Alameda in History: Memories of Bay Farm Island
Alameda in History: Memories of Bay Farm Island
Bay Farm Island native Dave LeMoine was inspired by history columnist Mike Lano's August 29 piece on the first families of Bay Farm Island to offer his own story to The Alamedan. Here is LeMoine's personal history, which details his youth on the Island.
Hi, Mike! My name is Dave LeMoine. Thank you for taking up the cause of Bay Farm Island. There are great stories that need to be told. For my part, my history starts on Schiller Street, then moves to the Island in 1947, onto Marina Drive and finally, Thompson Avenue (Christmas Tree Lane).
I am now retired from the Alameda Fire Department and living in Redding, but always return to my home, Bay Farm Island. I delivered many a Times-Star and Tribune to the farmhouse in your picture. I hated the winter nights with that bay headwind blowing, long dirt road bike trips for just a few farmhouses. But now the memories are great. I believe I attended school with Robert Cummings. Say “hi” for me.
The perspective of the farmers is one look at Bay Farm. But the 15 to 20 kids who migrated in and combed every square inch of our Island saw this land with a different set of eyes.
Here’s their story.
I was born in 1941. My family moved to Bay Farm Island in 1946, the second Alameda fire family to arrive; only Frank Lufkin preceded us. The Lufkin family lived on Garden Road. The Beach Road group of firemen came next. My dad and mom bought the lot at 255 Beach Road and, with the help of dad's fire buddies, cleared a plot of land next to Godfrey Park.
Dad built a small, 800-square-foot dwelling, and after he died, in 1949, Russ Smith, Ben Eardahl and some of the other fire guys added two bedrooms, a bath and a garage to make things easier for our family. Our fire family was the first of 12 on Beach Road, followed by Red French, Tex Evans, Jimmy Smith, Brad Nichols, Ben Eardahl, and Russ Smith. Then came Bob DeSell; Bill Simon, across from the park; and further down, Archie Waterbury; Noel Van Derhagen; and Clark Magby.
Most of those small houses were partially built with scrounged lumber removed from military barracks torn down after World War II. As a 7-year-old, I spent my free time at the Godfrey Park sandbox, or watching the firemen help each other in home construction. I later followed my dad into the Alameda Fire Department, and had a great, 25-year career serving our city. The chief who hired me was Ernie Servente. I can still remember him crawling out from under our house, as his part in our construction was the plumbing.
Beach Road was gravel when I was a kid. The only paved road on all of Bay Farm Island was Maitland Drive. In those years, if you had any reason to go to the Main Island, you would cross a two-lane, center-pivot bridge that, in the winter, could be closed a couple of times a year for a super-high tide. Dropping off the bridge onto a two-lane road, you would see to your right a 15-foot-high gravel dike that extended all the way to the Olivera farm. The dike held back the bay water. The other side of this dike was the future location of Harbor Bay Isle (Your home, Mike!).
The dike was located in what is now the center divider of Island Drive. The other side had a concrete wall separating Island Drive from Alameda’s golf course. The year of 1947 also brought our fire department drill tower, the tallest structure on the East End of town. It’s still standing, though condemned, at the entrance to the golf course.
That wall brings back such memories!
At 17, after football practice, with no school bus to ride at that time of the night, I would walk from Thompson Field, down Park Street, and run to High Street over the bridge to the wall, climb and walk, or run, the wall past the tower. Much of the time I could travel from the bridge to Maitland Drive without seeing a car.
During the Korean War, there was a military artillery base and radar emplacement with bunkers at the corner of Maitland Drive and Island Drive, which dead-ended into farm fields. Making a right turn on a dirt road, along the mud flats – at low tide that filled with bay water, at high tide it is now part of Harbor Bay. Further down the dirt road stood a couple of old houses on pilings; the houses would have water under them at high tide.
The owner of one of the houses had accumulated old buoys, floats, and all kinds of water vehicles, from balsa wood rafts to landing barges. Past the houses, through a cable gate onto the Ratto farm and out to the end of the road was a great sandbar, turning left to eucalyptus trees and a duck blind on stilts over the water. Continuing left around the point, following the waterfront, you would pass a wonderful beach house with plate glass windows and a patio with, what looked to me like, Hawaiian outrigger canoes on either side.
Returning to this wonderful beach, you would turn right to a row of Liberty ships that had been sunk as a dike to protect the area between that point and Island Drive. The dike had failed sometime in the 1940s, and the land had gone back to the fish and ducks. Seemingly, only the farmers and Islanders, as we called ourselves, knew about and used this beach.
The farmers treated us well and allowed us to roam freely on their property. What fun! We called the ships “destroyers,” and climbed and explored all over them. The ships had rusted through in many places and were treacherous for the uninitiated. If you looked down through the rusted decks into the ship’s holds, you would see sharks, stingrays, and striped bass swimming in and out: a boy’s paradise.
