Discovering Point Richmond

Walk Held on Saturday, October 7, 2006

by Susan Schwartz

Point Richmond and the rest of Potrero San Pablo are geologically part of a range of hills, older than the Berkeley-Oakland Hills, that continues west of narrow San Pablo Strait. At the coming of Europeans, the Potrero San Pablo was effectively an island, separated from the East Bay mainland by tidal marsh. The area was included in Mexico’s 1823 land grant of 13 square miles to Francisco Castro. His Rancho San Pablo stretched south to Cerrito Creek (today’s Alameda-Contra Costa County border) and north to Pinole.

Like many of the grantees, Castro divided his land among his children, who lost most of it amid legal wrangles after the United States siezed California. Jacob Tewksbury, MD, a 49er, began acquiring, diking, and filling the marshes in the 1860s. Most of what is now Point Richmond was acquired by John Nicholl, a California-born entrepeneur who also had large holdings in Southern California. Nicholl sold a right-of-way to the San Joaquin Valley Railway in the 1890s. The Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe, seeking a route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, bought out this and other smaller railroads and began service in 1900. At Ferry Point (now part of Miller-Knox Regional Park), deep water is just offshore, a rarity in the East Bay. Here the Santa Fe’s rails ended; passengers and freight continued to San Francisco by boat.

In 1901, with automobiles becoming popular and growing demand for oil abroad, Pacific Coast Oil Company (soon Standard Oil, now Chevron) began building an oil refinery near the Santa Fe rails. They blasted out a large chunk of Pt. Richmond’s hills to fill the marsh.  

Point Richmond thus got its start as a brawling tent city of railroad, refinery, and construction workers, with few businesses other than bars and bordellos. By 1902, though, it had acquired the amenities of a town, including a hotel, bank, laundries, dry-goods and grocery stores, a livery stable, and a funeral parlor. Four churches built before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (and used as refuges then) still stand. Much of this growth was shepherded by Nicholl, who also founded the water company and first bank. The City of Richmond was incorporated here in 1905, moving in 1906 from a hotel to a city hall at 210 Washington (both built by Nicholl). Growth was also spurred by the Keller’s Beach area, where popular privately owned parks offered changing facilities, boat rental, and dance pavillions. Quarrying, brick-making, and the nearby winery at Winehaven (built in 1907) contributed to prosperity. Gingerbread houses and modest workers’ cottages rose on narrow streets that twisted almost higglety-pigglety, interspersed with gardens and goat-grazed grassland.

Successful as he was, Nicholl made mistakes. He sank a big chunk of profits into a search for oil, but struck an artesian well instead. Years later, he gave the site to the city, which used the gusher for the elegant Municipal Natatorium, completed in 1925. Efforts to save the magnificant building continue.

The refinery that gave birth to Point Richmond also was its bane. In the 1920s, many who could afford it moved away from the smells, many to Richmond’s present center. Refinery payrolls kept the town more stable than many during the Great Depression, and during WWII workers at the nearby Kaiser Shipyards filled every available nook. But industry declined in the 1960s, although restaurants flourished and views and atmosphere continued to attract residents, especially artistic ones, to the south side of the hill. The eclectic mix of architecture includes unusual homes like Lumiere, built of translucent plastic shingles. Recent gentrification is restoring the Victorians and Craftsman-style homes and spurring construction.

The four new street-end viewpoints, a dream of open-space activist Lucretia Edwards in the 1970s, opened in 2006 thanks to a Coastal Conservancy grant, pro bono work of architects and designers, and hands-on landscaping by neighbors. The views are magnificent. Looking south, it is easy to visualize the area before the Bay, a mere 10,000 years ago or less, when these hills edges a valley with a great river pouring through what is now San Pablo and Raccoon Straits.   

Map of Pt. Richmond. Dotted lines are a few of many interesting routes – discover your own.

Caution: This map is OK for exploring by foot, but NOT for driving Pt. Richmond’s confusingly named, twisted, hilly, often closed or one-way streets.