The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Three

It’s probably helpful, though not required, for you to read Part One and Part Two of the history of where I live before reading this.

When George and Lucena Parsons rolled west from Wisconsin in a covered wagon in 1850, they hoped they were headed for easy riches in California’s gold fields. They arrived too late; the easy money had already been dug out of the ground or claimed by others. George and Lucena had to try for a harder-won living in a more conventional kind of field.

In late 1851, they settled on a plot of “unoccupied” land north of the nascent town of Oakland, along the San Pablo Road, and farmed there through the 1850s. He wasn’t able to claim the land by squatter’s rights, but George did well enough that he was able to buy it — 74 acres in all, known as Kellersberger Plot Number 40 of what had been the ranchos of Vicente and Domingo Peralta — in May of 1858.

Just 10 years before, this land had been part of a huge, open ranch, the cattle vastly outnumbering the few Spanish-speaking people who tended them. Now it was fenced off into smaller homesteads, many of them plowed and planted (beginning a long tradition of pretending this place had more water than it actually does), and the language of the majority was English. The little city of Oakland three miles to the south was thriving, with leading residents founding cultural and educational institutions like the (then-private) College of California, founded in 1855, though it wouldn’t admit its first students until 1860. This place had begun to look less like the frontier and more like the eastern side of the country. One boom had ended. Another would start soon.

Once the matter of land title was settled, George and Lucena Parsons’ lives progressed conventionally and, for the most part, happily. In October of 1859, the Oakland Agricultural Society held its first fair, where George won awards for “best collection of peaches” and for best “Yankee pumpkins.” By 1860, they had three children: Ellen, Mary, and Charles, respectively 7, 4, and 2 at the time the 1860 Census was taken. In that Census, Parsons declared the value of the real estate at $12,000 (well above the $2,590 he paid for it two years before), and the personal property at $4,000. They were doing well enough to have two resident farmhands and a cook.

Another daughter, Martha, was born in 1860 (after the Census-taker visited, apparently). A second son arrived in 1862, named after his father: George Washington Parsons, Jr. But then young Charles died on Christmas Day of the same year. I could find no record or announcement of the cause, not that knowing it would really have explained the death of a four-year-old 150 years ago. There would be no more children for the Parsons.

Sometimes I look out a window and try to imagine what this neighborhood was like when it was George and Lucena Parsons’ farm. It’s hard to see through the fences and houses and parked cars. Occasionally, when I’ve had either not enough sleep or too much coffee (or both), just at the edge of my vision I can see a patch of beans or a tree weighed down with prize-winning peaches. Probably, though, I’m just seeing the raised bed in our back yard, where my wife is growing beans, or the withered, unloved peach tree next door, which will never win any prizes — little echoes everywhere.

Into the 1860s, George was surrounded primarily by other prosperous gentleman farmers like himself. Gradually, urbanizing pressures started to creep northward from Oakland. Early in the decade, newspaper real estate advertisements offered large tracts of “first-rate land” (i.e., for farming) near the Parsons’ place. By 1868, ads began to appear that emphasized subdivision, like this one offering 144 acres on the San Pablo Road, three miles from Oakland — again, near the Parsons — as “a fine opportunity for parties desiring to purchase a large tract for the purpose of dividing the same into small lots.”

Over the course of the decade, George Parsons began to cash in, transforming his land into more liquid wealth. By 1865, he had already sold the portion on the west side of the San Pablo Road (some of which became the grand estate of A. C. Dietz). He kept the eastern portion of the tract whole for another several years of farming.

Then in November of 1869, Parsons sold the northern half of his remaining land to Rollin C. Gaskill, for $15,000. The deed describes a roughly rectangular parcel running east of the San Pablo Road containing almost exactly 17 acres. In the same deed, Parsons agreed to give up half of the land necessary for a road connecting San Pablo Road with Adeline Street, running east-west along the boundary between his remaining lands and the 17-acre tract, whenever it came time to lay out such a road.

Rollin Carolus (R.C.) Gaskill had come to California from Vermont in 1853, joining his older brother, DeWitt Clinton (D.W.C.) Gaskill in a mining goods business in Butte County. The brothers passed the business between them until 1860, when D.W.C. took the whole thing over and R.C. got himself elected to the State Senate. He served two two-year terms, was then appointed Superintendent of Railway Mail Service for the Pacific Coast Division, and, after a few years, ended up farming 360 acres in Napa County. He moved to Oakland in 1869, when he bought the Parsons land (though the sale deed identifies him as still residing “in the County of Napa”) and set up shop as an agent for Wells Fargo, later also selling insurance.

R.C. Gaskill seems to have had no interest in being a real estate developer, and he wasn’t buying the Parsons land for himself. Just a few months later, on July 1, 1870, he sold the parcel to his brother, who was still living in Butte County at the time. Somewhere in there, this land got a new name: the Gaskill Tract.

