April 16, 2010 is a poignant and significant, although now nearly forgotten, anniversary date in the history of higher education in California. Exactly 150 years earlier the campus site of what would become California’s most important educational institution—the University of California, Berkeley—was dedicated.
Trustees of the University of California’s private predecessor institution, the College of California, gathered on the undeveloped—and unnamed—future Berkeley campus site April 16, 1860 to “consecrate” it for educational purposes.
“There is not another such college site in America, if indeed anywhere in the world” The Pacific newspaper editorialized after the event. “It is the spot above all others we have yet seen or heard of where a man may look into the face of the nineteenth century and realize the glories that are coming on.”
The place where the event occurred, a natural volcanic rock outcropping later named Founders’ Rock, still stands obscurely on a corner of the UC Berkeley campus shorn of its expansive Bay views, but retaining physical character and historic significance.
I believe the 1860 event makes the Berkeley campus the oldest site continuously dedicated to public higher education in California, and one of the oldest university campuses in the West.
(The private institution that preceded Oregon State was established in Corvallis in 1858, preceding Berkeley by about two years. In California, only the campus of the private University of Santa Clara appears to have been in continuous use as a college site longer than the Berkeley campus. Other colleges are older, but have moved locations.)
The University of California was preceded by the private College of California, an institution originally established in Oakland.
Although perpetually facing financial stress, the College searched with determination for a larger and more rural site, and in the mid-1850s starting buying land in the future Berkeley. On March 1, 1858, the Board of Trustees resolved to make the site they’d acquired the permanent location of the College.
More than two years later the Trustees acted to officially mark that decision. The Reverend Samuel Willey, a prime mover in the College, later recalled the occasion in talks and in his written History of the College of California.
“Although the understanding had come to be general that the Berkeley site had been fixed upon as the final location of the College, no action had been taken setting it apart for that purpose in a public and formal way. For the purpose of having this action a meeting of the Board of Trustees was called, to be held on the Berkeley grounds, April 16, 1860”, a Monday.
The Trustees came over from San Francisco on the ferry to Oakland and stopped by a livery stable to rent carriages. The stable was owned by William Hillegass and Francis Kittredge Shattuck, then Oakland entrepreneurs and not yet Berkeley street names.
It was a “clear and beautiful spring day”, Willey recalled, as the Trustees drove out the Telegraph Road into the hinterlands and made their way “past Captain Simmons’, there crossing Strawberry Creek, where we hitched our teams under the trees. The day was fine. The landscape was beautiful, and all were delighted with the location for the College home.”
The Trustees walked about, looking at the scenery and talking over the site. The open ground allowed them to clearly see the “two ravines” formed by the north and south branches of Strawberry Creek, which framed most of the property they had purchased. (Today, the south branch wanders through the campus, largely above ground, while part of the north branch, also called Blackberry Creek, is buried in a culvert north of the Hearst Avenue edge of the campus and only resurfaces once it passes under the street).
Between the watercourses the Trustees reached what Willey described as “a great rock, or outcropping ledge,” which later bore the name Founders’ Rock because of what was about to take place.
Today, the slightly cone shaped outcropping doesn’t seem much of a “great rock”, hemmed in by busy Gayley Road and Hearst Avenue on two sides, over towered by eucalyptus and oak on the others, and in the shadow of Cory Hall, the massive electrical engineering building.
One can imagine it in 1860, however, as a fairly distinctive and visible feature on the tumbling hillside, with panoramic views out over the future campus grounds and San Francisco Bay to the west.
Willey specifically named nine Trustees who were present at that occasion. They were: the Rev. D.W.C. Anderson, President; Willey himself, Secretary; Rev. D.B. Cheney; Rev. E.S. Lacy; Rev. Henry Durant; Frederick Billings; E.B. Goddard; Edward McLean; Ira Rankin.
