Walnut Creek’s History: A Look Back
With more than 165 years of history as a community, Walnut Creek has much to celebrate about its past and much to remember as we set a path for the future.
Native Americans were the first people to live along the creeks and streams in what today is Contra Costa. The Bay Miwok tribes of 200 to 500 found food plentiful, and harvested acorns and nuts, hunted small game with bows and arrows, and pulled fish from the creeks and birds from the sky with nets they made.
They lived in peace and harmony with their neighbors, each tribe occupying several semi-permanent villages and temporary camping sites which ranged from six to ten miles in diameter. Every tribe knew the boundaries of their land, but all owned the land communally.
Each autumn tribes met on Mt. Diablo to trade. It was also an opportunity to visit, dance and find marriage partners. Most Native Americans traveled only ten to fifteen miles from their village during their lifetime.
The Volvons lived near the peak of Mt. Diablo and held the Marsh Creek water shed to the east and probably today’s Clayton as well. Like other Bay Area Native Americans they developed a complex culture with many traditions, and they carefully controlled their environment to insure an ongoing food supply.
The Spanish arrived in 1769 and built missions to facilitate colonization and to Christianize Native Americans. Volvons resisted mission life and many returned to their land. In the missions they found confinement, disease, and loss of tribal identity.
Following the Mexican Revolution in 1821, Mexico acquired the California territory. To protect its new territories to the north, the Mexican government made large grants of former mission lands to encourage settlement, including four in the Walnut Creek area.
Among these was a grant of nearly 18,000 acres to Doña Juana Sanchez de Pacheco in recognition of the military service of her husband, Miguel. In his memory, she renamed her land Rancho San Miguel. Principally used for cattle grazing, the rancho included the present-day Ygnacio Valley and parts west of Shell Ridge near downtown. Eventually, she deeded her property to two grandsons, Ysidro and Ygnacio Sibrian, the namesake of the Valley and the Road.
The forcing of Native Americans into missions, exposing them to diseases they had never known, and Mexican land grants which gave away Native American land eroded the Volvons way of life. These circumstances took place throughout California. By 1850, the 340,000 people who made up California’s Native American population when the Spanish first arrived fell to 100,000.
19th Century: Pioneers at the Crossroads
The 1850s saw important changes in local agriculture, as the area transitioned from the cattle ranching of the Mexican era to the farming of wheat and other grains. Eventually, advanced irrigation techniques allowed for new more profitable farms to prosper, and fruit and nut orchards gradually filled the Valley.
In 1852, Hiram Penniman and a partner settled on land in the Ygnacio Valley (later known as Shadelands Ranch). In 1903, Penniman built the stately home now used as the Shadelands Ranch Historical Museum.
In 1885, Hubert Howe Bancroft and his brother purchased 360 acres surrounding what is now Bancroft Road between Treat Boulevard and Ygnacio Valley Road and established what was to become one of the most successful fruit ranches in the state.
The Gold Rush and California’s statehood in 1850 accelerated the new community’s growth. Commerce arrived in 1855 when Milo Hough built a hotel called the Walnut Creek House near the intersection of Main Street and Civic Drive. A blacksmith shop and a store were soon built nearby.
By the late 1850s, the small village that formed at Nuts Creek was now called “The Corners” – a name symbolic of its location at the intersection of two major roads, one leading from Pacheco to San Jose and the other from Oakland to Antioch. Today those “corners” are at the intersection of Mt. Diablo Boulevard and Main Street.
In 1856, Penniman, already a prominent farmer, laid out the first map of the town and realigned what is now Main Street.
In 1872, after filing a subdivision map the year before, pioneer Homer Shuey laid out a larger subdivision that established the street pattern for Walnut Creek’s present-day downtown.
When the U.S. Post Office began delivering mail to the fledgling town in December 1862, The Corners was officially renamed “Walnut Creek.”
At around the same time, Albert Sherburne opened a general store at the corner of present day Main Street and Mt. Diablo Boulevard. The store was partially destroyed by fire in 1879 and rebuilt the following year.
Today, this building is the oldest commercial building still standing in downtown Walnut Creek and the home of a restaurant. A photograph of this store from 1872 is the oldest known photograph of downtown Walnut Creek.
In the early years, Walnut Creek was a regular stop on the stage coach lines, helping to sustain the community’s reputation as a “crossroads.”
In 1891, Walnut Creek’s growth accelerated with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which significantly shortened travel time between other Bay Area communities.
