As the 19th Century neared its end, the place where I live now had taken on a form that I would have recognized. The old farm and ranch plots north of Oakland, first carved out of the Peralta Rancho in the initial wave of Gold Rush settlement, had been further subdivided into suburban lots. Streets were cut through and named according to the subdivider’s fancy. Small-scale developers and individual owners had erected middle- and working-class houses along those new streets — though lots of gaps remained between the houses, empty lots whose owners could afford to sit and wait.
Golden Gate, a community about three miles north of downtown Oakland, had gone from a sparsely settled farming district to a full-fledged streetcar neighborhood in under 30 years. The land had been tamed and named — and in the process stolen, then stolen again with a bit more legal complexity, then bought and sold several times over in ever-shrinking slices. The land baron still had a future in Oakland, but for the next few decades, Golden Gate — my neighborhood — would be shaped largely by those who dealt in smaller pieces of land, and by one event that affected all of the land.
Eliza Donahue had purchased one of those small pieces of the Golden Gate neighborhood: a 50′ x 91′ patch of land identified in public records as Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract. Donahue lived in San Francisco with her husband Henry and children — five in 1887 when she bought the lot; ultimately nine. They were no doubt more than enough to keep her busy while Henry sold sewing machines, but she found some time in the 1890s to oversee the construction of a small house on the western side of the lot. It was about 11 feet wide and 30 feet long, smaller than most of the other houses on the block, but it provided the Donahues with a bit of rental income.
The address of Eliza Donahue’s rental house was 1073 Sutter Street, but after the neighborhood’s 1897 annexation to Oakland, the city changed the street names to conform to its preexisting numbered system. Eliza Donahue was now the owners of a place called 1073 56th Street.
More was changing in the area than just street names. Golden Gate owed much of its allure to its transportation connections. (Transportation was in fact the chicken, not the egg, in the area’s development process.) Golden Gate had experienced its first subdivision boom after the construction of a rail line that connected residents to San Francisco via ferry, then a horsecar line to downtown Oakland. The horsecar line originally stopped a bit south of the neighborhood at the property of Joseph Emery (as in Emeryville), who built the line to provide easy access to the lots he was selling. Cable cars replaced the horsecars in the 1880s, and the line was extended northward into the heart of the neighborhood. The impetus for the extension had come from Charles Klinkner, an early developer in the area who had attempted to have it named Klinknerville.
Shortly after annexation, the San Pablo Avenue rail line was electrified under the hand of Francis Marion “Borax” Smith. His nickname derived from the same source as his fortune: borax mining in Nevada and southern California. In the 1890s, Smith turned his millions toward real estate — as is so often the way of things in the Bay Area — and to transportation. He began buying up the area’s many privately-owned streetcar lines, including the San Pablo Avenue line, while also working with other investors to buy up cheap, still-undeveloped land in the East Bay. He modernized and expanded his transportation holdings, including a new ferry link to San Francisco, competing with the Southern Pacific railroad. Within a few years, Smith would give his combined transportation network a new nickname, based on the shape its main lines and hubs outlined on a map: the Key System.
The Donahues didn’t have a mining fortune to invest, and their empire was not growing. Henry Donahue died on February 19, 1900, leaving Eliza to manage the household with the nine children — though some were hardly children anymore, ranging in age from 21 to 3. At the time, Eliza was renting 1073 56th Street to two local stablemen, William Dingle and Vincent Perkins. The rent was probably her only direct source of income, though her older sons were already working outside the home. John was a salesman; Henry Jr., a day laborer; 15-year-old Andrew, a photographer’s apprentice.
These were not easy times for the Donahues. The next year, in March 1901, Eliza’s youngest son Joseph died, a month shy of his fourth birthday. Eliza continued to rent the house for a few more years; different tenants cycled through. The 1903 Oakland directory shows it occupied by John Gilmore, a laborer. In 1905, the occupants were George R. Sharp and Frank D. Wilson.
Sharp and Wilson would be the last tenants. That year, Eliza Donahue decided to get out of the rental business. She sold Lot 8 of Block D of the Gaskill Tract and the house known as 1073 56th Street on July 20, 1905.
The buyers were a couple: John and Johanna Kavanagh, 53 and 52 years old, respectively. (The last name sometimes shows up as Kavanaugh, with a “u”.) John Matthew Kavanagh was born in Ireland and had come to the United States in 1864. Johanna was Canadian by birth, immigrating in 1867. John was a long-time employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, working in 1905 as a gateman. They had two sons, John F. (called John Jr.), who was 16, and Matthew, 13. Both worked in printing shops, one for the now-defunct Oakland Herald newspaper. For several years prior, the Kavanaghs had been living in rented houses around the Golden Gate neighborhood.
The Kavanaghs’ 1905 purchase put them just ahead of the next great boom in East Bay property values — a boom even less predictable than usual. On April 18, 1906 (108 years ago, to the day, as I write this), a powerful earthquake struck San Francisco. The quake toppled buildings, buckled streets, and leveled great stretches of the city. But it was the fire — four days of it, sweeping through the center of the city — that finished the job the quake had started. The quake and fire together destroyed 80% of San Francisco and left over a quarter-million people homeless. Many of the refugees fled the flames and the rubble by boarding ferries east.
Before the earthquake, the East Bay had been a mostly sleepy set of small towns, suburbs, farms and ranches. Oakland had some claim to the status of city, but even prosperous neighborhoods like Golden Gate still had plenty of relatively cheap, undeveloped land. The East Bay had been damaged in the quake, but no firestorm had followed, so the area had fared much better than San Francisco.