Four divines amongst nine Trustees were not unusual, considering that the College of California had a religious focus. It had been founded and nurtured by leaders of the Congregational Church. This was quite typical of the era; most private colleges had a strong religious and sectarian focus in their origins and orientation. Many of their students enrolled with the intention of later going into ministerial or missionary work.
The College of California had been formed in part because the Congregationalists were worried about leaving the field of higher education in California to the domination of other Christian denominations, particularly Methodists (who had founded, in 1851, what would become the University of the Pacific), and Roman Catholics (who had already established the future University of Santa Clara).
(The Congregationalist role in the origins of the University did not go unremembered. In 1940, for instance, the Berkeley Daily Gazette described Plymouth Rock and Founders’ Rock as “the two greatest cornerstones of Congregationalism”, and told visitors to a church council in Berkeley that “you hundreds of Congregationalists gathered here today…may rightfully look upon the University—the largest educational institution in the world—as the creation of your church.”)
“Three other persons who were not trustees” were also present at the rock on April 16, 1860, according to historian William Warren Ferrier, researching in the 1930s. Ferrier was able to identify only one of them, editor James H. Warren of “The Pacific”, who wrote the quotation in the beginning of this article.
Warren further described the occasion as follows. “Before them was the Golden Gate in its broad-opening-out into the great Pacific. Ships were coming in and going out. Asia seemed near—the islands of the sea looking this way. May nations a few years hence, as their fleets with the wealth of commerce seek these golden shores, will see the University before they see the metropolis, and their first thought of our greatness and strength will be impressed upon them by the intelligence and mind shaking mind within the walls of the College more than by the frowning batteries of Alcatraz.” (Alcatraz, at that time, was a fortification, not a prison.)
There beside the Berkeley rock the Trustees read a resolution “setting apart the grounds as the location of the College of California.” All made “brief remarks”, Willey said, and then all voted in favor of the resolution. Then came the symbolic heart of the ceremony.
“Thereupon the President, standing upon the rock, surrounded by the members of the Board, with heads uncovered, offered prayer to God for his blessing on what we had done, imploring his favor upon the College which we proposed to build there, asking that it might be accepted of him, and ever remain a seat of Christian learning, a blessing to the youth of this State, and a center of usefulness in all this part of the world.”
Although some today might balk at the “seat of Christian learning” reference—understandable because it was a Congregationalist college, not a state university then being established—it is hard not to read the rest of that statement, from the perspective of 150 years, with an appreciation of the earnest sensibilities and simple purpose of the Founders.
“A blessing to the youth of this State...” “A center of usefulness in all this part of the world.” Has not the University of California—and the Berkeley campus in particular—fulfilled both those promises?
And aren’t those sincere and appropriate purposes for the present day institution to remember and honor? California has not been, either in the immediate years following the Gold Rush, or today, entirely about the creation of personal wealth as an end in itself. There have always been some drawn to goals and missions beyond monetary enrichment.
Note also, however, that the Trustees were appropriately humble in their expectations. They did not proclaim the future greatest university in the world. Instead, they asked for a divine benediction on the campus as a future “center of usefulness.”
Once the simple ceremony was finished, Willey wrote, the group returned to their carriages, traveled back to Oakland, and caught the last ferry for San Francisco.
The event was symbolic. Nothing major immediately ensued on the campus grounds. No ground was broken or major structures erected. The academic buildings of the College remained in what is now Downtown Oakland, pending the raising of funds to move the whole establishment to Berkeley.
By the mid-1860s the College was actively planting trees upon the site. The College engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to draw up a plan for the site, as well a residential district to adjoin it on the south. Land in those districts—termed the Berkeley Property Tract, as well as the adjacent College Homestead Tract—was platted and sold in the 1860s in a combined effort to raise funds for the College and lure residents who would form a town adjacent to the campus.
In late 1865 Willey moved his own family to a house he had built in the fields near the future intersection of Dwight and College, determined to lead by example in making what is now east Berkeley a residential township. His was the first “town house” in Berkeley; in typical Berkeley fashion it was torn down, over protest, in the 1930s and replaced with an apartment building.