However, with the introduction of automobiles early in the 20th century, the popularity of train travel waned, and, as a result, regular commuter railroad service ended around 1940. Travel by bus, which replaced train travel, was replaced when BART opened in 1973.
The town built its first school in 1871 after residents voted to tax themselves $1,500 to construct the school. The school sat on a hill at the end of School Street (today’s Locust Street), just south of Mt. Diablo Boulevard.
In 1912, a larger Walnut Creek School was built on the same site; this school was expanded several times before it was closed in 1957 and replaced with several neighborhood schools that served the rapidly growing community.
The site on Locust Street subsequently became the Simon Home Center; in 2002, Plaza Escuela (School Plaza) replaced Simon’s.
Early 20th century: Path to Cityhood
In 1910, Fred Lawrence built a new brick building on Main Street to house the Walnut Creek Meat Market. The family continued to operate the Walnut Creek Meat Co. out of the building until 1986, when they moved the business to Alamo. The building has been restored and houses a restaurant.
With a booming local economy, local businessmen initiated incorporation efforts in 1914 in order to raise local taxes to pave downtown streets. On Oct. 16, 1914, local voters approved incorporation, and on Oct. 21, the original town and surrounding area, comprising 500 acres, were incorporated as the eighth city in Contra Costa County.
Getting the streets paved was not easy. After two years, the project had stalled, and impatient residents put a series of measures to unincorporate on the ballot; each measure failed.
Finally, in November 1921, citizens celebrated the completion of the downtown paving project.
In 1916, Walnut Creek became one of 2,509 U.S. communities and universities to use monies from industrialist Andrew Carnegie to build a Carnegie Library. Located at the corner of Main and East (now Giamonna) Streets, the library was built on land donated by Robert Noble Burgess, who later developed the Lakewood residential area.
As the town grew, so did the need for city services. In 1924, Contra Costa County established the new Central Fire Protection District (later the Contra Costa Fire Protection District), and the first fire station in the District was built in 1926 on Bonanza Street (now a restaurant).
In 1928, Theodore Berling, who had served as town marshal, was hired as the first police chief. Earlier, in 1924, Lon Buck was hired as the town’s lone traffic officer.
The Ramona Theatre, the community’s first movie house, opened in 1920. In 1937, the El Rey Theatre opened. Both were eventually replaced by the Festival Cinema multiplex theater and, eventually, the 14-theater complex on Locust Street at Olympia Place.
In 1941, Edward Counter (mayor 1954-57) and his wife purchased the 50-acre Theodore Newell home and property on the corner of South Main Street and Newell Avenue, where Kaiser Hospital is today, and created the Art and Garden Center, the town’s first cultural destination.
The Center had an art gallery, ceramic studio, shops, a lunchroom, and a children’s clothing store. The property had been orchards for nearly a century.
The 1950s and 1960s: Boom Years
From 1950 to 1960, the City’s population quadrupled from 2,240 to 9,903 and then it again quadrupled from 1960 to 1970, reaching 39,844. During these 20 years, Walnut Creek was the fastest-growing community in California.
The first major residential subdivision project got underway in 1955 when the Eichler Company developed a tract of “mid-century modern homes” in an orchard south of Ygnacio Valley Road.
The new Eichler development was called Rancho San Miguel, honoring the original Spanish ranchero. The residential neighborhoods of the Ygnacio Valley continued to develop over the next 20 years.
In addition, in 1964, Walnut Creek became a haven for active retirees with the opening of Rossmoor, a gated Leisure World community on a 2,200-acre site of the former Stanley Dollar Ranch in the Tice Valley.
Today, Rossmoor encompasses about 6,700 residences and has a population of more than 9,200 residents.
To support the rapidly growing population, Kaiser Foundation Hospital opened at the corner of South Main Street and Newell Avenue in the early 1950s.
John Muir Memorial Hospital opened in 1965 on land that had previously been a cattle slaughterhouse.
Prior to the mid-1950s, the City was small enough that the members of the City Council managed the administration of the City’s small staff and operations. However, by 1956, the fast-paced growth of the City dictated a change in City operations, and the Council implemented a Council/Manager form of government and hired its first City Manager, Ira Gunn.
The 1960s saw the addition of many of today’s local cultural institutions. In 1961, a new downtown library was built to replace the much-smaller Carnegie Library.
