Alameda in history: Bay Farm Island

Alameda in history: Bay Farm Island

David Baker
Bay Farm Island

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past several years, Ron Cowan's Harbor Bay Isle Associates has offered several proposals to add additional homes to Bay Farm Island. The most recent bids to increase development there are only the latest in a series of development cycles that have transformed Bay Farm from marshland into Alameda’s own little suburb. In the 1980s, historian Woody Minor prepared a report for Cowan's Doric Construction on the history of Bay Farm Island that shows how this particular stretch of land has been developed over the years.

Long before Europeans colonized the Bay Area, the local Ohlone Indians used the island as foraging ground for food. When the Spanish established settlements in the area, the local inhabitants were ultimately forced to relocate from their homes. This freed up vast areas of unclaimed land. The Spanish crown took this opportunity to reward loyal subjects in what would become California with land. Among the recipients of these land grants was Antonio Maria Peralta, who received a 15,000 acre parcel of land that included Bay Farm.

In 1852, a small settlement on a peninsula near Oakland formed a township called Alameda. This township would include the stretch of marshland that had become known as the “Bay Farm.” When Alameda became incorporated in 1872, it retained the original township borders, which meant Bay Farm was part of incorporated Alameda.

The name “Bay Farm Island” comes from the agricultural history associated with that piece of land. The Ratto family began farming the island in 1905 and delivered their produce to Oakland on a horse-drawn cart, according to a history of the family business. Residents on Bay Farm Island were primarily farmers; however, there were several wealthy families who owned property there. Perhaps the most well known of these families was the Mecartney family. There were several farms on the island that date back to 1850s. The main crop cultivated on the island was asparagus - another early name was "Asparagus Island" - although there were one or two ranches that raised various farm animals.

Development of the island didn’t begin in earnest until the 1870s. Development efforts during the 1870s included the reclamation of marshland for, presumably, agricultural development, and a commercial oyster farm was started. (Bay Farm is actually a peninsula now, connected by fill to Oakland.) A permanent bridge was also built between Bay Farm and mainland Alameda. The addition of the bridge fueled the growth of the Bay Farm community, and by the end of the decade, the population of Bay Farm Island had doubled.

Development of Bay Farm Island slowed down after the 1870s projects. Early on in the 20th century, many of the originally farming families and landowners had either died, or moved off the island, and farming enterprises on the island became more commercialized. The second round of major development on Bay Farm Island came in the 1920s. More marshland was reclaimed for construction purposes, and the first subdivision was planned for Bay Farm. Two of the major construction projects during this time were the golf complex and a major airport. The latter development, which would eventually become Oakland International Airport, had the privilege of hosting the first commercial flight from the United States to Hawaii.

Over the next 60 years, several development companies attempted to further expand Bay Farm subdivisions without much success. In the 1970s, the Utah Construction Company and Doric Development Inc. joined together to form Harbor Bay Isle Associates in an attempt to develop Bay Farm on a larger scale. The President of Doric, Cowan, was named as general manager of Harbor Bay Isle Associates. A plan to build a 3,200-unit residential development was approved, and construction began in 1977, with the Harbor Bay Business Park being completed in 1984. The rest, as they say, is history. Currently, according to, the population of Bay Farm Island is a little over 13,000. For what was a close knit farming community, Bay Farm Island has grown up to be part of one of the Bay Area’s best small cities.


Submitted by maria young (not verified) on Fri, Mar 28, 2014

Additionally, small businesses, such as Alameda Martial Arts and Bay Language Academy, are laying deep roots next to the Bay Trail which runs through Bay Farm right past the water.
This year both businesses will run camps for the kids of Bay Farm. Go Team Asparagus Islanders!

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Fri, Mar 28, 2014

Thanks, David... that was a really great read.

Submitted by Meg Mom (not verified) on Fri, Mar 28, 2014

Just to add to the historical data: the original tract homes were built along the Maitland corridor.

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Sat, Mar 29, 2014

Asparagus Island. Love it! It shall be ever thus to me. Nice article.

Submitted by donna (not verified) on Mon, Mar 31, 2014

He missed the development of Casitas and Islandia and Garden Isle in the 1960's, I remember the Ratto Farm and I remember corn.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Apr 1, 2014

Hey Donna: Thanks for your comment. We're interested in writing a part two to this story, with info on those developments and other original Bay Farm homes. I'd love more information if you've got it; you can reach me at

Submitted by Susan Driscoll (not verified) on Tue, Apr 1, 2014

That's a great piece and had information I'm sure not many of us knew! I'm a tour guide in the City and know a bit about Alameda...didn't know all of this! Thank you!

Submitted by Annie (not verified) on Wed, Apr 23, 2014

I am wondering if you can answer as to how the island part of Bay Farm Island became associated with the farm piece. I realize that it is a peninsula now, but was it ever a "true" island unto itself?