History (Desktop Version)

History (Desktop Version)

The City of San Leandro: Proud of its Past


- Mary Lee Barr, MLS

(Hover over or click an image for an enlarged view)


The history of San Leandro is as rich and as varied as the history of our State. It spans over thousands of years, beginning with the earliest people making their home along San Leandro Creek and transcends virtually each period of California and American history. The history of San Leandro can be divided into the following eras:

The Ohlone Era (3500 BC – 1769 AD)

The first settlers of San Leandro came to the Bay Area between approximately 3500 BC and 2500 BC. These people were most likely the ancestors of the Ohlone Nation .  The people who settled in the greater Hayward/San Leandro/Southern Oakland  region were known as members of the Jalquin Tribe .    They called their homeland Halchis.

As hunters and gatherers, the Ohlone made full use of the abundant natural resources found in the vast surrounding Bay marshlands. Shorebirds, waterfowl, deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, small game and shellfish were the main sources of food.

The Bay Area tribal villages consisted of an average of 40-60 people, each village having its own land, which was usually located near a freshwater stream. An important Ohlone settlement in San Leandro was located at what is now 152nd Avenue near the present Fairmont Hospital. Their religion was based on animal gods and they had a view of the world in which all things were alive. This belief, called animism, was central to their understanding of how the world worked. Everything had intelligence, willfulness, and power; thus everything demanded respect. This made every act of the Ohlone life deeply religious.

Spanish Exploration and the Mission Era (1769-1834)

When the Russians established a trading post at Fort Ross, an alarmed King Carlos III of Spain ordered in 1769 his Visitador General in New Spain (Mexico) Jose de Galvez to take immediate possession of Alta California, which Spain considered hers when an earlier Spanish explorer had claimed it as Spanish territory in 1602.

Galvez sent several forces combined into one expedition out from Baja California in the Spring of 1769. This expedition was led Captain Gaspar de Portola with Captain Fernando Rivera and Lt. Pedro Fages and also included Father Junipero Serra and Father Juan Crespi. The objective of this expedition was to travel north to Alta California and establish presidios (military forts) and missions the length of the land.

After assisting Portola in establishing a presidio and mission in Monterey in 1770, Fages, now promoted to Captain, led an expedition with Father Crespi out of Monterey on March 20, 1772 to find a land route to Point Reyes and establish a presidio and mission in San Francisco. On March 26, 1772 the expedition crossed the San Leandro plain and Father Crespi, who was the first foreigner to give an account of the area, described San Leandro as a broad, level plain covered with “grasses, mallows, and other herbs.” This expedition traveled as far as to what is now Antioch and returned back to Monterey, failing to find a land route to Point Reyes. A later expedition successfully established a presidio and mission in San Francisco in 1776.

By 1823, all 21 missions became established in California, including Mission San Jose (located in Fremont), which was founded on June 11, 1797. Franciscan priests enticed the Ohlone people to join this mission with presents of clothing and household utensils.

Once members of the Ohlone were baptized (who were then called neophytes), the priests used persuasive measures and even force to make the Ohlone live in accordance with the mission rules. Once they were converted to Catholicism, they then provided all the labor necessary to run a mission community, including growing crops, raising sheep, cooking and weaving. The Ohlone even became cowboys or vaqueros and San Leandro became a place of rounding up Mission San Jose's cattle herds, hence the region became known as El Rodeo de Arroyo de San Leandro. At this point, the Ohlone way of life was changed forever.

The Rancho Era (1834 – 1850)

In 1825, California became a territory of Mexico after Mexico won its independence from Spain.

By 1834 the missions were secularized and mission buildings, lands and herds were taken over by the Mexican government. Some of the land and stock were awarded to faithful members of the Ohlone. Other lands were dispersed in the form of land grants.

One such land grant was to José Joaquin Estudillo, the first Spanish settler to reside in San Leandro and thus considered the founder of San Leandro. As an adolescent, Estudillo entered into military service at the Monterey Presidio. At 23 years of age, he married Juana del Carmen Martinez.  They subsequently had 11 children that survived to adulthood.  Two of his daughters later on married two historically significant figures of San Leandro: John B. Ward and William Heath Davis.