In 1963, the City Council formed a Civic Arts Department and, in 1965, opened the Civic Arts Theatre and Gallery in the abandoned Walnut Growers Association warehouse. Today, Walnut Creek’s Civic Arts Education programs are the largest in northern California. The Alexander Lindsay Junior Museum opened in Larkey Park in 1965.
Retail growth experienced a similar boom in the early 1950s after the Broadway Shopping Center opened in 1951, the first major retail center in Contra Costa County. Between 1950 and 1955, the city’s taxable sales skyrocketed from $9 million to $20 million.
Since the early years, Walnut Creek’s two primary streets — Main Street and Mt. Diablo Boulevard — had doubled both as downtown commercial streets and as major state highways.
By the 1950s, the result was daily gridlock on downtown streets as residents from across the region passed through Walnut Creek as part of their daily commute to and from work or shopping.
Downtown traffic congestion finally was alleviated in 1960, when the three-year project to construct Interstate 680 and Highway 24 was completed.
The 1970s and 1980s: Parks and Open Space
In the early 1970s and in response to the rapid growth of the community, public sentiment turned to retaining the natural beauty of Walnut Creek.
The City Council appointed a Citizens’ Open Space Commission that drafted a strategy for open space preservation and parkland acquisition, which was adopted by the Council in 1973.
Then in 1974, local voters approved a $6.75 million bond measure that increased property taxes to purchase 1,800 acres of undeveloped hillsides, ridgelines, and park sites to create public open space lands.
The initial land purchases became the core of what is now Shell Ridge, Lime Ridge, Sugarloaf and Acalanes Ridge Open Spaces.
In 1975, the Ygnacio Valley (Thurman G. Casey Memorial) Library opened on Oak Grove Road on land donated by Nellie Casey to serve the burgeoning Ygnacio Valley population.
The 1990s: Enhancing the Quality of Life
The 1990s also ushered in several other major quality-of-life projects. To improve downtown traffic flows, the City built in 1992 the Lawrence Way bypass to divert freeway-bound traffic off North Main Street and, in 1995, opened the South Broadway extension, a one-mile roadway that eased congestion at South Main Street and Newell Avenue. To ease parking congestion, the City opened the South Locust garage in 1994.
New parks were opened in virtually every corner of the city in the 1990s – Arbolado, Walden, and Tice. In addition, the City built the Tice Valley Gymnasium.
In 1998, the development of Broadway Pointe, a new retail center on the old Bank of America site in the heart of downtown, helped to rejuvenate an economically dormant block and revitalize the historic retail district north of Mt. Diablo Boulevard.
The City partnered in the project by redesigning the original Liberty Bell Plaza to include a new fountain and trees.
The 21st Century: Walnut Creek in a New Era
On Memorial Day 2004, City leaders dedicated the Veterans Memorial Plaza next to City Hall. The park-like monument to the sacrifices of local veterans includes birch trees, a reflecting pool, and 10-foot tall granite sentinels representing the five branches of the U.S. armed forces.
Also in 2004, the final payment was made on the $6.75 million 30-year bond that financed the majority of Walnut Creek’s open spaces. In 2011, the City was able to add a prime 22-acre hilltop in Acalanes Ridge to the open space lands through a partnership with the City of Lafayette, the East Bay Regional Park District, and the Muir Heritage Land Trust.
In 2005 came the debut of the popular seasonal ice rink in Civic Park, Walnut Creek on Ice. The City also opened a skate park in Heather Farm Park, and a dog park in 2007.In partnership with Chevron, the inaugural Chevron Family Theater Festival was held in July 2007 at the Lesher Center.
And, after almost 50 years, the City opened a new downtown Walnut Creek Library in July 2010. More than 8,500 community members visited the new library on opening day.
The City opened the new Creek Walk in Civic Park in 2011.
Despite the most recent economic downturn, the City continues to be the economic hub of the region. Following a vote of local residents in 2009, Broadway Plaza added Neiman Marcus to its line up of retail offerings; the new store opened to much fanfare in 2012.
Recognizing the strong role of volunteerism in the community, the City sponsored the first Community Service Day in 2011. The day of service drew more than 1,000 volunteers to help 42 different community projects. Now held annually, Community Service Days feature more projects and even more volunteers.
In 2013, the Robert Stanley Dollar House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2014, Walnut Creek celebrated its Centennial – its 100th year since incorporation. The year-long celebration culminated with a community-wide Birthday Festival in October.