Saturday was the first Oakland Heritage Alliance tour of the season, and was focused on Francis Marion "Borax" Smith. If you know anything about Oakland history, you've probably heard the name "Borax" Smith. After making a fortune in mining, Frank (as he was known to friends) switched his attention to real estate, and developed the Key System as a way to help develop and sell that real estate.
I have to admit I went in to the tour kind of wondering what we'd see. After all, the Smith Estate was long gone, so what was there to look at? While the house itself is gone, there are still remnants of the Smith's legacy. We couldn't have asked for a more knowledgeable tour guide than Phil Bellman, a long-time OHA member who has been leading these tours since the 80s. We met just off Park Blvd. across from where the mansion was.
While all that is gone, buildings that were around the estate and that were built after the estate was sold remain. There are some remarkable buildings, designed by the likes of Julia Morgan, Bernard Maybeck, and Clarence Dakin.
Frank and his first wife, Mary (Mollie) R. Smith were also known because of Mary's philanthropic work. Inspired by Benjamin Farjeon's Blade O'Grass, she started a home for "friendless" (i.e., orphaned) girls. Frank built a total of 13 cottages for the girls, plus the Home Club, which served as a community center, and turned over 34 acres to the Mary R. Smith Trust. A number of the cottages are still standing and are private residences now.
Along with amazing architecture and history about Smith, there were various interesting tidbits of Oakland history on the tour. One was an old sidewalk stamp at the corner of East 24th St. and 9th Ave, dating back to 1902. Our guide mentioned it was the oldest sidewalk stamp he knew of in Oakland. I immediately thought of the Oakland Sidewalk Stamps blog, and quickly found one as old. (With a little more searching on the site, I found ones dating to 1901). But what's remarkable is how little else was there in 1902, so having a sidewalk out in the boondocks was a big deal.
F.M. Smith Park further down Park Blvd., which includes a plaque about Smith, statues of mules, and a grave marker for Smokey - a good mule. The park was built on land donated by the Smiths.
After getting some lunch and running some errands, I also stopped by a plaque in Trestle Glen that tells about the trestle built by Smith's Oakland Traction Company (a predecessor of the Key System). In 1893, they extended a streetcar line from downtown Oakland, up Park Boulevard, and built a large trestle across what was then Indian Gulch to carry picnickers to Sather Park. Mark Twain was one of the inaugural riders. The trestle lasted until 1906, when the streetcar was rerouted.
"Borax" Smith died in 1931, and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, along "Millionaires Row".
Some other Smith-related Oakland sites:
Claremont Hotel - Built as a "destination" on the Key System by Smith's Realty Syndicate.
El Campanil - The clock tower at Mills College, donated by the Smiths, designed by Julia Morgan. One of the earliest structures built west of the Mississippi of reinforced concrete, it survived the 1906 earthquake unscathed, and furthered Morgan's career both as an architect and an engineer. (Various sources say it was the earliest, but see Phil's comment about earlier structures.)
See lots more photos here:
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