder magazine, and every Fourth of July the powder in this arsenal is brought out and the guns boom all day long. The Fourth is a great day with the captain. He sets aside $500 for its celebration, hires a caterer to bring coffee and sandwiches on the mountain, and then invites the town. They come in hundreds, and for that day La Loma is a public pleasure ground. 

The same article described the captain’s log cabin, a precursor in design to the Arts & Crafts homes that would eventually dot his hill: 

A unique feature of the captain’s place is a log house which the owner built with his own hands, requiring seven years for its completion. It is two stories in height, has two rooms below and a large apartment above. It is a comfortable lodge, and the captain uses it as such, having fitted it up for a museum and smoking cabin; here he lounges during evenings amid his relics of the long past, an aggregation which covers the whole of the captain’s life. 

Many of the curios collected in the cabin were mementos of Thomas’ Civil War days. The Call reproduced one of the most precious: a letter from General Ulysses S. Grant to General William Tecumseh Sherman, written in Grant’s hand and dated Aug. 8, 1862. Thomas had picked it up on the grounds that had been occupied by the federal forces in Memphis, after the troops’ withdrawal. 

His civic spirit wasn’t confined to pageants. In March 1897, Captain Thomas offered to deed his estate to Berkeley, to be used as a pubic park. He had planted his 32 acres with eucalyptus and many other tree varieties, and though it a splendid location for Sunday strollers and picnickers. “I had thought somewhat of giving the property to the university, but I have concluded that the town can make more use of it, since I desire that the place should always be kept intact,” he said. 

To facilitate access to the park, Thomas proposed to build a suspension railroad of his own patented design along Cedar Street and through his grounds to Grizzly Peak. He stipulated two conditions for his gift: that the city convert the property into a park with walks, drives, and shrubbery and maintain it in good condition, and that a strip of several acres adjoining his property be purchased by the town and included in the park. 

The town did not jump at the offer. Captain Thomas died of a stroke on May 28, 1900, leaving the estate to his wife, Jane. She did not wait long to subdivide the land. On October 29 of that year, the San Francisco Call was able to report:  

The old Captain Thomas place in North Berkeley, otherwise known as “La Loma Park,” has been sold in building lots by Easton & Eldridge. The purchasers were largely the university people. The land is nearly 500 feet above the level of the bay. The lots brought from $1,200 to $1,500 at private sale, as reported by the brokers. Upon them handsome residences will be erected. The running of an extension of the Telegraph avenue electric road to North Berkeley has bought a large section into market and made it desirable. 

Among the first nine lot purchasers was Professor Andrew C. Lawson, the famed geologist. He would wait seven years to build his La Loma Avenue house, designed by Bernard Maybeck. The architect himself would not buy land in La Loma Park until 1905 or 1906, but once he began building there, he created the largest concentration of Maybeck houses to be found anywhere. Several of those, including three that Maybeck built for his own family, will be open for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s May 3 Spring House Tour. 



Berkeley Architectural Heritage Spring House Tour. 1-5 p.m. Sunday, May 3. $40; BAHA members, $30. 841-2242. www.berkeleyheritage.com. 


Daniella Thompson publishes www.berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).