A Brief History


Our tidal lagoon is named after Dr. Samuel Merritt, a medical doctor who came west for the gold rush.

At 6’3′ tall and weighing 340 pounds, Sam was an imposing figure who became mayor of Oakland in 1868.

Since he never married and his sister moved away, there are no known relatives. He is buried in the Oakland hills.

Dr. Merritt carried out an astonishing number of major projects, and is entitled to be known as “The father of Oakland.”

Some say he can still be seen around the shores of Lake Merritt.

The following three articles were written by Dr. Richard L. Bailey and published in the Montclarion newspaper between January 1993 and March 1994.

PART I: Lake Merritt represents 10,000 years of evolution and history.

Long before man walked its shores there existed an estuary we now call lake Merritt. Formed by the same tidal forces that control it today, it has pulsed through the ages, fed countless flocks of waterfowl, and nourished our ancestors. Events such as fires, floods and major earthquakes are trivial to the lake for she has seen them countless times: She will see them countless times again. Our best estimates indicate that Lake Merritt was probably formed in the late Pleistocene era, more than 10,000 years ago. Temperatures warmed as the last ice age ended and the seas once again rose to flood what later became known as San Antonio Creek. As prominent as the tides were to her formation, were the creeks that brought fresh water to mingle with the sea. Recently called Glen Echo, Wilder and Indian Gulch Creeks, they were then unnamed streams, fed by the still variable rains and home to spawning salmon along the redwood shores. Some say that a few of the salmon ancestors still make the pilgrimage, seeking the lost gravel beds, homing into a signal imbedded in their genes. When the descendants of those people that crossed the Bering Straits first saw the estuary on their way to Central and South America, there were grizzly bear tracks in the mud and elk on the overlooking hills. Out in the Bay, seals were a common sight, and perhaps sea otters and gray whales. The abundance of wildlife would be astounding by today’s standards. Un-harvested, unpolluted, and undeveloped, the vast resources of time lay fertile and available. Broad marshlands, shimmering mudflats and rafts of ducks greeted these first human visitors.

Fish, shellfish, deer and other game supplied most of the food for early residents, some of whom hunted and gathered along the shores of what became Lake Merritt. Such was the very early history of Lake Merritt. The records lie buried in geological strata and on the dusty shelves of libraries at nearby Universities. That these universities are here is testament in part to the natural resources of the area of which Lake Merritt is a part. These resources that sustained our ancestors are now used in very different ways: Bent; modified to our needs , and (in some ways) diminished. Although the waterway no longer supplies much food, it now serves what is perhaps an even greater requirement for our society. As a place of respite, an open area where we can see the sky and look to other forms of life, Lake Merritt serves an inner need. It is a resource that feeds our souls that may have been tarnished by the ills of an urban populace. It is a place of beauty, an opportunity to re-create, and a lesson that we are only a part of life, not its totality. In part II of this series, we will discuss the human history of Lake Merritt. But remember: man and his machines; his pumps that now control the water level are but a speck in time to the lake. She will be here when they are gone. For concrete and metal are unnatural, and therefore temporary. When we cease to maintain them (or when we cease to be) they will slowly deteriorate and crumble. And slowly, through the eons, Lake Merritt will resume her intrinsic form, a slave to water, the tides and the inherent laws that we may only temporarily direct for our own well being.

PART II: The lake in the years since Cityhood

Part One of this history series presented a brief description of what the land and water around lake Merritt was like before the arrival of mankind. There is much from that period that we don’t know, but the human history is more easily documented. Much of it is preserved on the second floor of the Oakland Public Library, and at the Cameron Stanford House, a Victorian-era embodiment of the fine culture that formerly graced much of the shoreline. Our story begins when the land beneath the waters was known as San Antonio Creek, owned by Don Luis Peralta and part of the Rancho San Antonio. At this time the open body of water was much smaller, confined to what is now the center of Lake Merritt and surrounded by large mudflats. The tide flowed unobstructed and boats carrying commerce moved to and from San Francisco Bay. Don Luis named the tidal lagoon after himself, Lake Peralta. In 1852 the city of Oakland was founded and a year later a toll bridge was built across San Antonio Creek to connect the new city with the village of Brooklyn. Shortly afterward, an imposing figure who was to play a significant part in the history of the Lake arrived. Dr. Samuel Merritt, who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 340 pounds, had come west for the gold rush and ultimately (together with two others) formed the Oakland Waterfront Company that controlled the entire shoreline. By 1867 Merritt, whose booming voice preceded him into a room, had become mayor, and in 1869 a dam was built across the creek, enlarging the lake and limiting tidal flow. Mayor Merritt then dedicated its waters as a “public lake.” If this date is chosen as the birth of Lake Merritt, our urban estuary is 125 years old this year. In 1870 the state governor signed a bill establishing the area as the first wildlife refuge in North America. By the end of 1874 the name Lake Merritt had been used officially for the first time. Then came the dark side. As more and more people came, pipes were installed and creeks became drains. Civilization brought toilets, and Lake Merritt became a harbor for “the necessities of nature.” In 1884, 90 percent of the city’s sewage flowed into the north arms of the lake. By 1892 the City Engineer reported that the lake was filling in at the rate of one inch per year.

In response, Lake Merritt was dredged (apparently for the first time) in 1893, a project that continued more or less for the next 22 years and beyond.

In 1907 the dredged material was used to fill in the mud flats around 12th Street.

In 1922, the lake was dredged again and the material used to create the first of five bird islands in the refuge.

