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Walnut Creek 100th: A Look At What Shaped The City

A series of events are planned this year to commemorate the city's centennial

Downtown Walnut Creek in the 1930s/Photo courtesy of the Walnut Creek Historical Society
Downtown Walnut Creek in the 1930s/Photo courtesy of the Walnut Creek Historical Society
It's a time to look back but also to look forward.

A time to think about what happened... and what didn't happen.

In 2014, Walnut Creek is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a city.

Throughout the year, events will be held to mark the century that has passed since Walnut Creek incorporated on Oct. 21, 1914.

City leaders say it's important for Walnut Creek residents to pause and reflect on their history.

"In a community, it's important to stop and observe milestones," said MacKenzie Lesher, who along with her husband, Steve, chairs the Centennial Steering Committee.

"It's a great opportunity to celebrate our heritage," added Mayor Kristina Lawson, "and to look ahead to what we want to do in the future."

In that vein, Lawson said it's important to also observe the things that didn't happen.

There were plans at various times to build hundreds of homes in the Shell Ridge Open Space and even punch through a road from Alamo to Ygnacio Valley Road.

Walnut Creek would be a much different place if those things had happened.

There were also plans at one time to build an indoor mall on what is now the Shadelands Office Park.

Those plans were defeated and instead the downtown area was expanded.

So, what were some of the big things that did happen that made Walnut Creek what it is today?

Lawson said geography has been a big factor. Walnut Creek sits in a valley where the paths from San Jose and Oakland cross.

That location made it a prime target as a regional transportation hub and positioned the town well when the post-World War II housing boom started.

Lawson said the opening of the Walnut Creek BART station as well as the nearby Pleasant Hill station were big boosts.

Sheila Rogstad, archivist for the Walnut Creek Historical Society, said the opening of the Caldecott Tunnel in the 1930s and then the construction of Highway 24 and Interstate 680 shaped the city.

The freeways, in particular, took traffic off downtown streets and allowed the business sector to grow.

She agreed that preserving the open space helped mold the character and atmosphere of the community.

In more recent years, the opening of the Lesher Center for the Arts promoted the entertainment sector of the city's downtown.

There are a series of events in 2014 to commemorate the city's history. Two are in the near future.

At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, a centennial celebration will be held at the Byron Park retirement community on Tice Valley Boulevard.

At 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 24, a "Flappers and Flasks" celebration will be held at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

The city put in $10,000 seed money to get the centennial celebration going, but it is letting the steering committee take it from there.

The committee is asking organizations and businesses to come up with their own ways to mark the centennial. They are hoping to have 100 events in this 100th year. More information can be found on the city's centennial website.

Here is a brief history of Walnut Creek from a timeline on the Walnut Creek Historical Society's website.

Early days

Native Americans lived in the Walnut Creek area for thousands of years. Four tribes of the Bay Miwok were here when the first Spanish settlers arrived.

In the 1830s, four land grants are awarded by the Mexican government to settlers in what is now Walnut Creek.

William Slusher, the first European settler, builds a cabin on land owned by Ygnacio Sibrian in what is then known as Nuts Creek. The site is near what is now South Main Street and Mt. Diablo Boulevard.

In the 1850s, the community name is changed to The Corners because of the two dirt roads that intersect in what is now downtown. One road went from Pacheco to Livermore. The other went from Oakland to Antioch.

Around 1860, Hiram Penniman builds Shadelands Ranch, lays out the first town site and realigns what is now Main Street.

In 1862, The Corners is renamed Walnut Creek when the U.S. Post Office is established here.

In 1891, Southern Pacific builds a depot and begins service to Walnut Creek.

In 1899, Frank Borges buys 700 acres and establishes Borges Ranch.

In 1909, Robert Noble Burgess develops the Lakewood district.

In 1910, the Great Western Power Co. brings electricity to Walnut Creek.

The city begins

On Oct. 21, 1914, Walnut Creek incorporates as the eighth city in Contra Costa County. Population is about 500. Voters approve incorporation so they can levy taxes to pave Main Street.

In 1920, the Ramona Theater opens as the city's first movie house.

In 1921, Mount Diablo State Park is created on 630 acres owned by Robert Burgess.

In 1924, the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce is formed.

In 1926, the first fire station is built. In 1928, the first police chief is appointed. In 1930, the city's population tops 1,000.

In 1936, the first Walnut Festival is held. In 1946, a half-cent sales tax takes effect.

In 1947, Civic Park is opened as the city's first park.

That same year, Dean Lesher buys the Walnut Creek Courier-Journal and five years later renames it the Contra Costa Times.

More modern times

In 1951, the Broadway Plaza shopping center opens. Las Lomas High also opens as the city's first high school.

In 1955, Joseph Eichler begins building the Rancho San Miguel subdivision.

In 1960, the Interstate 680/Highway 24 interchange opens. Walnut Creek's population is 9,903.

In 1964, the Rossmoor retirement community opens.

In 1970, Heather Farm Park opens as the city's population mushrooms to 39,844.

In 1973, the Walnut Creek BART station begins operations.

In 1974, voters approve a $6.7 million bond measure to purchase more than 1,400 acres of undeveloped ridge line land. Northgate High also opens that year.

In 1985, Measure H is approved by voters to restrict commercial development in town until traffic at major intersections improves. Five years later, the California Supreme Court rules that the initiative is invalid.

In 1990, the Regional Center for the Arts opens with comedian Bob Hope as one of the headline acts on opening night. Five years later, it's renamed the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts.

In 1998, the Iron Horse Trail bridge across Ygnacio Valley Road opens. So does the Broadway Pointe shopping center.

In 2010, the new downtown library on North Broadway opens.

Carol Hess January 18, 2014 at 11:53 AM
The third graders (1991-1992) at Valle Verde School placed memories in a time capsule. The time capsule was buried and clearly marked outside of Walnut Creek City Hall under the direction of Public Information Officer Brad Rovenpera. When will that capsule that rests under a round gold marker be opened?
Catherine Accardi January 20, 2014 at 08:38 PM
Catherine Accardi made a 40 minute PowerPoint Presentation at the 100th anniversary event at Byron Park on January 18th where she said in her presentation that the Caldecott Tunnel brought considerable growth to Walnut Creek. Mr. Mills omitted mention of Ms. Accardi's presentation.

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