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Mount Diablo Cultural History

Cultural Heritage of Mt. Diablo and the Creation of a Park

Native Americans and Mount Diablo

Mount Diablo is in the ethnographic territory of the Bay Miwok. This territory extended through the eastern portions of Contra Costa County from Walnut Creek north, northeast to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Bay Miwok spoke a Penutian dialect distinct from the language of other Miwok peoples. The estimated aboriginal population was approximately 1,700 people.

Five tribelets of individual political units have been identified for the Bay Miwok: the Scanlon, Wolwon, Chupcan, Julpun, and Ompin. The Wolwon, also called Volvon or Bolbon, resided closest to Mount Diablo. Their principal village was called Bolbon, and was reportedly located at the base of the southeast flank of the mountain. The Bay Miwok were missionized in the 1790s; most were sent to the San Jose Mission.

Indian grinding rockLike other California groups, the Bay Miwok were intensive food collectors, with their subsistence economy centering on intensive exploitation of plant food resources. The more important plant foods included acorns, buckeye, California laurel, digger and Coulter pine seeds, seeds from various grasses and plants, and Brodiaea bulbs, all of which are abundant on Mount Diablo. Acorns were the single most important food source in aboriginal California. Blue oak, valley oak, and coast live oak, three species found in abundance on Mount Diablo, produced acorns which were most commonly used by California natives. (Grinding morters in sandstone at Rock City shown in photo).

Mount Diablo played an important role in Miwok and Costanoan mythology. Several of these myths were recorded by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in the early 20th century.

For additional reading on Native Americans and Mt. Diablo see The Miwok - Mt. Diablo's Earliest Inhabitants. You are also invited to visit the Native American exhibit in the Summit Museum.



Arrival of the Spanish

In 1772, Lt. Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespi reconnoitered the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, exploring along the Carquinez Strait, and sighting the Sacramento River delta. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Pedro Font embarked on a second expedition to the East Bay and the strait, Although both of these Spanish expeditions passed near Mount Diablo, neither party ascended the mountain.

Following the founding of the Missions in San Francisco (1777) and San Jose (1797). Spanish soldiers often penetrated the interior valleys near Mount Diablo, looking for runaway neophytes. Only a few of these punitive expeditions were recorded, and of those that were, none mentions Mount Diablo.

Ed. note: One legend is cited of an encounter of Spanish soldiers and local residents near what is now the area near Buchanan Field and figured in one of the stories of the naming of Mt. Diablo.



The Land Holdings

In spite of numerous changes in land ownership, the principal private land uses at Mount Diablo have remained consistent from the early 19th through the 20th centuries. Cattle ranching, horse breeding, tourism, and mining have predominated.

In 1834, Dona Juana Sanchez de Pacheco was granted two square leagues of land (approximately 17,000 acres), which included the "Sierra de Golgones" and the lands to the west of these mountains. Dona Juana Sanchez' rancho was known as "Arroyo de las Nueces y Bolbones" (or Golgones). Approximately a quarter of the original rancho is now in the park. The former rancho lands include Pine Canyon, Little Pine Canyon, the area surrounding the North Gate Road, and the Diablo and Turtle Rock Ranch inholdings.

The Pacheco family used its land for grazing cattle, but did not settle on the rancho. The Pachecols Mexican land grant was confirmed in 1853, and shortly thereafter, Dona Sanchez' nephew sold 6,774 acres to James Walker, who operated a large cattle ranch in the Little Pine Creek drainage until the mid-1880s, Records from the mission period suggest that sheep were also grazed in the vicinity of Mount Diablo.

By 1910, the former rancho lands in Pine Canyon were owned by George McNair. A Portuguese immigrant, Frank Macedo, managed McNair's ranch until 1920, when he purchased 825 acres of the ranch for himself. The Macedo family operated the ranch until 1959.

