3.2 - Historical Perspective

This abbreviated history gives an indication of the adverse impacts development has had on Strawberry Creek. A long history of water quality problems, flooding, and erosion becomes apparent. Extensive diversions and stream course channelization and alterations have occurred over the past eighty years. Construction costs for storm drainage systems and flood damage to the University over time has been quite significant

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish and other white setters to California in the late 1770's, native Indians of the Huchiun-Ohlone group lived in clustered settlements along streams such as Strawberry Creek. They once maintained a summer camp near the present site of the stadium. The Indians were hunter-gatherers who managed their land by controlled burning of the underbrush to facilitate acorn gathering and the growth of seed-bearing annuals. The landscape appeared as an open oak woodland and grassland filled with perennial bunch grasses and herbaceous flowering plants. Much of the tree cover was limited to the stream channels, and strips of riparian vegetation closely followed the steam corridors from the crests of the hills down to the alluvial flatlands. Deer, elk, bear, and mountain lions were abundant in the hills. Salmon and trout spawned in the upper reaches of the creeks.

On March 27, 1772, a Spanish scientific expedition led by Don Pedro Fages stopped along the banks of Strawberry Creek just upstream of present-day Oxford Street. From this future site of the University, diarist Juan Crespi described the beauty of the Golden Gate vista. Legend has it that the creek got its name from the abundant strawberry vines that lined its banks. Spanish explorers named the East Bay area "Contra Costa" or "opposite coast". In the early 1800's much of the East Bay was partitioned into land grants by the last Spanish governor of California. The boundaries of these tracts were often delineated by streams because they were the most obvious landscape elements. The Rancho San Antonio tract which was deeded to Don Luis Maria Peralta in 1820 encompassed the present cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Alameda, Oakland, Piedmont, and San Leandro. In 1842, Peralta divided the Rancho among his four sons, and gave his son Jose Domingo the area now called Berkeley.

The Gold Rush of 1849 opened the East Bay to land development booms. The Berkeley area bore the brunt of the influx of American settlers as development spread across the Bay from San Francisco. Jose Domingo Peralta resisted the first American squatters, but soon realized he could not maintain control over such desirable land. In 1853, Peralta sold off most of his land and the next year Orrin Simmons, a sea captain turned farmer, acquired squatter's rights to 160 acres of land between Strawberry Creek and the present Clark Kerr campus. In 1857, he obtained full title and purchased two more tracts of land, giving him ownership of 700 acres including the future site of the University campus.

In 1860, the College of California moved to its present site from Oakland. Strawberry Creek was one of the main reasons the founders chose Simmons' property. "All the other striking advantages of this location could not make it a place fit to be chosen as the College Home without this water. With it every excellence is of double value" (Willey, 1887). Even during a drought in 1864 the stream continued to flow the entire year, yielding about 100,000 gallons a day or about 0.16 cfs. Three forks of Strawberry Creek meandered through the college site at that time. The middle fork was drained in the early 1870's to create a dry level area for a cinder running track now occupied by the Life Sciences Building Annex. To protect the track from strong westerly winds, the Eucalyptus Grove was planted.

The central campus at this time was a sloping grassy plain dotted with coast live oaks. Oaks, sycamores, bay trees, and shrubs lined both forks of Strawberry Creek. Old photographs reveal considerable tree planting during the 1860's and 1870's in an apparent effort to improve the barren landscape. Cattle were introduced into the hill area in the 1850's and grazed on imported annual grasses which quickly established themselves. Eventually these grasses out-competed the native perennial bunch grasses which could not survive the impacts of heavy grazing. Dairy farms were located in Strawberry Canyon before the land became part of UC holdings in 1909 and cattle continued grazing in the hills until the 1930's. Grass-oak savannah was the vegetative cover in the canyon as shown in photographs taken in 1870 and 1901. The East Bay creeks supported a growing timber trade that significantly depleted the tree cover of the upper creeks. This was especially true during the rebuilding period which followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Eucalyptus was often planted throughout the East Bay hills in the early 1900's by small private water companies as a means of profiting from the shortage of California hardwood lumber at the time. 

