Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: Edward F. Niehaus, West Berkeley Stalwart

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 11:06:00 AM
The Edward F. Niehaus residence at 839 Channing Way.
Daniella Thompson
The Edward F. Niehaus residence at 839 Channing Way.
The Edward F. Niehaus residence was designated a city landmark in 1976.
Daniella Thompson
The Edward F. Niehaus residence was designated a city landmark in 1976.

On Jan. 28, 1905, the first concatenation of the Order of Hoo-Hoo was held in Oakland. The ceremonies were conducted by the “Supreme Nine” of the local chapter of this lumbermen’s fraternity, many of whose officers’ titles were derived from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” The office of Gurdon (sergeant-at-arms) was occupied by veteran lumberman and West Berkeley resident Edward Frederick Niehaus. 

Gurdon was only the latest in a long line of public and semi-public offices held by Niehaus. Beginning in 1891, he served on Berkeley’s Board of Trustees (an earlier incarnation of our city council). In 1892, he was appointed to the citizens’ committee in charge of Berkeley’s Columbian celebration. In July 1894, Niehaus, along with his brothers Otto and Ernest, was a major proponent for a municipal ferry scheme. 

Seven months later, a Committee of Twenty-Five, comprising prominent Berkeley businessmen and politicians, was appointed at a mass meeting for the purpose of advancing the ferry cause. Niehaus—together with Francis K. Shattuck, Reuben Rickard, Charles A. Bailey, Rev. H. H. Dobbins, and James L. Barker—was named to an action committee of six, whose task was “to call upon Mr. Spreckels and other of the leading figures in the new railroad proposition and press upon them the advantages of Berkeley as a terminus,” reported the San Francisco Call on Feb. 14, 1895. 

In May 1895, Niehaus was elected to the Berkeley Board of School Directors as the only candidate from the Sixth Ward. Two years later, he was appointed by the Board of Town Trustees to a committee whose charge was to investigate the possibility of extending Southern Pacific’s local train service to Gilman Street. 

The summer of 1898 was a dry one in Berkeley. On July 23 of that year, the San Francisco Call reported, “Parched and lifeless are the beautiful flower gardens of Berkeley, so attractive to visitors; clouds of dust swirl through the streets, covering the buildings with a thick coating of dull gray, sifting through doors and windows, to the sore distress of housewives and the great discomfort of everybody. Every resident is in a state of constant fear lest fire should break out and sweep unhindered from one end of the town to the other, while pestilence threatens to break out any time.” 

The Alameda Water Company, which supplied Berkeley, was able to furnish only half the quantity of water consumed by its 1,600 customers. The Berkeley Board of Trustees appointed a committee of three to seek a long-term solution to the problem. The committee members—Trustee Louis J. Le Conte, Dr. Thomas Addison and School Director Edward F. Niehaus—“reported that it is possible to develop a supply of water sufficient to provide for the needs of the city for thirty years,” announced the newspaper. On Aug. 1, the Call disclosed that the committee was “much encouraged by the success of Superintendent of Streets Guy H. Chick, who, in sinking wells in the City Hall block, and in North Oakland and West Oakland, has found plenty of water to relieve the shortage that existed in the supply for street sprinkling. This was regarded as one of the most objectionable features of the dearth of water, for Berkeley has been doing much street improving of late and to have ceased sprinkling would have caused the ruin of many thoroughfares.” 

The committee concluded that permanent relief could only be secured through city ownership of an adequate water plant. Its plan allowed for an increase of 1,000 in the population each year. Little did the three know that Berkeley’s population would triple during the next decade. 

How did Edward F. Niehaus (1852– 1910) come to be regarded as a Berkeley stalwart? One would assume that his Prussian industriousness had much do with it, although his brothers, Otto (1848–1906) and Ernest (1855–1940), never attained equal heights in the community. The three were born in Westphalia, Germany to Adolf Gerhardt and Minna Niehaus. Their U.S. census records indicate that Edward immigrated to the United States in 1863 and Otto in 1865, Ernest following in 1871. Otto settled in New Jersey, where he married in 1871 and fathered five children between 1872 and 1882. Ernest spent four years in New Jersey before coming to Berkeley in 1875. Edward may have preceded him by a year or two. 

In his book Berkeley: the Town and Gown of It, George A. Pettitt recounted that early in 1874, “John Everding consented to make a shed on his property available for a cabinet shop where Edward F. Niehaus and Gustavus A. Schuster might start producing sash, doors, mouldings, turned and scroll-sawed wood.” 

In fact, it was not until 1877 that Edward and Ernest Niehaus made their first appearance in the Oakland directory, the former as principal of Schuster & Niehaus, proprietors of the West Berkeley Planing Mill, the latter as a machine hand in the mill. In 1878, Schuster & Niehaus were assessed a property tax of $500 on improvements and $1,000 on content at their mill. The lot was described in the assessment record as “on Everding’s land.” 