By the turn of the century, Lake Merritt had been branded a cesspool and a menace to public health. In 1912 the city passed an ordinance prohibiting swimming, a regulation that still exists today. Things had not improved much by the “Roaring Twenties,” when the Fish and Game Commission called the lake “notoriously bad'” and people were advised not to swim in the waters due to high bacterial levels. Lake Merritt was living on the edge; sustaining recreational boating and populations of fish, but succumbing to the periods when tidal action could not remove the massive load of pollutants carried in by the drains. Along the shoreline however, things were looking up. In the progressive period after 1900 when major improvements were made to American cities, Mayor Frank Mott (not William Penn Mott) promoted improvements to the area. Between 1907 and 1925 these included the establishment of park lands, landscaping, wells and a fountain, the El Embarcadero columns, the municipal Boathouse, bandstand, lawn bowling greens, model yacht club, tennis courts, canoe house (now the sailboat house), a beach, a road around the lake and major buildings overlooking the waters. After two temporary projects, the first in 1913, the “Necklace of Lights” became permanent in 1925 and soon appeared on postcards around the world. As this era came to a close and the Great Depression began, Lake Merritt presented a paradox. Committed to it as a major park and recreation center, the city had not come to grips with the water pollution problems which would continue to grow as the population increased. Lake Merritt was serving as a recreation center, a wildlife refuge, a source of civic pride and property tax enhancement and unfortunately, the dumping grounds of sanitary and storm sewers. In part Three, we will learn how improvements in water quality were made, of the recent changes that created the environment we know today and of the continuing battle against storm drain pollution.

Part III: Development has given, taken away from the lake.

She turned the parasol to the far side of the boat, hiding the view of a dead rat drifting by. It was after all a lovely spring day on Lake Merritt. Despite the stock market crash, the water, wind and sun still worked their magic, and a sense of peace pervaded the air, broken only the cries of sea gulls, overhead and children in the park. As the ’30’s began, the urban estuary was larger and more popular than it ever had been, but tidal flow was limited by the dam, and the sewer flow was increasing. By 1930 a sailing club had been formed, and its regattas competed occasionally with outboard motor races and fishermen. Fish? Yes; despite the pollution after periods of rain, striped bass (imported from the east coast) salmon and other species entered the estuarine lake on incoming tides. In 1935 bass were so plentiful they were taken by pitchforks, but in 1939 over three tons of them perished in a massive fish kill, probably the result of low oxygen due to a neap tide and decomposition of organic matter from the storm drains and sewers. Still, in 1948 the Mayor’s smelt derby began, a testimony to the resilience of the Lake and its continuing biological productivity. Despite the pollution after periods of rain, the muted tides still flushed out the waste and renewed the resource. On the shoreline, development continued. The Scottish Rite Temple was remodeled in art deco style by 1939 and the County Courthouse was built in the same period. By the 1950’s Children’s Fairyland had opened, enchanting the first children of the baby boom. Four more bird islands were built and the Rotary Science Center was completed in 1953. As the ’60’s progressed a cactus garden and public restaurant were completed. Four years later the new museum opened nearby and in 1972 Estuary Park was completed, providing open space for nearby Laney College. The native Canadian geese saw their first “Festival of the Lake” in 1980 and in 1987 the necklace of lights was returned to its prior glory, having been abandoned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Historians, however, do not appear to have recorded an equally important series of events.

Somewhere in this time period, the work of City engineers began to undo the wrongs they had created earlier. They began to connect the sewer pipes to waste water treatment plants, bypassing Lake Merritt. This work continued through the ’80’s, and the results were profound. Without its burden of waste water, Lake Merritt began to cleanse itself. A further drastic improvement came in 1985 when the entire Lake (except near the shoreline) was dredged, removing years of accumulated, polluted sediments. As the ’90’s began, water quality in Lake Merritt had improved to a point where body contact sports would be allowable based on summer bacterial counts. During the winter, when storm drains flush the streets into the Lake and large flocks of waterfowl defecate, bacterial levels exceed the standards. But when the rains end and most of the birds leave, levels of bacteria indicating pathogens decline and activities such as swimming, wading and wind surfing become perfectly safe. Perception, however, lags behind change, and the “No Swimming” signs persist. I once met a man on the shore who declared that “there isn’t a fish alive in this Lake.” Floating trash, the most obvious of the pollutants visible from the shoreline, reinforces this outdated image. True, the storm drains still dump their nasty burdens in the Lake, but with an average residence time of only four days before it is replaced, the water doesn’t stay dirty. The cleansing tides flush the Lake, and the daily Clean-Up crew snares what trash they can reach. Only in the sediments does the nasty stuff build up, spreading across the bottom until once again removed by dredging. Lake Merritt is now cleaner than at any other time in this century. The recent “Adopt a Storm Drain,” “We Mean Clean” and county storm drain programs hold promise for an even clean watershed and estuary. Eventually, perhaps in the next century, the storm drains will be rerouted or channeled to upstream treatment basins, providing an even cleaner Lake Merritt. Nearby, the proposed Master Plan could restore, enhance and preserve the lands around the water, a fitting tribute to a unique, urban natural resource. For now, though, we can reflect on several generations of how people have interacted with the waters we call Lake Merritt: Exploitation, expansion, development, pollution, recognition, improvement and appreciation. As a new century dawns, one thing is certain. The Lake will be here; how shall we relate to it?

Two excellent articles describing the past and recent history are:

Pond of Dreams: The Secret History of Lake Merritt. East Bay Express. November 25, 1994. Vol.17, No.7. By Glen David Gold.

Lake Merritt Restoration Project. January, 1982. By Roderick Hoffman & Gary Shawley. A report submitted to the US EPA and the CA Water Resources Control Board.