The lands in the park were first surveyed between 1866 and 1875. The survey plats indicate that there was little early settlement within the park boundaries, although a few settlers were established along the northern creeks (Mitchell, Back, Donner, and Diablo) by the 1870s, and Green and Sycamore Valleys to the south of the park were well populated.

Most public land within the park boundaries was patented by the mid-1880s. A few small rancher-farmers owned land on the mountain, but by far the largest holdings were concentrated in the hands of two landowners, Charles McLaughlin and Seth Cook.

Charles McLaughlin was a railroad contractor, and an agent for the Central Pacific Railroad. His holdings on Mount Diablo were part of a large land empire that he built up through his railroad dealings. In the vicinity of Mount Diablo, McLaughlin owned the southern section of Mitchell Canyon, Deer Flat, White and Curry Canyons, and large tracts of land in sections 11 and 12 (TIS, RlW), near the present park headquarters. He also held land in the Hidden Pond area of section 7. Most of this land was used for stock raising and grazing.

In 1873, William Cameron, one of the builders of the first toll road on the mountain, established a large estate in what is now the southern portion of the park. The estate went through rapid changes of management and ownership, all of which were directly or indirectly tied to the Central Pacific Railroad until 1877, when David Colton, a business associate of the "Big Four," bought out the railroad's interests in the property. Between 1878 and 1912, the estate, known variously as Cook Farms and Oakwood Park Stock Farms, was enlarged by Colton's heirs, who raised stock, bred thoroughbred horses, and established several hundred acres of fruit orchards on the property. The estate eventually encompassed the areas of Dan Cook Canyon, Rock City, Devil's Slide, and the central portions of the park, along what is now the South Gate Road.

When Charles McLaughlin died in 1890, his land holdings were inherited by his daughter, Kate McLaughlin Dillon. Between 1890 and 1906, McLaughlin's daughter sold most of her father's holdings at Mount Diablo. White Canyon and Deer Flat were purchased by Dominic Murchio, an Italian immigrant, who had previously established a ranch along Mitchell Creek north of the present park boundary. Over a period of eighty years, the Murchio family added all of upper Mitchell Canyon to their ranch.

In 1912, Louise Boyd, Colton's niece, sold the Oakwood Stock Farms to a group of investor-developers led by Robert Burgess, a Berkeley businessman. Burgess' development company had elaborate plans to subdivide the farm into an exclusive residential park, to establish a country club, and to open Mount Diablo to the public.



Grazing Lands

From as early as 1800, when the mission at San Jose used the oak woodlands at the base of the mountain for winter pasture. the rich grasslands on the western side of the mountain have been used to graze stock. Raising of thoroughbred horses occupied most of the southern portion of the state park from the 1870s until World War I. The dense chaparral covered northeastern slopes of the mountain were less well adapted to grazing, and have been the principal areas of mining activity, although Perkins Canyon was also used for raising thoroughbreds in the 1930s.



Mount Diablo and the Arrival of Tourists

There were several attempts to develop Mount Diablo as a scenic attraction. In 1873, the first wagon road up the mountain was constructed by a group of local investors interested in drawing tourists and local sightseers. Prominent among these investors was Joseph Hall, who built the Mountain House Hotel about a mile below the summit. A large, gable-roofed building with a false front and a long verandah, the hotel was a popular tourist attraction through the 1880s. The hotel declined in the 1890s, and Hall abandoned his enterprise in 1895. The empty hotel building burned circa 1900.

In 1912, the development company which purchased Oakwood Stock Farms built a new toll road (Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard), which was accessible to automobile traffic. They also planned an ornate observation tower-hotel to be built on the summit. The road was completed in 1915, but the tower-hotel was never realized.



Mining Activities on the Mountain

In 1863, copper ores with traces of gold were found on the slopes of Eagle Peak. This discovery set off a short-lived copper and gold rush on the mountain. No mining of any consequence resulted from these discoveries. In 1863-64, quicksilver (mercury) was also discovered on the northeast side of North Peak, and in Perkins Canyon. This mineral was mined intermittently until the 1950s. The most important quicksilver production occurred off park property, but tailings and wastes from quicksilver mining operations can be found within the unit's boundaries.