For most of the 1870s, the Gaskill Tract sat exactly as it had when it had belonged to George Parsons. (He may have even continued to farm it under lease.) D.W.C. Gaskill remained in Butte County, tending to his businesses there. He sold those holdings in 1875 and made his way to the Bay Area, where, according to a biographical sketch published in 1892, “he was attacked by nervous prostration in the home of his brother, Rollin C., in Oakland.” A rich man from the mining country came to Oakland and had a nervous breakdown. We’re still trying to shake our reputation as a dangerous place.

After recovering, Gaskill traveled to the east coast with his wife and children, and stayed through 1876. A map of the Oakland area from that year shows the undivided Gaskill Tract, bordered on the south by the remaining Parsons land. What the map shows mostly clearly, though, is how much had changed since he acquired the land six years before.

The same month R.C. Gaskill bought 17 acres from George Parsons, November of 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad had completed the last few miles of its transcontinental route ending in Oakland. (Actually, the railroad didn’t quite reach across the continent yet, but marketing matters.) The railroad brought people, money, growth — more demand for residential lots and houses. By late 1876, most of the large farms near the Gaskill Tract had been platted out for subdivision, with named or numbered streets running roughly parallel and perpendicular to the area’s main road, now called San Pablo Avenue.

West of San Pablo was a horse racing track, the Oakland Trotting Park, which had opened in 1871 and immediately started drawing more business to the area. A little ways to the north, at the intersection of San Pablo and what was then called Kearney Street, sat a station of the “Berkeley Branch of the Northern Railway.” Starting in August 1876, trains ran from that station to the Central Pacific Wharf projecting into the Bay, where passengers caught the ferry to San Francisco. Also depicted on the map, though unlabeled, is the horse railway running north from downtown Oakland along San Pablo, which had a stop just a few blocks south at Park, near the property of Joseph Emery. A new local boom was on.

In early 1877, D.W.C. Gaskill came back to Oakland with his family. There’s a very good chance they traveled west on the (by that point truly) transcontinental railroad. The speculative explosion in the area around his land must have been obvious. He filed a map for subdivision of the land in January and began selling lots immediately. The first sale shows up in County records on February 2.

Many of Gaskill’s buyers purchased only one lot, most likely intending to build a house for themselves. But whenever someone is selling real estate, there will be others who think they might be able to profit by selling (or renting) a smaller piece of that same real estate. A few of these people bought groups of two or four adjacent lots from Gaskill, sometimes for building their own house with an additional one to sell or rent. This was becoming a common investment and building pattern in streetcar suburbs around the country at the time.

Then there was David Leeman Emerson. Emerson, usually referred to as D.L., had been the valedictorian of the first graduating class of the College of California in 1864. He was also the first person awarded a master’s degree from the College’s successor, the new public University of California in Berkeley, in 1870. Emerson subsequently went into business in Oakland, and had a sideline as a public speaker, apparently of the motivational variety. (He made the rounds in 1870-71 with a lecture entitled “The Elements of Success.”) Emerson went east in 1873, spent two years in Boston, and headed west again in November 1875.

Almost immediately upon his return to Oakland, D.L. Emerson delivered a speech on “Oakland, Judged from an Eastern Standpoint.” The introductory pages of the printed version of the speech are a sales pitch for Emerson’s orations, including clippings from favorable write-ups in both the eastern and western press. The body of the speech itself is essentially a sales pitch for Oakland real estate.

Emerson proclaimed the area’s many virtues and needled his audience, meant to be the city as a whole, for their unwillingness to speculate — not his word, but his meaning — in more development in and around Oakland. He closed with a vision of the city’s future meant to motivate their investment. He saw, he said, thriving businesses “occupying ground which will sell at $1500, $2000, and $2500 per front foot,” “two thousand charming villas lining the foot hills north of the city,” and “200,000 people, the most intelligent, the most happy and the most free.”

It strikes me now, nearly 140 years later, as an odd subject for a speech from someone who has just come back to town from a long absence. But Emerson seems to have believed it, and he set about building the vision he spoke of, at least as far as he was able to as one person. He entered the real estate business, and in August of 1877, he purchased almost 20 lots in the Gaskill Tract.

When D.W.C. Gaskill had mapped out the subdivision of his 17-acre tract, he’d carved it into four blocks, A, B, C, and D, set off by new streets — one of them the east-west street promised in the 1869 Parsons-to-Gaskill deed. (That one he named Parsons Street.) He divided each block into numbered lots of roughly equal size: 50 feet wide, averaging around 100 feet deep, but with variations because of the imperfect rectangularity of the overall parcel. This layout is most clearly visible in an 1878 map of the area from the Thompson & West Atlas of Alameda County.

One of the parcels that D.L. Emerson purchased in August 1877 was a 50′ by 91′ lot, beginning at a point 259.37 feet east of San Pablo Avenue on the south line of Sutter Street, another of the tract’s new east-west streets. It was labeled as Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract.

I’ll pick up the story of Lot 8 of Block D (and, briefly, of D.L. Emerson) in Part Four.

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6 thoughts on “The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Three

  1. I am enjoying your series and look forward to future installments. It would be great to see any photos that may exist of the place, then and now.

    • Thanks, Marc. I’ll be posting some photos, mostly of the neighborhood and nearby buildings. So far, I haven’t found any of my street or house specifically, but I’m not finished searching.

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