Estudillo subsequently served in the military for 17 years. Anticipating recognition for his years of military service to the Mexican government, Estudillo in 1837 applied for a grant to Governor Nicholas Guiterre for the old El Rodeo de Arroyo de San Leandro.

Five years later, Governor Juan Alvarado granted Estudillo's application on October 16, 1842.  The land grant covered almost 7,000 acres and included all the land between San Leandro Creek and San Lorenzo Creek, from the hills to the Bay, except the land occupied by the Ohlones.  He called this land Rancho San Leandro

In 1850, Estudillo built a “fine framework house” for his family on a site located at 474 West Estudillo Avenue.

Statehood, the Agrarian Era and the Birth of a Town (1850 -1872)

The Gold Rush of 1849 and the subsequent statehood of California greatly impacted many ranchos, which had been established under Spanish and then Mexican governance. Now, the rancho owners had to have their land claims confirmed by the U.S. Government. This was not always an easy process, as “squatters” appealed to the U.S. courts for this same land. These squatters were American citizens who traveled from all parts the United States to “strike it rich” in California's foothills but failed and now wanted to try farming as another venture - but on rancho land. Some squatters had the audacity to build cabins on rancho land and erected fencing around their illegal claims.

Thomas Mulford was a squatter who settled on Estudillo's Rancho San Leandro in 1849. Predictably, boundary disputes erupted between Mulford and the Estudillo family. Then, in 1862, hoping to solve an unpleasant situation, the Estudillo family sold Mulford 1/36 of the rancho for $10,000.  The land Mulford bought is shown in this photo above and comprises what are now the Mulford Gardens subdivisions.

Many farms, such as Mulford's farm, became established and flourished surrounding Rancho San Leandro. Agricultural products included wheat, barley, corn, peas, tomatoes, rhubarb and apricots. But the most important product by far, and the product that put San Leandro on the agricultural map, was the Cherry. So great was cherry production in San Leandro, that eventually San Leandro became dubbed as “ The Cherry City.”

With a growing prosperity and the establishment of Alameda County in 1853, San Leandro was elected its county seat on December 30, 1854.

Envisioning the establishment of a town, John B. Ward and William Heath Davis secured permission from their mother-in-law, Juana Estudillo, to subdivide a tract of 200 acres. The town of San Leandro was laid out by Ward.  Some of the streets the tract included were Hays, Clarke, Carpentier, Estudillo, Davis and Ward (now W. Estudillo) streets.

On February 27, 1855, on St. Leander's Day, Ward and Davis filed a map of a new town site, to be called San Leandro, with provision for four parcels to be set aside for public use. 

On February 21, 1857, the Alameda County Seat moved into its first permanent building, known as the “County Courthouse” shown in the picture to the left. It once stood on the corner of Clarke and Davis streets.

In 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railway, San Leandro enjoyed an infusion of new commerce. The rail lines passed through and also stopped at San Leandro. Many companies located their factories and warehouses by these rail lines. The advent of rail service had a huge beneficial impact on San Leandro's farmers and orchardists as well. These growers were now able to ship their produce at greater distances, at a faster rate, and at greater quantities across the country. Later, canneries and packing companies of farm produce also became established in San Leandro.

It wasn't long afterwards that San Leandro's city fathers made a monumental decision. On March 21, 1872, San Leandro became incorporated as a town. On May 13, 1872, the first meeting of the town officers elect was held.  Issac A. Ammerman was the first President (mayor) of San Leandro.

Eventually, though, as Oakland's population grew as a result of being an important terminus for the railroad industry, San Leandro was no longer the leading city of Alameda County.  In 1873, Oakland became the new county seat.

Daniel Best and the Agribusiness Era (1880 – 1900)

Daniel Best, one of the most remarkable citizens in San Leandro's history, started his agribusiness in Oregon selling his grain cleaners.

He eventually made quite a name for himself as an innovator.  A portable grain cleaner and separator, a seed-coating machine and a horse-powered combine harvester were just a few of his many, many inventions.

Best's farm machinery business prospered and he eventually established a branch in Oakland, California.  On one of his business trips to the Oakland branch, he visited San Leandro. In 1886, he bought a plow company located at what is now 800 Davis Street and re-named it the Daniel Best Agricultural Works, shown below. He and his wife and family made their home, which still stands, on the corner of Clarke and West Estudillo.