Waterworks were constructed in Strawberry Canyon in the 1860's to supply water to farms and speculators. Springs were developed, pipes laid, and wooden flumes constructed to carry the water. In 1867, a brick reservoir was constructed in the canyon and waterworks placed to deliver more water. Up until this time the cleared land in the canyon was divided amongst a few farmers. As additional land was cleared in the canyon, runoff from the hills increased, causing severe erosion downstream. In October of 1882 the University built five check dams along Strawberry Creek in an attempt to stop streambed incision and subsequent bank erosion on the central campus.

In 1883, the first large culvert was installed in a small stretch of streambed in the vicinity of Oxford Street to facilitate the passage of horses and wagons. Cement box culverts were installed along the creek throughout its entire length in Berkeley during the late 1800's and early 1900's. This culverting continued until the 1930's when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) finished culveiting the last open reaches. The entire length of Strawberry Creek through the city of Berkeley was now underground.

The first report of water quality problems appears in the Berkeleyan in 1895. An article complains of the "unsightly appearance of sewer-begrimed water and filthily discolored banks." Strawberry Creek was noted as being an easy means of removing sewage. In 1900, the Benard Plan for the campus layout originally called for the removal of the creek from the grounds, but was later revised after objections were raised. A storm in March 1904 caused $300 damage to culverts on the central campus and extensively damaged streambanks. This prompted rock and concrete work in many locations along the creek to stabilize the banks. USGS experiments conducted in 1907 estimated that one ton of soil was being carried away for every 12,000 gallons of winter storm flow.

Extensive concrete work was performed on the entire creek in 1907 to protect streambanks and trees. Both the creek sides and bottom were lined with concrete. The creek was also deepened five feet in the reach upstream of Oxford Street in an attempt to avert the flcxxiing of downstream commercial areas which occurred the previous winter. The construction of Memorial Stadium in 1923 necessitated the first major diversion of Strawberry·,creek. The stadium obliterated waterfalls that once cascaded down the toe of the hillslope and resulted in the construction of the "Little Inch" bypass culvert to carry the creek underneath the stadium and Strawberry Field. The construction of Stephens Hall that same year also required the rerouting of the original creek channel.

The "Big Inch" bypass culvert was built in 1951 at a cost of $225,000 due to the possibility of structural failure of the Little Inch bypass. Cracks were discovered in the old culvert from the stress caused by the Hayward fault zone. At that time, the Big Inch culvert began just above the Haas pools and emptied out next to the Faculty Club on campus.

Rains in April 1958 caused $70,000 damage to Canyon roads and drainage systems. International House was flooded and landslides blocked Canyon fire trails. Only four years later in October 1962, 15 inches of rain fell in four days, making it one of the heaviest storms ever recorded in the San Francisco Bay area. The Big Inch bypass inlet clogged with debris and the torrential creek overflowed through the Haas complex and down Centennial Drive. Damage to campus buildings and grounds was estimated at over 

As a result of flooding of the Dining Commons in 1963, a 300 foot reach of the South Fork from Sather Gate to the Dwinelle Annex was widened to ten feet and a concrete retaining wall was built along the south bank. In Fall 1964, the University spent $519,000 on storm drain improvements. This action was necessary because of the development in Strawberry Canyon that had reportedly reduced the lag time (the time response of runoff to precipitation) to the bypass culvert entrance in the canyon from about two hours to fifteen minutes, posing a great threat to the campus by significantly increasing the peak storm flow.

In 1966, the University extended the Big Inch bypass inlet to an earthen retention dam built in the canyon at the entrance to the Lower Fire Trail. The retention basin would act to store flood waters during winter storms and flow could be regulated into the bypass culvert by means of a hydraulically operated gate. This structure would act to prevent the extensive flocxling and damage.that occurred in 1962. Also in 1966, a high flow bypass was built into the North Fork city tunnel system to relieve the flooding threat caused by increased runoff from LBL development in the canyon. These storm drain improvements were done at a cost of $145,000 which was shared by the City and the University.

Various newspaper articles in the 1970's and 1980's relate the continuing water quality problems in the creek. A 1973 article tells of fecal bacteria contamination entering the North Fork from the Northside area. Continued erosion of stream banks is also mentioned. A 1981 article states that the creek is treated as a sewer contaminated by urban runoff, chemicals, drains, and sewage. Berkeley Health Department officials advised not to enter the creek at that time.