In 1866-67 Willey devoted himself to the work of developing a water system on the college grounds, the only major physical improvement the College would actually construct at the Berkeley site aside from tree planting. The waterworks was completed and celebrated with a “rural picnic”, and gushing fountains of water were displayed, on August 24, 1867.
All these are events described in greater detail in other accounts. Let’s return to Founders’ Rock.
The rock outcropping came into the College picture again when a Committee of the Board of Trustees walked through the site on May 24, 1866. Once again, Founders’ Rock was found to be a good location to survey the scene and while there, Trustee Frederick Billings suggested the name “Berkeley” for the campus property. The Trustees went to lunch at Willey’s nearby house, then later that day had an official board meeting in San Francisco (the Transamerica pyramid now stands where they gathered) and officially adopted “Berkeley”. Eventually the name came to apply to town and well as campus.
In 1868 the College of California Trustees determined to go out of business after delivering to the State of California its assets, including the Berkeley campus site, to form part of the new University of California. Thus Berkeley became UC, and the actions of the College Trustees were merged into the pre-history of the state institution.
After operating in Oakland at the old College campus site for a few years, the University moved to Berkeley in 1873 and has been here ever since.
The rock outcropping that figured in both the dedication of the campus site and the naming of Berkeley was remembered by the new, young, institution.
The years rolled by with enrollment growing and tradition accumulated at the Berkeley campus. In 1896, the graduating seniors began what would be called the Senior Pilgrimage, a walk through the campus following a ritualized route to various spots of meaning to that class year. A speaker—a class leader, or favored faculty member or administrator—would address the students at each point.
The Class of 1896 also left the first and only visible memorial at Founders’ Rock. May 9, 1896, the students held an “elaborate” celebration of their Class Day reported the San Francisco Call the next day. (Numerous accounts erroneously refer to this as Charter Day, which it was not; Charter Day traditionally fell on March 23. Class Day was an occasion for the seniors to celebrate, prior to Commencement.)
“The exercises in commemoration of the day began at 10:30 o’clock this morning at “Founders’ Rock.’ A slab of Tennessee marble has been placed in the rock by the class of ’96, and on it, engraved in gold letters, are the words, ‘Founders’ Rock, April 16, 1860. Inscribed May 9, 1896.’ The rock is one on which the trustees of the old College of California met while they dedicated the grounds chosen as a site for the State University (sic).
“The senior class, led by the university band and followed by many visitors, gathered around the rock and listened to addresses by Galen M. Fisher ’96, Dr. E. S. Willey of San Francisco and President Kellogg. After the exercises at Founders’ Rock the class pilgrimage took place under the leadership of the U.C.Band.”
The students visited the old Chemistry building, Bacon Library, North Hall, and then adjourned to ‘Ben Weed’s Amphitheater’ for further ceremonies.
Of all those sites, only Founders’ Rock remains. North Hall was demolished after Doe Library was constructed next door. Bacon Library and the Chemistry Building fell to the wreckers’ ball in the 1960s. The Greek Theater soon supplanted the natural dell that formed Ben Weed’s Amphitheater.
Willey was a favored speaker at the 1896 event. He told those assembled, “Thirty-six years ago, on the sixteenth day of April last, the trustees of the College of California, with a few other gentlemen friends of that young institution, met on and around this rock to formally set apart these grounds and dedicate them to be the permanent site of the college. Today we are met around the same rock at the call of the senior class of a great University that has grown up on these grounds within these 36 years to commemorate the setting apart of this superb location for a seat of learning, and to designate and mark this rock as a moment of the purpose and intent of that transaction.”
Five years later Willey wrote to President Wheeler in to explain the details of the campus site selection, and he was, remarkably, again on hand to participate in 1910, 50 years after the original event, the sole survivor of those Trustees present in 1860.
At that time the developed campus was starting to grow closer to Founders’ Rock. The magnificent Hearst Memorial Mining Building rose down the slope to the southwest, and a short walk to the southeast the Greek Theatre nestled into the hillside.