By September 1888, Best received a patent for his combined steam traction harvester and thresher. 

This new invention revolutionized farming. The traction engine, such as the one shown below, was the predecessor to the tractor, and could pull a combine faster and over rougher terrain than teams of horses could. The two chief components of the “combined” machine were a steam traction engine which gave the locomotion, and a harvester which had the cutting and cleaning machinery operated by an auxiliary engine that took its steam from the boiler of the traction engine. The combine had a conveyer to carry straw from the harvested grain threshed to a receptacle close to the boiler, so the combine could cut its own fuel as it went along!

Note how the farm workers are dwarfed by the machinery in the photo below. These engines were indeed enormous. Early models of this engine were rated at 110 horsepower, weighed 19 tons and stood approximately 17 feet. The back wheels were 8 feet high. The immense power of these engines was astonishing: they could haul 36 tons of rolling load up 12% grades!

Later, Best developed his first gas-powered traction engine. By August 1889, Best was manufacturing one traction engine a week. Amazingly, another inventor by the name of Benjamin Holt almost simultaneously came up with his own version of the traction engine (nicknamed the “Caterpillar”) and became a major competitor to Daniel Best's “Tracklayers.” On January 23, 1893, the Daniel Best Manufacturing Works was incorporated as the Daniel Best Manufacturing Company. It employed a work force of over 85 men and brought San Leandro's first large sustained payroll and first year-round employment to town.

The Era of Progress and Community Enrichment (1900 – 1935)

San Leandro city improvements and prosperity moved at full speed towards the 20th Century. In 1892 the first trolley cars began to operate through San Leandro from Oakland to Hayward. In 1898, telephone service was initiated. Street lights were then converted from gas to electric in 1903. Then in 1906, the “Great Boulevard,” now known as MacArthur Blvd., was officially opened.  And in 1917, the pavement of downtown streets for the first time was completed.

For recreation, a San Leandro Baseball Club was formed and even a baseball field and bleachers that seated 400 people was constructed in 1909 where the BART station is now located.  In 1917, Thrasher Park became San Leandro's first park.

Also, in 1909, the San Leandro Elementary School District was established as well as a beautiful new Carnegie Library (shown at left) on the same site as the current Main Library. Much pomp and circumstance was planned for the Library's dedication, which was on May 14, 1909, and which over 3,000 people attended. A parade of some 600 school children, led by a town brass band, ended at the Library where they then sang patriotic songs.

One of the most spectacular celebrations in San Leandro's history, though, was the City's first Cherry Festival, held on June 5, 1909. Because the city experienced a bumper crop of cherries, the Board of Trade and the City's fathers decided to hold its first annual Cherry Festival to promote San Leandro. Miss Bessie Best, a daughter of Daniel Best, was voted to be the City's first Cherry Queen. The festival lasted all day and into the night with over 25,000 visitors from all over the Bay Area attending. Over 15 tons of cherries were distributed free to all. The photo at left shows the coronation of Queen Bessie in the City Plaza with hundreds of spectators.

In 1911, Daniel Best, during his retirement years, decided to invest in the city's business future by establishing a banking institution. He had built the San Leandro State Bank (shown at left), which still stands on the corner of Estudillo and East 14 th streets.

This beautifully ornate building, now known as the "Daniel Best Building," remains to this day as the proud symbol for San Leandro's downtown area.

As San Leandro's population continued to grow so did the need for schools. In 1910 the stately Lincoln School (shown at left) for elementary levels was built on the corner of Clarke and Hepburn. And in 1917, the McKinley and Washington Elementary Schools were built. They were both completed December 1916 and dedicated on January 12, 1917.

In 1916, Daniel Best's son, Clarence Leo ("C.L"), who had moved the family business to Oakland, was lured back to re-locate in San Leandro by the City's fathers and local businessmen with a subscription of $20,000. C.L. Best took the old business, tore down and replaced the old buildings and employed 300 men. Production of the C.L. Best Thirty- and Sixty-model tractors soon commenced and they were sold the world over.

In 1925, the Best and Holt companies merged and formed the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The plant was located on the same site as the Daniel Best Agricultural Works (800 Davis Street) and in 1926, new office buildings of the Caterpillar Tractor Company opened across from the plant on Davis Street.

