Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lake Temescal

early morning swimmers

One of Oakland's gems is Lake Temescal, located near highways 13 and 24. It's a man-made lake straddling the Hayward fault, and was originally created as a reservoir. Now it's used for swimming, picnicking, fishing, or just enjoying a bit of nature. There are short hiking trails around the lake, and a bikeway at the east side of the park that I ride frequently to and from Rockridge and the Temescal district.

Despite many visits, I'd never been there for swimming. The Fourth of July promised to be a hot day, so K and I made an early visit to Lake Temescal to cool off. We got there before 10AM, and most of the picnic spots were already claimed and the parking lots were filling up. The EBRPD guy collecting the beach fees said there'd been 1500+ people through on Sunday, and today promised to have even more. By the time we left a couple hours later, the beach was starting to fill up, and the BBQs at were going full blast.

Despite being in one of the wealthiest, least diverse Oakland neighborhoods, the Fourth had a beautiful cross section of Oakland enjoying the lake. I stopped by later in the afternoon, and the park was packed with happy people. Besides swimming at the beach, there were people eating, laughing, playing soccer, hiking, fishing and just hanging out to celebrate Independence Day.

A Bit of History
According to the park brochure, Franciscan missionaries named the creek "Temescal" from two Aztec words: Tema (to bathe) and cali (a house). The lake and the neighborhood (which the creek flows through, albeit mostly underground these days) were named for the creek. The reservoir was originally built in 1868 by Anthony Chabot's Contra Costa Water Co. to provide drinking water, and the story has it that wild mustangs were run back and forth across the dam to compact it during construction. Most of the manual labor to build the dam was done by Chinese immigrants.

c.1915, The Comet, from Oakland Hills

Besides its history as a reservoir, Lake Temescal is also connected with the railroads that used to run through the area. The Sacramento Northern (which my grandfather worked for) had tracks which ran where the bikeway is now. A historical panel in the park shows pictures. (These are the same tracks that continued through what is now Montclair Village and up Shepherd Canyon; the shallow grade is part of what makes it ideal for cycling.) At the time, an electric train called the Comet also ran directly over the lake on a trestle.

c.1950, from Selections from the
Oakland Tribune Archives

The area was converted to one of the first three East Bay regional parks and opened to the public in 1936. The lovely stone beach house was built by the WPA in 1940. The beach house can be rented for special events, and behind it there's a lovely patio and garden area.

In more recent history, Lake Temescal has again been used as a reservoir. Not for drinking water, but to provide water for fighting fires. In 1991, helicopters used it for water to fight the Oakland firestorm. As recently as 2009 it's been used for firefighting as well.

See also the Wikipedia entry on Lake Temescal. For more pictures and reading, visit the Oakland history room at the main library, and check out Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, including:
  • Images of America: Oakland Hills by Erika Mailman
  • Images of America: Selections from the Oakland Tribune Archives by Annalee Allen
Available at your favorite neighborhood Oakland bookstore.


Unknown said...

It's a nice place to hang out. I wanted to head for the lake, but of all the EBRPD swimming holes, only Del Valle currently meets state health standards for swimming. Bit of a shame really.

Unknown said...

Interesting. They don't make it easy to find the current status. You have to click on each one individually to read a PDF with the status. The EBRPD page on water quality is here. It looks like even Del Valle is a little over state standards at the moment.