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A Castle in the Sky

Mount Diablo narrowly missed being crowned with a regal retreat


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R. N. "Bob" Burgess dreamed big. Born in 1878, the son of a poor Danville pastor, his first scheme was selling frog meat. By the time he was a teenager, he owned a fruit-packing house in Concord and would sit in his hayloft—his "castle in the sky"—and study county maps so he could pick out large land tracts "for future real estate syndicating."

In the decades to follow, Burgess built homes in Oakland and subdivided ranches in Contra Costa to sell to San Franciscans scurrying across the Bay after the 1906 earthquake. But his most ambitious project was a true castle in the sky. He wanted to turn 3,849-foot Mount Diablo into the site of a world-famous country club and luxury resort. And he aimed to sell another grandiose schemer on his plan: William Randolph Hearst.

By 1914 Burgess owned much of Mount Diablo, including its summit, and was transforming the Oakwood Stock Farm at its foot into what would become the Diablo Country Club and the surrounding community of Diablo. To guarantee buyers for the homes in Diablo, he talked the local railroad company into running a line to the modest hamlet. For his mountain venture, he decided he needed a "publicity
agent" and thought of Hearst, a man who delighted in spectacle and whose San Francisco Examiner, New York Journal, and other newspapers reached one out of every four Americans.

Sometime over the next year or so, Burgess wangled a meeting with Hearst at a Los Angeles hotel. Hearst immediately bought Burgess’s pitch, in part because he knew the area. He had grown up in San Francisco, and his mother lived in a sprawling hacienda in Pleasanton.

A week later, the two met up in San Francisco so that Burgess could escort Hearst to the site of the proposed project. Burgess arranged a private ferry to carry them to Oakland and a posh railcar to bring them to the foot of the mountain.

The two men spent four hours together on horseback exploring Mount Diablo. Hearst began to envision a turreted castle, topped by a searchlight whose beam would be seen for hundreds of miles. The resort would include guest rooms, restaurants, and exhibits, and would be surrounded by an arboretum of rare trees to be donated to the University of California and statues celebrating the mountain’s Spanish explorers.

Under a complex financial arrangement, Hearst would gradually buy up the property from Burgess and publicize the resort in his nationwide chain of newspapers, while Burgess would oversee construction. Hearst went so far as to hire an architect to design his Torre del Sol and believed the mountain could be "as great an attraction and as famous as a beauty spot as the Golden Gate, Yosemite, the big trees."

But Hearst delayed investing the cash. By 1914 World War I had broken out in Europe, and Hearst’s castle-building ventures eventually shifted to his pleasure palace in San Simeon, where he ensconced his film star mistress, Marion Davies, and entertained her Hollywood friends.

Burgess’s fortunes weren’t so blessed. The war torpedoed the economy, and the perpetually debt-ridden entrepreneur had to declare bankruptcy. He sold his 630 acres of the mountain to the state, and in 1921 the land was turned into the park we all know and love. Though he never regained his fortune, he managed to create the charming country club community of Diablo, which would continue to grow and eventually become a county historic district. In the 1930s, he scraped together enough financing to build several houses in Walnut Creek’s Lakewood area.

Burgess continued to delight in turning a buck, even in retirement. He convinced ice-cream shops in the area to buy the walnuts that grew on his Lakewood homestead. Then he would spend hours in his garden quietly shelling them in the shadow of the mountain he had once dreamed of transforming.

R. N. Burgess’s Memoirs and other Burgess memorabilia can be found at the Contra Costa County Historical Society, 610 Main St., Mar-tinez, (925) 229-1042, www.cocohistory.com.

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