On July 12, 1933, a charter for the City of San Leandro was adopted by a vote of two to one. Since 1872, the City had been governed by the legislature of the State. The charter established a Mayor-Council-Manager form of government.

The Urban Development Era (1935 -1945)

To hasten economic recovery from the devastating Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a series of "New Deal" programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Established in 1935, the WPA provided paying jobs for unemployed workers. San Leandro benefited from this program by its provision of 500 men to install throughout the city over 40 miles of curbs and gutters. Much of the older part of town had lacked curbs entirely or the old existent curbs were made of redwood and in bad disrepair.

From 1927 to 1935, Alameda County funded the construction of ten memorial buildings for veterans. County architect Henry Haight Meyers oversaw the construction of the San Leandro Veterans' Memorial Building. By the time construction was completed in 1934, great civic pride was felt regarding the building. It was described as one of the finest designed structures in the County. The total cost of construction was $80,000. Over 1500 people attended its dedication on September 23, 1934. It is located at 1105 Bancroft Avenue.

Big business helped the City as well. In 1936, Carl Friden, a Swedish immigrant and inventor of a full keyboard motor-driven calculator, built his first permanent plant in San Leandro. The plant was 25,000 square feet and employed 335 people. In June of 1939, 15,000 additional square feet was added to the plant and 200 more people were hired. This made the Friden operation the second largest plant in San Leandro, Caterpillar ranking first. The company had 125 offices in the U.S. and 50 countries.

Another big business became established in San Leandro. On May 19, 1939 a ground-breaking ceremony was held at the future site of the Chrysler plant near the 1900 block of Davis Street.

In June of 1938, the City was awarded a Public Works Administration (PWA) grant of $300,000. This money and bond money approved by a citizen vote helped fund the construction of a fine new City Hall .  Designed by Irwin M. Johnson, the two-story structure housed both the fire and police departments, the city administration offices, the county supervisor's office, the chamber of commerce and court rooms. Construction was completed on this impressive building March of 1939.  It remains in use at its original location at 835 East 14 th Street to this day. The City Hall is located at 835 East 14th Street.

Within just a few years, history was made at City Hall: Mrs. Helen L. C. Lawrence , a native of the Azores, became Mayor of San Leandro in 1941. She was San Leandro's first woman mayor and only the second woman mayor in California.

She was also the first mayor of Portuguese descent in the United States. She served 3 years as mayor and 10 years on the council. Some of the achievements attributed to her included: the construction of the City Hall and the sewage disposal plant, the development of Memorial Park, the development of new streets and miles of sidewalks and she initiated municipal garbage service. A building at City Hall is named in her honor.

The Post-WWII Industrial Era  

From 1940 to 1950, San Leandro experienced a large population explosion. In fact, according to the City's Chamber of Commerce, the population doubled.  During this span of time, San Leandro underwent a dramatic shift from an agricultural community to an industrial city, with 87 industrial parcels annexed to the City. The photo to the left shows the City's industrial growth in 1951. With increased employment came the demand for more housing.  New neighborhoods grew where cherry orchards once flourished.

March 21, 1972 marked the City's 100 th Anniversary of its incorporation and the 200 th Anniversary of its discovery by a Spanish expedition. Starting March 18, 1972, San Leandro celebrated its Centennial-Bicentennial Anniversary with a week of festivities, including a formal presentation of a proclamation naming San Leandro as honorary state capital for 1972. A San Leandro Centennial time capsule was also dedicated.

San Leandro in the 21st Century

Progress never stops in this City and just before the turning of a new century the old 1961 Main Library building was completely remodeled and seismically retrofitted.

The new Main Library was dedicated on December 16, 2000. An additional 25,000 square feet of space was added to the library. It has a capacity of over 300,000 books and other resources, including media items and over 75 public computers.

In 2004 the San Leandro History Museum opened to the public. It was designed to showcase San Leandro history and serve as a centerpiece for community cultural activity. Wall murals, life-size portraits and exhibits educate visitors on the City's extensive history.

The museum, which also houses a theater for local stage productions, is one of the few city-owned museums in California.  It is located at 320 West Estudillo Avenue.

