This week, 125 years ago, Berkeley was incorporated as a town. On that day, April 1, 1878, it was not yet large enough to be a city; that would happen in 1908 just before Old City Hall was dedicated in 1909.
Berkeley’s past, however, stretches back before incorporation, before the Spanish arrived in 1820, to when Native Americans lived here and left evidence of their habitation in shell mounds by Strawberry Creek and mortar depressions in granite rocks in the north hills.
Berkeley’s non-native history dates to 1820 when the King of Spain granted Don Luis Maria Peralta Rancho San Antonio, a large area that today is part of Alameda County. In 1842 Don Luis gave his son, Jose Domingo Peralta, the area that would become Berkeley. Jose Domingo built an adobe home on the banks of what is today Codornices Creek near Hopkins Street.
During the Gold Rush California became part of the United States, and by 1852 Jose Domingo had sold most of his land to the newly arrived Americans. Berkeley’s first American settlement, Ocean View, was begun in 1852 when Captain James Jacob built a wharf near the mouth of what is now Strawberry Creek.
Most of Berkeley was used for farming and grazing until 1860, when the College of California, a small, private institution then located in Oakland, purchased 30 acres of land for the “benefits of a country location.” A subdivision south of the campus was recorded in 1864, and plans for the college campus and a residential subdivision were made by Frederick Law Olmsted around 1865. The college picked the name Berkeley in 1866. The University of California was founded in 1868 and merged with the College of California.
After the university opened in 1873, there was much activity in building up the surrounding areas. In 1876, Francis Kittredge Shattuck, an early landowner, convinced Leland Stanford to bring a Central (later Southern) Pacific spur line from Oakland along Adeline Street into what is now downtown Berkeley.
Not yet a city, the communities of Berkeley and Ocean View were part of an unincorporated area of Oakland Township. Citizens in both communities resisted Oakland’s attempts to annex the area. The battle was won in Sacramento on April 1, 1878, when the state Senate voted to establish the town of Berkeley.
Town Trustees met for years in various rented halls. Berkeley’s first Town Hall was built in 1884 at Sacramento Street and University Avenue (halfway between the two settlements). In 1899 Town Hall was moved to approximately the location of where Old City Hall stands today.
After Town Hall burned in 1904 it was replaced by Old City Hall. Berkeley’s Civic Center as it stands today was not completed until 1950. The five-block area is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny is the author of “Berkeley Landmarks” and writes this column in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.