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East Bay Backstories: What’s in a Name?

Gambling, explosives, and fear of the devil played a role in naming some local cities, streets, and geographic features.


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“We’re the only county that is named for something it’s not,” says Jim Vale, a volunteer at the Contra Costa County Historical Society. “The people didn’t want to name their county after the devil.”

Indeed, California pioneer Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo wanted to name the area after Mount Diablo, but local sensibilities didn’t jibe with the Spanish word for Satan. So they went with another Spanish term, meaning “against coast.” Uh … what?

In 1851, the newly named Contra Costa County encompassed much of what’s now Alameda County, as well as its current locale. However, someone soon realized that it took too long to ride a horse from Oakland to the county seat in Martinez. So, in 1853, the region was split, Alameda County was born, and Contra Costa retained its name, despite the majority of it lying inland.

There are interesting backstories like this all over the region—most contained in William Mero’s book Shadows on the Hills—including:

 

Crow Canyon

This section of the Tri-Valley was named after the Crow family, who lived in the canyon during the 1860s and were prominent supporters of Abraham Lincoln. The clan was also locally famous for starting a near-riot at San Ramon’s 1864 Fourth of July celebration over the reading of the Declaration of Independence, which they considered secessionist propaganda.

 

Heather Farm

Originally called Boregas Springs, the future Walnut Creek park was a 255-acre hot springs resort in the late 1800s. When John Marchbank purchased the land in 1921, he named it after his prize racehorse, Prince Heather. Ten years later, Clark Gable filmed scenes from the horseracing film Sporting Blood at the site.

 

Fish Ranch Road

Built in 1872 in the hills between Orinda and Berkeley, Fish Ranch became a famous resort, with its own fish hatchery for trout and salmon dinners.

 

Las Trampas

Meaning trap in Spanish, the moniker for the southwestern hills of Contra Costa came from hunters trapping large herds of elk in the area during the 1850s.

 

Clayton

Was this city named by chance? Originally called Garibaldi, the town was founded by English immigrant Joel Clayton. One story suggests only a coin flip with other town pioneers Jake and Charlie Rhine kept it from becoming Rhinesville.

 

Black Diamond Mines

The fields on the northwest slopes of Mount Diablo didn’t produce diamonds, but coal, which was a booming business in the 1870s.

 

Hercules

This west Contra Costa town was named for a type of explosive black powder made by the California Powder company, which operated in the area from 1881 to 1919. Deadly explosions were common; at least 10 incidents—most caused by nitroglycerin—killed 59 workers over the years.

 


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