Leaving that beach was a dirt, and then gravel, road, all the way to Melrose and Maitland Drive. Down Melrose, you would cross Beach Road and go directly into our driveway. Standing in the driveway, there was a clear, unobstructed view all the way to the Olivera farm at Maitland and Fitchburg. Again, down a dirt road toward the end of what is now Oleander and Magnolia stood the Oliveras' private beach. Only we Islanders were granted access.
Summers would find us at the private beach. The beach lay in a natural notch that collected mountains of driftwood from all over the bay. Piles and piles of timbers, logs, piling, planks, balsa wood, and Navy rafts no longer needed, probably from the Second World War, had been discarded or fallen off ships. They made great floats for swimming. We built rooms on the beach large enough to stand in, then covered them with the driftwood. No one passing by had any inkling there were secret rooms inside, just a giant pile of driftwood.
Behind Beach Road lay open fields all the way to the old Oakland Airport, more military bunkers, and a shooting range full of broken clay pigeons. To the west was the 18-hole golf course. Between our house and the course lay open fields of grass, two cattail-encircled ponds (now part of the newer 18-hole course), with a strange anomaly I still can’t explain: giant fissures in the ground. We called them the “cracks,” snaking all over the open areas, these cracks, some as deep as three feet, and three to four feet wide, were perfect to build forts.
Over the years, we dug connector channels, tying crack to crack, so that we could move without being seen from the surface over many acres. At intervals, we would cover a part of a crack with plywood, backfill with dirt and, “Voila!”: an underground room! With .22-caliber rifles slung over our shoulders, we roamed these fields, beaches, and farms stopping our conversations just long enough to watch a DC-3 or a TWA Convair (nicknamed Connies) four-engine airplane coming in for a landing. No kid could have had a better environment to grow up in.
We were seen as the poor kids, a little different, the other side of the dumps, in the farms. It was our secret, and very few of the Mainlanders, as we called the kids on the Main Island, knew of our paradise that lay just over the bridge. A hermit lived behind the dumps near the Oakland border close to the Raiders training facility. We would spend a great deal of time sneaking up on him, telling stories about how much he loved to eat children. If the truth were known, he just wanted to be left alone.
One summer (the year escapes me) arriving at Olivera’s beach, we saw a great dredge anchored maybe 200 yards out in the bay. As summer progressed, an island appeared and, off of this island, the water was deep enough to dive from the edge of the sand; there had never been deep water here before. We would swim out every afternoon after the dredge quit and run the island, which could be a little treacherous due to liquefaction. We could be running along, sink to our chests, and have to breaststroke to get out. Not too smart, but we lived.
After one of these long days of sinking in the mud, covered with that bay residue, I arrived home. Mom said, “You’re not coming in my house looking like that! Hose yourself off, remove your clothes in the garage, then you can enter.”
As I pulled off my wet, almost new, T-shirt, it tore apart in my hands. Thinking back now, we had been dipping in all sorts of chemical-laced sand from the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, accumulated over the centuries, and didn’t have a clue of the danger. There were probably heavy metals, and maybe a nuke or two; that might be why I am bald!
Over the years, that small island continued to grow and soon became a dike that extended from the end of Maitland around to San Leandro Marina. As the dike was completed, a set of pipes were installed through it near Maitland, to allow the water level inside the dike to maintain bay level. That meant that, on an outgoing tide, you had to keep your distance for fear of being sucked through the pipe to the bay side. On the incoming tide, great four-foot torrents of water would explode from the pipes.
We could stand above the superstructure of these pipes, dive into the waterfall, and be projected along the sandy bottom as far as we could hold our breath, sometimes feeling the sharks and bass rubbing up against us. At this time, we hadn’t a clue that we were swimming in what would become the new Oakland Airport. When the dike was finished, it was time to fill in the airport. The pipes were sealed at low tide and evaporation took over.
As the water dried up, the fish inside were trapped. Soon water was reduced to small ponds teeming with fish. People would congregate around these ponds to take home their limits. Eventually, we could reach down and grab the fish by the tail; the hardest part was transporting them home for dinner.
In the sand that had once been covered by bay water appeared the wreckage of aircraft that had fallen over the life of the old Oakland Airport. The skeletons of a couple of rusted World War II fighters, with guns still attached, were found … just another benefit for the Bay Farm Island boys.
Soon another dredge and fill project – Harbor Bay Isle – changed the face of Bay Farm Island forever. No more farms, no more destroyers, no more duck blinds, a new bridge, no more cracks, no more dumps or sloughs, no more private beaches. Open acres became tightly packed two-story houses, and progress came to my wonderful little Island.
In earlier days, we could walk from Maitland along the water’s edge, all the way around our Island to the bridge, in about three hours, while beachcombing, shooting our .22’s at bottles and debris as we walked, talked, and dreamed of our futures. This is just a snippet of my memories as a boy in paradise. The Island – the Ratto and Olivera farms, the close-knit families, and no locks or keys for our homes – was truly a sanctuary for a boy who had lost his dad at age 7, but was safe and secure in this simple spit of land called Bay Farm Island.