The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Four

Parts one, two and three of the history of where I live brought us up to 1877, when this land was called the Gaskill Tract.

In early 1877, DeWitt Clinton Gaskill returned from a months-long trip back East with his family and his mining money to find the area around his 17-acre tract north of Oakland booming with activity. A new horse car line and rail line promised easy trips to downtown Oakland and, via ferry, San Francisco. Some of the nearby plots were still farms and ranches, but many had been subdivided for housing development. Cultivation was giving way to speculation.

Gaskill joined in the fun by promptly subdividing his tract and selling lots. Among the buyers was David Leeman Emerson, a local real estate investor and orator who spoke passionately (if self-interestedly) on the potential for development around Oakland just a few years before. In August 1877, Emerson purchased around 20 of Gaskill’s lots, including one identified as Lot 8 of Block D, where I live now. It didn’t have an address yet, but it was about 250 feet east of San Pablo Avenue on the newly-christened Sutter Street (a continuation of the same street from a tract to the east that had been platted out in 1871).

Emerson didn’t stop with that initial bulk purchase. He bought more land from Gaskill, and from others to whom Gaskill had initially sold. Within a few months, he owned over 50 of the 112 lots in the Tract. He might have planned to hold the lots until continued development pressure in the area pushed prices up; he might have intended to build houses on spec and sell them to middle-class commuters. Whatever the plan, he saw a speculative opportunity and poured all that he had into it.

But Emerson had miscalculated, or had been credulous of his own real estate boosterism, or both. The entire country, including relatively insulated and well-off California, was still reeling from the Panic of 1873 and the major recession that followed (which people called the Great Depression, until the Greater one in the 1930s). Unemployment was high and still rising, and the primary cause of the boom in subdivision in the area around the Gaskill Tract had been an epidemic of me-too-ism, not a genuine demand for new houses. Most of the lots carved out of the farms and ranches north of Oakland in the late 1870s were still empty. Land values stagnated or fell. The bubble popped.

From reports mentioning D. L. Emerson around this time, one gets the impression of a man who had stretched himself too thin and was searching for a solution before he snapped. In April 1878, he was sued by Margaret Briceland to recover $670 for breach of contract in a land purchase. He was also involved in at least one other real estate suit later in the year. Just two weeks after that April suit was filed, he threw his hat into the ring as a Republican candidate for Congress, despite never having held political office. His reputation for powerful speechifying did not translate into success; the party ultimately chose incumbent Congressman Horace F. Page. Later, in July 1879, he sought the State Senate nomination of the Workingmen’s Party, a short-lived socialist and anti-immigrant faction that was already wheezing its last breaths at the time. He failed in that bid, as well.

Whatever Emerson might have hoped to do with the Gaskill lots, financial reality forced him to sell quickly. On June 8, 1878, less than a year after his initial purchase, he held an auction on the premises. The newspaper ad for the auction assured people attending from San Francisco that lunch would be served, so they needn’t “refresh the ‘inner man'” in advance. The ad talked up the “extensive and unobstructive [sic] views of the Bay” — only viewable because so few buildings yet stood in the way. And Emerson made an offer that amounted to a primitive Community Benefits Agreement: if 50 or more of the lots sold that day, he would donate a 50′ x 91′ lot for “a Protestant church.”

Emerson never had to make good on that offer. He sold a handful of lots at the auction, then over the following years further off-loaded his Gaskill Tract holdings in dribs and drabs that kept him afloat but not prosperous. In one of those transactions, in June of 1880, Emerson parted with Lot 8 of Block D, along with neighboring Lots 6, 7, 9, and 10. He sold the five for $2000, about what he’d paid D.W.C. Gaskill for them three years before. This sale marked the end of David Leeman Emerson’s speculation in the Gaskill Tract, and of his real estate business generally. He disappeared from the public records around this time.

The man who bought the place where I live now from Emerson was Wendell Easton. Easton ran a successful real estate brokerage in San Francisco; he had weathered the recession with relative ease (as so many in that city did during our most recent recession). From County deed records and newspaper transaction reports, it’s clear that Easton was gathering up a large chunk of the Gaskill Tract, just as Emerson had done. He saw the same speculative opportunity. But Easton had deeper pockets filled with San Francisco money, and he could afford to sit across the Bay and be patient with his new Oakland holdings.