On that occasion, April 16, 1910, University dignitaries and students gathered at Founders’ Rock and heard speeches by Willey, the Rev. John K. McLean, president of the Pacific Theological Seminary, Warring Wilkinson (retired principal of the California School for the Deaf and Blind), and Benjamin Ide Wheeler, then in triumphant mid career at UC President.
Willey remarked on the early plans of the College. The Oakland campus, he said “was never thought to be a suitable place for its permanent location. More land was wanted, situated on higher ground, with plenty of running water. Captain Orrin Simmons with his family then lived near here, on the south side of Strawberry Creek…they were friends of Mr. Durant who was then teaching the preparatory school in Oakland, and from him they naturally became acquainted with the opinion of the Trustees of the College respecting the kind of location suitable to be chosen as the final home of the Institution. It occurred to them from their experience in living here that this might be the very place they were looking for, and Mr. Durant himself was quite inclined to that opinion. He called the attention of other Trustees to the locality, and some of us came and visited it repeatedly and studied it carefully.”
In 1860, Willey said, “It was necessary to take possession of this property, enclose it, and begin improvements upon it. Before doing this it was deemed fitting by the Trustees that the site should be formally and publicly set apart, and in a suitable way consecrated to the purpose of education forever.”
“It was a clear beautiful spring day and our ride was delightful. Then we wandered about, viewing the grounds…On the whole, we were all entirely satisfied with the choice of these grounds as the permanent site of the College.”
“This rock appeared to be the only thing that met the requirement of the occasion, and so we made our way hither. From this elevated spot the grounds were all before us, covered with a crop of growing grain, and bordered with such noble trees as were nowhere else to be seen. The whole plain, indeed, was a grain field from the Bay back to the hills, and not a house that could properly be called a dwelling was in sight.”
President Wheeler, who also spoke, was in full oratorical form, delivering a short and powerful declamation.
“The men who in April 1860 assembled at this rock were idealists. They shaped their deeds in accordance with vision. They shook themselves free from bondage to the present and beheld the image of a coming day. They laid off the garment of a real environment and robed themselves in the slender fabric of a dream. They left trodden ways of life as it was, and plunged into the open fields of imagination as to what shall be.
The past is immanent in the present, and it is the historian’s task to discern it. The future too is immanent in the present, and it is the spiritually cleansed eye of the seer that alone can trace its outlines. ‘By faith Moses when he was come to years refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.’
Those men who on the April day of 1860 left behind them the secure and ordered life of the Oakland streets and struck out five miles into the wilderness of oaks and oats to the north were the leaders of a new people and a new cause which through a wilderness were to find a promised land.”
Over the years both town and campus grew up around Founders’ Rock. Donner Laboratory was added to the south of the Founders’ Rock knoll, and later grew closer with an addition. In 1950 Cory Hall was built west of the building.
The completion of Cory Hall meant that 90 years after the dedication event and 84 years after Frederick Billings described his “Berkeley” inspiration at the Rock while gazing out over San Francisco Bay at the Golden Gate, the view to the west disappeared from sight behind building walls.
Not long before, Gayley Road had been realigned across the top of campus and connected to Piedmont Avenue, ensuring that the Rock would stand adjacent to a major cross-town driving route. The University was also developing the Radiation Laboratory on the newly bought Wilson Tract above the campus proper, and Hearst Avenue—the other street bordering Founders’ Rock—was destined to become the major access drive to that counter campus.
Vegetation also changed. Introduced trees—eucalyptus—were present around the Rock by the end of the 19th century and oaks have grown up since, further enclosing an expansive location.
In 1926 the University of California was sufficiently sensible of the Founders’ Rock heritage that a 75-ton boulder was hauled to the new Westwood campus—UCLA—and dedicated there as an ersatz Southern “Founders’ Rock” on October 25, 1926. California’s governor and UC President spoke at that occasion. Period photographs show the odd artifact tilted up on end like a giant stone egg on a weedy slope; today, it lies decorously on its side in a UCLA campus lawn.