200,000 San Franciscans moved east in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Three-quarters of them ended up staying for good. Oakland, Berkeley, and other towns built rapidly to accommodate these new residents, and the Golden Gate neighborhood was caught up in that wave. (For a bit more about the East Bay’s post-quake boom, read Kevin Fagan’s San Francisco Chronicle article, published for the earthquake centennial in 2006.)
The Kavanaghs, as we might say now, happened to be in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, if Eliza Donahue — who survived the earthquake and stayed in San Francisco — had held onto the lot for just a year longer, her fortunes might have been considerably improved. Real estate markets are hard enough to time, even before you introduce the possibility of geological cataclysm.
When the quake hit, the Kavanaghs were still living in the small house that Eliza Donahue built at 1073 56th Street, which only occupied part of the western half of the lot. In late 1907 or early 1908, John Sr. built a bigger, more modern five-room cottage on the eastern half. The new house was roughly twice as large as the old, but still quite simple in layout: living room, dining room, and kitchen down one side, two bedrooms on the other. It had a front porch, just big enough for a couple of chairs or a bench, overlooking a small front yard and the street. The 1909 city directory lists the Kavanaghs at their new address: 1071 56th Street.
The Sanborn Map update published in 1911 shows the lot in this state: Donahue house on the west (left), the new, larger Kavanagh house on the east (right).
After their move, the Kavanaghs brought in a little money by renting the old 1073 house. From 1909 to 1911, Louise Bernatas, a widowed refugee from San Francisco, lived there with her three children. Another tenant, Leon Bertin, is listed there in the 1912 directory — but the directories lagged behind both building and moving.
Building permits and tax assessor’s records show instead that in 1911, John Kavanagh tore down the small house at 1073 56th and built a new one to replace it. He re-used the plans from his previous project, and built on the western half of his lot an exact twin of the house he’d put up on the eastern half: the house so nice he built it twice. These two identical houses, each about 750 square feet, nearly filled the 50′ width of the lot, save a narrow passage of not quite three feet between them. This second John Kavanagh house is the one I live in now. (When my wife and I bought our house three years ago, the date of construction was listed incorrectly as 1905. We thought it had survived the 1906 quake, and we felt pretty good about that. We don’t anymore.)
By 1913, the continued infill development of the neighborhood — spurred by the post-earthquake boom — had added enough new houses that they had to be renumbered. The Kavanaghs’ two houses were relabeled as 1077 and 1079 56th Street, the numbers they still bear today.
The 1915 city directory shows all the Kavanaghs living at 1077, with Matthew working at the Pacific Manifold Book Company, a relatively new factory at Powell and what is now Doyle Street in Emeryville. Every time I walk to my favorite local bar, I recreate Matthew Kavanagh’s walk to work. That site is now being redeveloped into a large apartment building, though they have preserved the factory’s eastern brick wall, including the window openings and the arched doorway you can see in this photo from around 1917.
The older Kavanagh son, John Jr., found time around his own printing job to be active in his local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West, the “Claremont Parlor”, Number 240. The Native Sons are a fraternal order for men born in California, whose primary mission is to preserve the history of the state. His parents were both immigrants from other countries, but John Jr. embraced his Californian identity with gusto. He served as President of the Claremont Parlor in 1913, the year he turned 24.
Among John’s brothers in the Native Sons chapter was a man named William C. Boehm (himself the son of German immigrants). Boehm had a younger sister named Marie, who lived nearby and worked as a telephone operator. Marie Katherine Boehm and John Kavanagh met, likely introduced by her brother, and married around 1916. As might be expected, John moved out of the family home at 1077 56th. The newlyweds started their life together in a house of their own — next door, at 1079 56th.
The 1920 Census gives us a picture of the Golden Gate Kavanaghs. John M. (68), Johanna, (67), and Matthew (29) lived at 1077 56th. John Sr. listed no occupation; he had retired from the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1919, after 35 years and 4 months of service. Next door at 1079 56th were John F. (30), Marie (24), and their two sons, William (3½) and John (2½) — yes, another John.
The Kavanaghs were on a real tear on 56th Street in this period. Just to the east of their twin houses was an older house, dating from the 1890s — complete with water tower and windmill, which was the style at the time. Around 1920, Matthew Kavanagh bought that property from its long-time owners, the Pendletons. Within a couple of years, the old house and the water tower came down. John Sr., with some time on his hands post-retirement, built a new house, larger than the twins he’d built next door. That new house was given the number 1073 56th. (You can imagine the knots I tied myself into during the early phases of this research when I was trying to track the Kavanaghs across several changing house numbers, one of which repeats.) 1073 would eventually acquire a carriage house at the rear of the lot, though I haven’t yet figured out the year of its construction.
After construction, John Sr., Johanna, and Matthew moved in to the new, larger house at 1073. John Jr., Marie, and their young sons swapped in to 1077. (Because they wanted to hurt future researchers like me.) And the family began renting 1079 — where I live now — to a succession of tenants. The Sanborn map to the right shows the Kavanagh holdings. This one family was now responsible for three out of the 13 houses on their side of the block.
John Kavanagh was no Borax Smith, but he had nonetheless shaped this neighborhood. He wasn’t motivated by a desire to name the place after himself or to make a fortune. He was motivated to provide for his family.
Kavanagh and other small property owners like him gave my block of 56th Street the built form it has today. Nearly every house on the block was built before 1925, a plurality (including mine) between 1906 and 1913. They had help from a terrible earthquake — an unusual antecedent for a real estate boom, surely, but the 1906 quake pushed up land values and housing demand in Oakland in the same way the previous, man-made booms had done. The quake tore (or burned) down buildings in San Francisco, and it built my neighborhood.
By 1930, John Kavanagh and his family (and the earthquake) had already left their legacy in the Golden Gate neighborhood. But I’m not through telling their story, or the story of this place. More of both in Part Six.