Oakland Regains Its
It was the classic situation of nineteenth-century melodrama:
everybody knows who the villain is, but nobody can produce the legal
proof, and in the meantime the innocent heroine is held hostage.
Beth Bagwell, Oakland, The Story of a City
The villain in this case was popularly perceived to be the Southern
Pacific Railroad which held Oakland's waterfront hostage and prevented
the city from developing its own port. Then in 1897, a crucial
California Supreme Court decision opened the door for the city to regain
control of the waterfront.
The Court declared that the original grant to the railroad was legal.
However, the Court ruled that the boundary of the grant was the low tide
line in 1852. After forty years of dredge and landfill operations in the
estuary, the 1852 low tide line was now well inland. So the railroad did
not legally control the current waterfront.
The political contest for actual control of the waterfront continued for
the next ten years. During this period the Progressive Movement, which
was opposed to civic corruption and in favor of limiting the power of
the Southern Pacific Railroad, gained strength. It was a Progressive
mayor in 1909, Frank K. Mott, who finally persuaded the railroad to
unlock the waterfront in exchange for a fifty year lease. The City of
Oakland now controlled its own waterfront.
By the 1920s, newspapers were reporting a debate about how the
waterfront should be managed. On one hand, LeRoy Goodrich, Commissioner
of Public Works, argued for improved port facilities for ships and cargo
handling, and that a Port Commission be created to "remove Oakland's
harbor from politics and make it a business enterprise." On the other
Mayor John L. Davie argued for the development of waterfront industries
that would result in jobs and increased tax revenue for the city. He was
"utterly opposed" to the creation of a Port Commission which would not
be subject to the oversight of the voters.
In the end, the voters decided. In 1925, they approved a $10 million
bond issue for harbor improvements. And in 1926, they approved the
creation of a Port Commission which would control Oakland's waterfront
from Emeryville to San Leandro. The economy of the waterfront has
changed dramatically since 1925 and so has the nature of government
regulation. But the discussion about the relationship between the City
and its waterfront continues. What do you think should happen on the
Oakland Museum of California
"Walk Along the Water"
© Oakland Museum of California, used with permission.