(UCLA also borrowed and somewhat altered the school colors, mascot, and songs from the mother campus at Berkeley, much to the annoyance of Cal fans when the two rivals clash each year in football and basketball.)
Back in Berkeley, it’s not quite clear whether there was a ceremony at the three-quarters-of-a-century mark a decade later.
The April 16, 1936 (not 1935) Daily Californian contains a mention of the anniversary of the 1860 event in somewhat cryptic form. “With no ‘blessed event’ announcement other than the ancient Founders’ Rock plaque saying “College of California, April 16, 1860”, the University campus is today celebrating its seventy-fifth (sic) birthday.”
But in 1960, for the Centennial of the 1860 dedication event, the University put together a small ceremony.
UC President Clark Kerr, ever sensible of key historical events, attended on April 22, 1960 and, “while a brisk breeze off the Bay whipped at his notes”, read another account by Willey, worded slightly differently than that in his College of California history.
“Then we looked about for some permanent landmark around which we could gather for some simple ceremonies of dedication. This rock appeared to be the only thing that met the requirement of the occasion, as so we made our way hither.”
“Then Kerr spoke of expectations for the future as great as the visions of those eight (sic) trustees of the past”, the Daily Californian reported. “A century from now, he said, universities will be clearly the most influential institutions in all of society. ‘To maintain and to improve this University in this State is as much a sacred trust for the Regents of today as was the creation of the College of California for its trustees a century ago.’”
Kerr was joined at the Rock by two distinguished Cal figures, Governor Pat Brown and Regent (and former Dean of Engineering) Donald McLaughlin. McLaughlin, a Class of 1914 alumnus, would have just missed in the 1910 ceremonial, presumably arriving in the fall of that year as a freshman.
“Regents’ Chairman McLaughlin, a genial white-haired gentleman, spoke in a vein similar to Kerr’s. The University, he said, has gone beyond the greatest visions of the time of its founding. Can we, with the boldest visions, say what will happen in the equally distant future, he asked.”
“Following McLaughlin, Governor Brown posed with clasped hands and one food on the rock and briefly gave his impressions of what the rock means.”
After their photo opportunity, a Daily Californian reporter followed Warren and McLaughlin as they “strolled down Gayley Road to take a look at another tradition—the Greek Week Push-cart Relays. ‘I feel a speech coming on when I see all of these fellows,’ Brown quipped, strolling through the crowd. He spoke to one student, then decided he had better leave for the Regents’ meeting. ‘Well, the meeting can’t start ‘til we get there,” observed McLaughlin.”
Interesting, a black and white photograph of the 1960 occasion appears to show very little in the way of ferny vegetation on the north face of the Rock around the plaque. Perhaps it was a dry year, perhaps the growth has accelerated in recent years, or maybe the Rock was manicured for the occasion.
1960 appears to have been the last officially organized commemoration of the 1860 event. (This writer was on hand for an informal gathering for the 125th anniversary in 1986.)
Founders’ Rock was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. February 25, 1991, it was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark.
This year, there is no University ceremony scheduled to commemorate the anniversary of the campus dedication ceremony. Campus attention and publicity seems devoted to the annual Cal Day open house, taking place on Saturday the 17th.
A search of the campus website turns up numerous and sometimes muddled mentions of Founders’ Rock, in both historical and practical contexts. Hit #4, for instance, identifies the Rock as the emergency gathering spot if Cory Hall must be evacuated.
There are several references to the geology of the rock outcropping, and a number of mentions on Cal tradition related webpages. Some get the number of trustees present in 1860 wrong; others call the story of the dedication merely “campus lore”, although it’s precisely documented in reliable historical accounts.
Several accounts, including the University’s official 1967 Centennial Record history, have the date of the 1896 plaque dedication wrong; it was not Charter Day of that year, but Class Day, a quite different occasion.