For the next several years, Easton left his Gaskill Tract lots mostly unsold and untouched, as did the majority of the other landowners in the area. The 1888 Sanborn map shows only three or four buildings per block. Lot 8 of Block D remained bare, sitting quietly between two modest houses. (The Sanborn Company created these maps to help estimate fire insurance risk. They also happen to provide an extraordinarily detailed record of the development of American cities, block by block, building by building, from the late 1800s until nearly the present. For urban history nerds like me, they are gold.)

1888 Sanborn Map Sutter Street

In 1887, around the time the Sanborn surveyors would have been putting together that map, Easton began to move more aggressively to shed some of his Gaskill Tract holdings. The economy had recovered from the recession, and in fact rebounded into another local boom — this time with more substance. The farmland north of Oakland that had been prematurely subdivided in the 1870s was beginning to sprout a crop of houses, some of which were captured in the Sanborn map, but with many more to come.

Just north of the Gaskill Tract, an eccentric but enterprising character had taken it upon himself to give the place a fresh coat of paint, a cluster of new buildings, and a name. Charles Alexander Klinkner, born in Germany in 1852, had come to California in 1872 and made his living in sales for several years. His most profitable venture had been selling rubber stamps, which he did mainly from San Francisco. In 1877, Klinkner had used some of his San Francisco money — you may be sensing a motif — to buy 14 acres of farmland near the San Pablo station on the new rail line leading to the ferry pier, perhaps spurred by the same speculative frenzy that had prompted D.W.C. Gaskill to sell lots and D.L. Emerson to buy them. Klinkner intended to turn his sales acumen toward real estate.

Klinkner’s ambition was put on hold by the recession, but in 1886, he picked it up again. He constructed a large commercial building on San Pablo Avenue (at what is now 59th Street) that housed a store and offices, and a hotel across the street. He borrowed money to build houses on spec and found willing buyers through a combination of good economic timing and outlandish sales tactics, like walking around with a dog that wore a blanket advertising his development, on the back of which dog rode a monkey. Never one for modesty, he began calling the place he’d built Klinknerville.

A few blocks south of Klinkner’s eponymous development, Wendell Easton was selling. On August 25, 1887, he sold Lot 8 of Block D to Eliza Powers Donahue. Donahue was a 31-year-old  San Francisco resident, originally from New York. She married Henry Donahue, ten years her senior, in 1877; by 1887 they had five children. Henry was a sewing machine sales agent. Eliza was occupied keeping house.

The Donahues weren’t wealthy — San Francisco city directories show them bouncing among modest rented houses in Hayes Valley for the next decade — but they had a little money to invest, and they chose to put it into Oakland property. The deed specifically lists the buyer as “Eliza Donahue, wife of Henry Donahue,” implying that Henry had little to do with the transaction, else he would have been listed first. She paid $250 in cash, meaning Easton lost money on the lot, but he was hardly in danger of dissolution in the style of D.L. Emerson.

Indulge me in a return to Emerson. After his abortive flirtation with speculation in the Gaskill Tract in the late 1870s, he disappeared from public records and from Oakland city directories. He reappeared in 1884-85 in the Berkeley directory, identified as an “attorney-at-law.” He had apparently attempted a career change, but without much success. (An 1893 newspaper article about his daughter said that during this period he “studied law, but did not practice much.”)

In April 1888, D.L. Emerson requested alms from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, in the amount of $12, “wherewith to buy medicine for blood-poisoning.” A newspaper item about the request acknowledges that Emerson was once “one of Oakland’s wealthiest men” — his property holdings in 1876, before his Gaskill Tract investments, had been assessed at $34,450 (over $740,000 today) — but says that “business reverses and revelry downed him.” If the real estate records are any guide, the revelry really had very little to do with it, but we have always liked our economy served with a heavy helping of morality in America.

A year later, he gave his family a fright by disappearing for more than two weeks. In early June, he soon resurfaced, saying that he had not in fact been missing, just visiting his son in Amador County.