Then on June 2, 2007, the San Leandro History Walk was dedicated at the Casa Peralta. This walk was part of the West Estudillo Pedestrian Improvement Project. It begins at the San Leandro Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station and travels along West Estudillo, past the Casa Peralta historic home and the City's History Museum, through Washington Plaza and ends at East 14 th Street.

A beautiful fountain, arches, old-fashioned street lamps, pavement designs, landscaping and historic markers are the many street improvements found on this walk. City planners envisioned this project as a thoroughfare that connects downtown stores and restaurants to the BART Station as well as provide a link to many of the City's historical buildings and historic sites.

This project received a 2007 Merit Award from the Northern California Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in the design category.

On April 4, 2011, San Leandro's state-of-the-art Senior Community Center (SCC) opened. The 21,000 square foot facility provides an array of social, recreation and health-related activities. The need for a senior center was identified in 2002 in a Senior Needs Assessment Report prepared by the Alameda County Area Agency on Aging. The SCC is located at 13909 East 14 th Street.

March 2, 2012, the City of San Leandro's infrastructure was revolutionized with the installation of a city-wide fiber optic loop, known as “Lit San Leandro.”  

Lit San Leandro was conceived by Dr. J. Patrick Kennedy, a San Leandro resident, and president and founder of OSIsoft, a manufacturer of application software and one of the City's largest employers.  So strong was his belief that high-speed communication is  essential to business that he spent $3 million of his own money to build it, with the intention to help expand his company as well as the technology industry in the East Bay. Supplementing this financial contribution was a $2.1 million federal grant awarded to the City of San Leandro.

Lit San Leandro runs approximately 10 miles through several areas of the City through existing conduit. This has positioned the City to be a major player in the high-tech and clean-tech industries. Businesses in San Leandro are now able to tap into a direct fiber connection to most long haul and telecom suppliers, allowing them to connect to the external world, such as data centers, hubs, and other offices at extremely high speeds. As of summer 2013, the vast majority of the loop is operational and almost 2 million square feet of building space is connected in San Leandro.

This connectivity, the availability of long-vacant and underused industrial sites and the City itself all encouraged a boom of start-up businesses and business innovation in San Leandro in mid-2014.

San Leandro also has been aggressively marketing its lower rents, proximity to the Oakland International Airport and the Port of Oakland, and its willingness to work with businesses.  Startup businesses now include a 3-D desktop printer manufacturing firm, an artist group and a brewery. A tech campus (with artist's conception shown at left) is in the planning stages for OSIsoft. 

The City also has plans to enhance newly emerging innovative industrial hubs with better lighting, bike lanes, public art and other amenities to attract new manufacturing that will provide a business development blueprint for all other cities to follow.

San Leandro is only beginning its impressive march into the future. Proud of its rich past, the City will continue to make history and create a place for its future with leadership, industry, partnerships, community and innovation.

For More Information on Lit San Leandro :

Lit San Leandro (http://www.sanleandro.org/depts/cd/bizdev/broadband/lit_san_leandro.asp)

Businesses in the News (http://www.sanleandro.org/depts/cd/bizdev/businesses_in_the_news.asp)

Broadband Strategy (http://www.sanleandro.org/depts/cd/bizdev/broadband/broadband_home.asp)

PDF Documents (http://www.sanleandro.org/search/document.asp?qts=1&q='Lit San Leandro')

For more on the history of the City of San Leandro:

Credit Information for Images (in order of appearance) :

Langsdorff, Georg Heinrich. “Dance of Indians at Mission San Jose, New California between 1803 and 1807.”  BANC PIC 1963.002:1023—FR. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

“De Anza Expedition, 1775-1776.” Courtesy of the Tubac Historical Society, Tubac Presidio Park, Tubac, Arizona.

Choris, Louis. “Indians at a Mission.”  Courtesy of the California Historical Society, San Francisco, California.

“LitSanLeandro” image courtesy of the City of San Leandro, San Leandro, California.

All other images are courtesy of the San Leandro Public Library Historical Photograph Collection, San Leandro Public Library, California.

Credit Information for Text:

Text consists of excerpts from  “A Timeline of San Leandro History: Bringing the Past into the Present” by  Mary Lee Barr. 2005

mlb    1/24/12 - revised 3/4/15