by Tom Knight
Recently I discovered an East Bay group called Friends of Five Creeks. Creeks? In Berkeley? What creeks? Where are they? Where do they come from and where do they go? For many Berkeley residents, the answers are just emerging, as ever so slowly creeks are re-appearing, being “daylighted.” For those of us who are agents at Berkeley Hills Realty, maps of all the creeks are available, their “secret” underground locations identified, and the implications to homeowners well understood. For those curious ones, some very good info on Berkeley creeks can also be found on the City of Berkeley’s website.
Before the California Gold Rush, streams in the Bay Area ran free and clear, undisturbed in their natural channels from the hills down to the bay. The Native Americans in this area, Ohlones, feasted on the salmon and steelhead which frequented the larger creeks. Also prevalent, particularly where streams entered the bay, were abundant shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels. When the first Europeans arrived, village locations were clearly marked by enormous mounds of shells, some dozens of feet high, containing thousands of years of accumulated dinner leftovers.
One such shell mound was located where the Spenger’s Fish Grotto parking lot is currently situated. It was here in the “old days” that Strawberry Creek flowed into the bay. It’s strange to think that once this was the edge of the bay. It gives one some idea of just how much of the shallow areas of the bay were filled in throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Another very large shell mound was at the mouth of Temescal Creek on Bay Street in Emeryville about where P.F. Chang’s restaurant is located, now commemorated by a small earthen mound and stylized basket sculpture.
These mounds of shells were of no archeological interest to early settlers and were soon destroyed. Gradually, small settlements replaced Indian villages. Muddy roads transited local farmlands, connecting early communities. Wooden trestles and bridges carried rails and roads across streams, but it soon became apparent as “progress” rapidly impacted the land, putting the local waterways underground was easier and cheaper than building more bridges. Large cement pipes and square reinforced concrete culverts captured local waterways. Once covered over and built upon, they were soon forgotten.
I have seen these large diameter pipes spewing their watery contents into the bay following winter storms, as I ride my bicycle along the edge of the bay. When I see such a pipe I have often wondered, was this once a named creek? Where does it come from and what did it look like before being trapped in a pipe? Friends of Five Creeks is an organization dedicated to awareness of our creeks and sponsors activities which benefit the health of these local resources. As more and more people have become aware that there even ARE creeks in Berkeley, there is a growing movement to uncover these “lost” creeks. Local waterways are now valued as natural areas which enhance the scenic beauty of our area and help the recovery of local wildlife.
Codornices Creek is one which has received a lot of attention recently and substantial financial support towards restoration of one section in West Berkeley. To see the results, you can walk, bicycle or drive over to the University Village area on Sixth Street just two blocks north of Gilman. Bulldozers, excavators, backhoes and dump trucks have just completed an extensive restoration of this section. Magically, a natural area resembling a park has replaced a rundown, overgrown, debris-strewn area. Incidentally, “codornices” is the Spanish word for quail, and according to one historian, was the name given to this creek by Luis Peralta, one of the sons of the Peralta family which once owned Rancho San Antonio, a land grant which stretched from Cerrito Creek just south of El Cerrito Plaza all the way to San Leandro. No doubt, quail will soon again frequent the banks of Codornices Creek.
It is wonderful to see the old creeks in our area reappearing and being valued. Many people are coming out on weekends to assist in this effort. You can see old grinding holes in streamside rocks and learn about our “lost” local creeks. You will certainly meet some great folks on Saturday morning work parties, from school kids to white-haired retirees. You might even become one of the “weekday weed warriors,” helping to remove invasive, non-native plants and restore the land to its natural state. For much more information on the history of area creeks and how to help out, check out the Friends of Five Creeks website. I’ve found it a great way to get some weekend exercise which may benefit the community and the environment as well.