The next mention of David L. Emerson in the newspapers came about a month later, in the form of a brief note in the July 12 edition of the Daily Alta California. It was a death notice. He had died two days before in San Francisco. The man who showed such bright promise early in life had been ruined by Bay Area real estate, and had never recovered. His legacy, such as it is, is captured on microfilm in the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s office, in newspaper archives and books that no one reads anymore, and in an 1873 patent for a primitive earthquake bracing system. Given enough time — sometimes just a few years — ownership feels awfully hollow.

Eliza Donahue did very little with Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract in the first few few years that she owned it, but the area around her property went through an incredible change. Charles Klinkner ended up building more than 75 houses in his plot; other developers followed suit. The population of the still-unincorporated town shot up, and a post office opened in Klinkner’s commercial hall, outside of which he had hung a huge banner with the “Klinknerville” name in massive letters, probably legible from Donahue’s lot, and an illustrated hand pointing down to his sales office. “Stop here,” it said. “This is the place.”

Klinkner petitioned the U.S. Post Office to officially apply that name — his name — to the district, but other residents weren’t so keen on that idea. They preferred a more descriptive (and less personal) name that had been used as early as 1878, when the local agricultural association had begun holding its annual fairs at the nearby trotting park. It was a name that evoked those views of the Bay that D.L. Emerson and many others had used as a selling a point. Several years of dispute and lobbying ensued. In early 1893, shortly before Klinkner’s death, the local post office, and by extension the town growing around it, was christened “Golden Gate.”

An 1895 article in the San Francisco Call — which may have been an “advertorial” — speaks glowingly of the rapid development and many fine qualities of Golden Gate. The article mentions the local sanitary district, set up by residents in 1894, which had issued bonds to build a local sewer system. It also mentions a “Mrs. Parsons” as an important land owner in the area. Lucena Parsons, the diary-keeping early settler, was still living in a fine house on what is now 55th Street, after she subdivided and sold the remainder of the land she and her husband George had farmed. (George Parsons had died in August of 1882, when he was thrown from his wagon against a car of the new railroad connecting San Pablo Station to the San Francisco ferry pier. I’m just going to let that metaphor sit there.)

Golden Gate’s rapid development spurred Eliza Donahue to build. At some point in the 1890s — existing records don’t allow me to be any more specific than that — Donahue put up a small house on her lot. It shows up on the 1903 Sanborn map of the area, though it was standing at least as early as 1900, when the Census shows tenants living there. (More on that in the next post.)

The structure seems to reflect the Donahues’ limited means. The house was only about 11 feet wide and 30 feet long, probably a “railroad house,” with a narrow hallway down one side of three rooms. It was one story with a wood shingle roof. It sat on the western side of the 50′ x 91′ lot, its footprint entirely within that of my house today. It got a street address: 1073 Sutter.

Golden Gate’s ascendance did more than just prompt Eliza Donahue to build. In the rapidly-growing areas north of the city of Oakland, including Claremont, Temescal, and Golden Gate, some of the larger local property owners began calling for annexation by the city, espousing a vision of “Greater Oakland.” They reasoned that having reliable city services would increase the value of their holdings.

The movement had begun in 1894, though an 1895 election to annex Temescal alone failed. The “Greater Oakland” backers kept at it, and convinced more residents of the benefits of joining the city: lighting, sewers, police and fire protection, free entry into the city schools, and so on. (Meanwhile the little town of Emeryville incorporated in 1896, in part to fend off Oakland’s advancing greatness, which local business leaders didn’t think would be that great for them.)

The Oakland advocates tried again two years later, and Golden Gate was annexed to the city in an election in June of 1897. Legal challenges followed; none succeeded. The place where I live now had become a part of the City of Oakland.

In 1899, the City changed many of the street names in the areas annexed two years before, extending northward the numbering system for east-west streets that had started at Oakland’s original waterfront. Sutter became 56th (though the old name would persist in public records for decades).

And that is how Eliza Donahue found herself owning a little rectangle within a rectangle on a street called 56th Street, in a neighborhood called Golden Gate, in a city called Oakland, just like I do today. In Part Five, I’ll tell you how my house got here.

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7 thoughts on “The Place I Pretend to Own, Part Four

    • Thanks for that. I’m not sure if what I have is “expertise” or just a very narrow kind of patience for old documents, but I’ll give it a look.

      • wow, thanks for adding all of that info! i’d say expertise- give yourself that credit 🙂 now others can have it, even without old document patience!

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