The 1878 directory carried a display ad for the West Berkeley Planing Mill, offering “mouldings, brackets, frames, doors, sash, blinds, scroll sawing, turning, etc.” Bold type touted “water tanks, fences and mill work of every description to order.” Nor was their landlord’s business omitted: “Connected with the establishment is a grist mill, for grinding feed for horses, cattle, etc.” 

The mill soon outstripped Everding’s business. In later years, its catalog reached 92 pages and includes stairs and hardwood interiors. 

The Niehaus brothers and Schuster first lived on the mill site but soon found more comfortable digs at the Franklin House, operated by C. Maloney on University Avenue and Third Street. In 1880, Edward Niehaus built his first home on Sixth Street between Addison and Allston. It was the second house on the block, which is now part of the Sisterna Historic District. The earliest residence, known as the Velasco House (1877), still stands at 2109 Fifth Street. 

About 1882, Schuster & Niehaus became Niehaus Bros. when Ernest became a partner and Schuster turned into an employee. Three years later, Otto Niehaus and family arrived from New Jersey, building a house at 1728 Ninth Street. In 1886, Ernest married Minnie Werder, younger sister of Edward’s wife Mathilde, and built his home on the northeast corner of Bristol (now Hearst Avenue) and Tenth Street. Also in 1886, Otto became partner in the mill, but the three brothers’ joint business proved short-lived. Angling for bigger fish, Edward left to pursue other opportunities. 

In 1887, the first year that his name was absent from the Niehaus Bros. directory listing, Edward was assessed property tax on four substantial new houses he had built near his home—two on the 800 block of Allston Way and two on the 2200 block of Sixth Street. In 1889, he treated his wife to an opulent Stick-Eastlake villa on the southwest corner of Channing Way and Seventh Street. Designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1976, this ornate house is West Berkeley’s grandest surviving Victorian residence. 

Otto and Ernest may have found running the mill hard going, for Schuster returned as partner by 1888 and would serve as president until the firm’s dissolution after the mill had been destroyed by fire in 1901. 

By 1892, Edward had built seven additional speculative houses, but his business plans encompassed far more than West Berkeley development. In the late 1880s he joined John H. Dieckmann, a German-born importer of tropical woods, and managed his San Francisco business for several years. Thereafter he bought the bankrupt stock of the hardwood pioneer Straut & Company, establishing his own business at 565 Brannan Street. 

His first disaster occurred in July 1895, when a fire destroyed $25,000 worth of lumber and machinery. Undaunted, Ed-ward immediately set out for the east to select a new stock. “A contract will soon be let for the erection of a new mill on the site of the one destroyed, and it is expected that it will be finished in time for the fall trade,” reported the San Francisco Call on July 10. 

Seven years later, another fire caused a damage of $15,000 to stock and machinery on the mill’s three floors. The firemen were able to save the lumber warehouse. “The loss is wholly sustained by the firm as there has never been any insurance on the place,” reported the Call on July 18, 1902. “The owners claim that insurance rates are so high in that part of town that under ordinary circumstances it is cheaper to carry on business unprotected. The firm will be crippled to some degree in fulfilling its contracts for the present, but E.F. Niehaus, senior member of the concern, says that he does not apprehend any serious difficulties as a result of the blaze.” 

By then, the Niehaus Bros. West Berkeley Planing Mill was nothing but a memory. The fire that gutted it on August 15, 1901 wiped out three acres of buildings, lumber piles, machinery, and finished products, including 6,000 doors in the door-and-sash factory. Insurance covered a mere $16,500 of the damage, which was estimated at $164,000 during the ensuing lengthy (and ultimately lost) court battle against the Contra Costa Water Company. 

Still, West Berkeley was growing. In April 1905, Edward F. Niehaus was one of the founders and directors of the West Berkeley Bank, to be built on the corner of University and San Pablo avenues. In April 1908, he headed a West Berkeley ticket in the election for 15 freeholders to frame a new city charter. The ticket headed by U.C. president Benjamin Ide Wheeler won. 

Fire struck E. F. Niehaus & Co. for the third time on September 10, 1908. According to the Call, “The firm of Niehaus & Co. had two mills in which fine lumber was dressed and veneering made, and a dry kiln. Both of the mills were utterly destroyed. Behind and to the side of the buildings lay the lumber yard, piled with a $200,000 stock of hardwoods, cedar logs, mahogany, birch, oak, maple and other fine timbers. All went before the flames.” 

The indomitable Edward F. Niehaus had enough spirit left in June 1909 to participate in the founding of the Homestead Savings Bank of Berkeley. Then heart disease overtook him on September 2, 1910, a month before his 58th birthday. His obituary in the San Francisco Call stated, “He was for 12 years a member of the board of education of this city and was largely instrumental in securing for West Berkeley the San Pablo and Columbus schools.” 

Mathilde Niehaus continued living in the family home until her death in 1938. Her husband’s nephew, Henry Wahlefeld, managed E.F. Niehaus & Co. until 1925, when its stock was acquired by the J. E. Higgins Lumber Company, still in business today. 


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