Formation of a State Park

Although Mount Diablo is 3,849 feet high, the surrounding topography allows for an unobscured view in all directions. Under ideal conditions, it is estimated that 40,000 square miles of California and Nevada are visible from the summit. Over the years, a series of structures has been built to enhance these remarkable viewing opportunities.

The first recorded structure was the 1876 Geodetic Survey Signal Station. Twenty-five years after the signal station burned (1891), plans for construction of an elaborate "Torre de Sol" were laid by the Mount Diablo Development Company, but the medieval, quasi-Rhineland "castle" was never built. In 1928, Standard Oil of California constructed a 75-foot aviation beacon to serve as a guide for commercial aircraft. The tower was jointly promoted by Standard Oil and the U.S. Department of Commerce, which was anxious to encourage the development of commercial aviation. At some point between 1920 and 1939, there were also a wooden observation platform and a small Spanish Revival "museum" building on the summit.

Mount Diablo was one of seven state parks that came into existence before the establishment of the California State Park System in 1927. In 1921, the State Legislature created a "state park and game refuge" on 630 acres on the summit of Mount Diablo. This park was administered by its own appointive Mount Diablo State Park Commission.

In 1927, Frederick Law Olmsted prepared a California Park Survey for the newly formed State Park Commission. Olmsted recommended acquisition of 5,000-6,000 acres at Mount Diablo to "amplify" and "round out" the small state park already located at the summit. Between 1931 and 1937, major properties were acquired along the route of the historic Scenic Boulevard, the North Gate Road, and at the summit.

The most significant and largest structure to crown the summit was constructed in 1939-1942 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Plans for a museum and observation tower were begun in 1934, and were developed and elaborated over the next five years. The project was given final approval in 1939, with work commencing sometime that same year. The building, a fine example of National Park Service rustic architecture, was completed in 1942. Installation of the planned museum was first delayed and finally abandoned due to continual problems with leakage in the interior of the building. In 1984, under the auspices of the State Parks Foundation, plans were begun for restoration of the Summit Building interior, and installation of a permanent museum. A small display area/visitor center has been operated by volunteers in the Summit Building for several years.

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a large number of facilities at Mount Diablo. The CCC stationed at Mount Diablo built and realigned the park roads, constructed hiking and fire trails, constructed ranger residences and maintenance buildings, developed campground and picnic facilities, and built the Summit Building already discussed. The CCC work at Mount Diablo encompasses almost every type of project the CCC undertook in state and national parks. The facilities they built all belong in the style known as "rustic park architecture". This style emphasized use of natural, unfinished, and, where possible, local materials, handcraftsmanship, and achievement of an "organic" relationship between human-made structures and their natural surroundings.

The range of projects undertaken and the clear expression of the rustic esthetic make the surviving CCC facilities at Mount Diablo among the best examples of CCC achievement in California's parks. They are of both historic and architectural significance.

Mount Diablo State Park grew very little between the late 1940s and 1965, when an ambitious acquisition program was initiated. As part of this program, several thousand acres have been added to the park, including the Macedo Ranch in Pine Canyon, the Murchio Ranch (Mitchell and White Canyons, and Deer Flat), the Devil's Slide area, Black Hawk Ridge, parts of Curry Canyon, the lower Alder Creek drainage, Meridian Ridge, and Donner and Perkins Canyons. Save Mount Diablo, a non-profit organization, played an active and important role in several of these land acquisitions.

In 1965, the State of California acquired the Green Ranch, an inholding on the upper southeastern slope of Mount Diablo. Between 1966 and 1980, portions of the Diablo Ranch located in Pine Canyon were purchased by the State of California. Land acquisitions and dedications continue to expand the borders of the park.

Excerpted from the State of California publication "Mount Diablo State Park General Plan" - May 1990