Another on-line account says the Rock is where “a group of men chose the site for the College of California” although the choice had been made two years before the 1860 event and the Rock became simply the platform for recognition.
And the University’s “Builders of Berkeley” webpage conflates and combines the 1860 event and the 1866 gathering where the name Berkeley was suggested, as well as providing an uncaptioned photograph of a group of men standing on a Berkeley hillside, not at Founders’ Rock. The same unrelated photograph has been appended, without caption, to a Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association website page about Founders’ Rock.
In the physical, rather than virtual, world of Founders’ Rock, the “Tennessee marble” plaque remains in place, although discolored by age. There is no trace of the gilding reported at the dedication ceremony in 1896, 114 years ago. The edge of the plaque and the front of the Rock bear vivid smudges of red paint, presumably some Stanford-inspired vandalism since a block “S” in red is also apparent on the rear of the edifice.
Spring rains this year have brought out a lush growth of moss and ferns on the north face of the Rock. For passersby—slogging uphill towards the Foothill Residence Halls, or hurrying down to classes—there is no way to determine the significance of the Rock, unless one climbs up closer to read the simple plaque.
When the Trustees stood there in 1860, of course, there was no development nearby. Later, along upper Hearst Avenue, private homes, student rooming houses and fraternities, and then apartment buildings rose, followed by demolitions and construction of University facilities including a parking garage directly across from the Rock, and the Foothill Housing Complex to the northeast and east.
Founders’ Rock is, of course, physically much older than 150 years. It’s part of the complex geology of the Berkeley Hills and, like the educational institution, something of a newcomer to these parts, most likely dragged as a fragment from far to the south up to Berkeley by the movement of the Hayward Fault. That’s a separate story, however.
(The author knows of no plans for any official University of California event commemorating of the 150th anniversary. However, he will be going up to Founders’ Rock at the lunch hour, 12:00 noon, on Friday to remember the occasion. Readers are welcome to go to the Rock as well. There will be no ceremony, just a presence to remember the event.)
A QUICK LOOK AT FOUNDERS’ ROCK
A volcanic outcropping on the UC Berkeley campus, just southwest of the intersection of Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road.
Over the past 150 years the record of dates and events associated with Founders’ Rock has become muddled. Most recently, numerous inaccurate on-line mentions have added to the confusion. Here’s a list of dates and events that I believe accurately reflects the history of Founders’ Rock.
April 16, 1860. Twelve men—including nine Trustees of the private College of California—use the Rock as a site to dedicate the undeveloped campus to learning. At the time the University of California did not exist, the College of California was in Oakland, and the name “Berkeley” had not been thought of for the future campus site.
May 24, 1866. Another gathering of College Trustees at the Rock leads to the suggestion, by Frederick Billings, of “Berkeley” as a name of the campus. The name is formally adopted at a meeting of the Trustees in San Francisco later that day. College operations remain in Oakland.
March 23, 1868. The Governor of California signs the University of California charter into law. The College of California will then give its assets, including the Berkeley site, to the new State institution. The University moves its operations to the Berkeley site in 1873.
May 9, 1896. As part of the first Senior Class Pilgrimage held on the Berkeley campus, graduating seniors sponsor a gathering at the rock and dedicate a marble plaque there. The common usage of the name “Founders’ Rock appears to date from this time. The Reverend Samuel Willey who was a participant in 1860 speaks to the Class on this occasion.
April 16, 1910. A ceremony is held at the Rock on the 50th anniversary of the original gathering. Reverend Willey—the only survivor of the Trustees who met in 1860 at the Rock—once again attends and participants.
October 25, 1926. With the Founders’ Rock tradition well established in UC Berkeley campus history and lore, leaders at UCLA—the second “general campus” of the UC system—bring a large boulder to the new Westwood campus and dedicate it as their founders’ rock.
April 22, 1960. UC President Clark Kerr, Governor Pat Brown, and others gather at the original Founders’ Rock to mark the Centennial of the dedication.
April 16, 2010. 150th anniversary of the campus dedication at the Rock.