The Livermores: Rockridge’s Founding Family
on May 15, 2012
When Oakland was incorporated as a city in 1852, it had about 75 residents. According to genealogist Frank Clinton Merritt, when some residents heard that a town called Oakland had been incorporated, they did not realize they were living in it, and argued about where it could be.
It was not surprising then, that before the 1860s Oakland was still much of a wild and undeveloped area, without settlements in what is now the Rockridge district. During the 1860s, a number of families from the East Coast moved to the area. Among them were the Livermores, who had come to the West Coast almost two decades earlier from New England, and amassed wealth in California by developing lumber mills and dams around Folsom before buying large tracts of land in Rockridge.
In a story that ran in the Piedmonter on October 3, 1985, historian Ray Raineri describes the Livermores’ move to the Bay Area. Horatio Gates Livermore, father of Horatio and Charles Edward Livermore, initially settled in San Francisco with his family in 1851. He established a lumbering operation in the Sierras in El Dorado County, which began with a saw mill on the banks of the American River. He then began developing the town of Folsom.
To power the mills, the elder Livermore built the first dam in California. He wanted to use Lowell, Massachusetts—where water wheels had powered the mills and factories for years—as a model for Folsom. His sons joined him in Folsom soon after, and by 1862 the trio controlled the Natoma Water and Mining Company and owned 9,000 acres of land in the area, which contained massive pine forests and “gold bearing gravel deposits” according to Raineri.
Much of what would become Rockridge remained under the control of Vincente Peralta at this time—the Spanish government granted him the territory which is now Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. This large swath of land was too big for Peralta to control alone, and he tried in vain to stave off squatters and then began to sell it off at “ridiculous” prices, according to Frank X. Flood, a local historian. In 1869, Horatio Gates’ sons purchased about 600 acres of land from Peralta above Broadway. Ten years later, Horatio P. Livermore had built a large home in the area, and with help from his brother Charles E. Livermore and John Hays (then sheriff of San Francisco), he had the area declared a separate subdivision called Rockridge.
Horatio P. Livermore’s wife came up with the name. In an interview with Flood in 1963, Horatio P.’s daughter, Mrs. Alfred Hurtgen, recalled the incident. “My mother was the first to name the area Rockridge. She thought it was appropriate because of an immense rock we called ‘Big Rock,’” she said. “It was the destination of many a picnic and horseback ride.” By the time Flood wrote the story, most of the rock had been blasted away, but a portion remained near Glenbrook Drive and Bowling Drive.
Hurtgen described Horatio P. Livermore as a “lover of trees and flowers.” In the time that the Livermores lived in Rockridge, he imported and planted a variety of trees and fauna into the areas surrounding the house, which was the only house on the property at the time. Some species he introduced, such as Eucalyptus trees, are still found in Rockridge. Flood recorded another incident that painted the younger Horatio as a very eccentric man. Some time after he had built the large and imposing house in Rockridge, Horatio P. Livermore decided to move the entire house to a new location, where the Claremont Country Club now stands. “To move such a large house was quite a project in those days,” Hurtgen said in her interview with Flood. “After the house was set on its new foundation, he built a large barn and nursery.” The barn later became part of the club.
While the Livermores lived in Rockridge, they continued to develop industry at Folsom through the 1870s, with plans for new water and electric dams underway. “The organizational skills and driving determination of first the elder Livermore and later his son Horatio P. were such that they convinced both the Westinghouse Company and the General Electric Company that a major powerhouse in the area of Folsom was of critical importance to both Sacramento and the Valley,” Raineri wrote. In 1895, the Folsom powerhouse was completed after the death of the elder Horatio Livermore. Later, it became part of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
The Livermores had stakes in a number of different cities in the East Bay, and Rockridge was just one of the places they helped to put on the map. Around the turn of the century, Horatio P. Livermore shifted his family to San Francisco, into a large house he had renovated, and the estate in Rockridge was sold. Sometime around the First World War, while the Livermore children were scattered around the world, the estate burned down. Only the brick chimney, front stairs and barn remained. Later, the Claremont Country Club was built where the first Rockridge house stood, and the barn was turned into a housing unit for the golf club employees.
As for the rest of the estate, the Laymanse Real Estate Company began selling tracts of land in the subdivision they had dubbed “Rock Ridge Properties” in 1906. Upon their purchase of the land, the company built the iconic white pillars that mark the entrance to their community. Soon after the 1906 earthquake and fire, Oakland’s wealthiest residents began to flock to Rockidge.
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