The mouth of Schoolhouse Creek. All photos: Neil Mishalov

By Neil Mishalov

Schoolhouse Creek is now mostly culverted and hidden under dirt, concrete and asphalt. It must have been a lovely sight before 1913, with its brushy banks accented by open grasslands.

The creek originally carried sediment from the quake-fractured Berkeley hills and helped form the Berkeley flatlands. It is fed by springs in the Berkeley hills, some located near the site of the Berryman Reservoir on Euclid Avenue, which travel down the Berkeley Hills and merge near the intersection of McGee Avenue and Cedar Street. The creek then continues down to the Bay between Virginia and Cedar Streets.

Before there was Interstate 80, the creek fed the south end of a salt marsh east of the current freeway. A tidal slough carried its waters north towards present-day Albany.

Map shows the course of Schoolhouse Creek. Source: Google Maps

In 1854, an inn and general store was built on the south bank of Schoolhouse Creek, near today’s San Pablo Avenue and Virginia Street. It aimed to accommodate Gold Rush travelers as they headed to the Sierra to strike it rich.

The creek was named after a small, one-room schoolhouse built near the creek in 1856. As Berkeley grew, and its population increased, developers used the creek as a sewer and storm drain, enclosing much of the creek in terracotta and redwood pipes.

Schoolhouse Creek runs under this concrete parking lot between Virginia and Cedar Streets

By 1913, most of the creek was hidden under dirt and roadways. Now, almost 100 years later, the creek is still sadly hidden from view, and is mostly forgotten.

There have been discussions about daylighting a small section of Schoolhouse Creek in what is now known as the Eastshore State Park. The proposal to daylight the creek was first formulated more than ten years ago, but so far nothing has taken place.

Map of Berkeley creeks shows course of Schoolhouse Creek. Map courtesy of Janet M. Sowers/Oakland Museum of California

So, if you go to Eastshore State Park today to see where Schoolhouse Creek enters San Francisco Bay, all you see is an old concrete pipe about 5-feet in diameter emerging from the ground. My first thought when I located the mouth of Schoolhouse Creek was that the concrete pipe was a remnant of an early sewer drain, no longer in use.

But I was mistaken, the concrete pipe is the mouth of the creek. Since this is Berkeley, I feel comfortable in saying: Free Schoolhouse Creek!

Thanks to Rebecca Sutton and The Friends of Five Creeks whose research helped with this article.

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  1. Guest1: got it, I think.  Thanks.  We’ve hit the limit of how many nested “reply”s there can be so I hope you see this.

  2. Bruce, you probably won’t see this reply (sorry for the delay!) but just in case…

    I did mean “in general”, but I believe it’s true in Berkeley as well.  The structural integrity of culverts is certainly a problem, but it’s not a problem related to extreme flows, as Andrew originally stated.  So yes, culverts can structurally fail (due to age, seismic activity, nearby construction, landslides, etc.) causing sink holes and other issues, but those failures are not related to the flow occuring in the pipe itself. 

    Culvert failure due to high flows occurs where water tries to enter an undersized culvert – it can’t, so the water eats away at the entrance (and exit) of the culvert.  This is why long culverts (i.e. creeks in culverts) are unlikely to fail due to flows — the locations of the failure would be limited to the up and downstream faces of the culvert. 

    As far as climate change, the jury is out on how it will affect rainfall on the west coast.  Reasonable minds (and peer reviewed, scientific journal articles) disagree about whether we can expect, on an annual basis, fewer, more severe storms, or more common, less severe storms.  Most seem to agree that our total annual rainfall won’t change much, and more severe storm does not necessarily = more severe flooding (the same storm in October vs. February will create different flooding conditions).  All of which means that other than sea level rise, and the ‘trickle up’ impact of that, we really don’t know how climate change will impact flood risks!   

  3. Does “burst” have some technical meaning here other than just losing structural integrity under stress of load?

    Haven’t there already been some breaks and resulting subsidence of residential properties from (at least) a Strawberry Creek culvert?  I’m asking, not asserting — I think there was a related lawsuit just a few years back.

    I guess I’m also kind of surprised by your assertion that bursts are unlikely other than at the most obvious places where obvious flooding occurs.   Isn’t it the case (e.g., c.f., the Creeks Ordinance) that Berkeley culverts are old, of uncertain (but certainly problematic) condition, challenged by seismic, land-slide, and biological activity and, in some places known to be undersized?   While historic development has tended to increase the load on them?  Additionally construction near or over them was not particularly regulated until recently (relative to their age)?

    And isn’t there also a reasonable concern that climate change might well – basically starting around now – turn historically 100 year run-off events into significantly more frequent events?

    When you say you’ve only heard of culverts bursting near roads / bridges — do you mean “in Berkeley” or generally?

  4. Andrew, I agree with libraterian, there are lots of reasons to ‘daylight’ and restore Creeks, but blowing out culverts is not one that I’ve heard in my 10 years as a professional water resources engineer who designs restoration projects. 

    In fact, the only culverts that I’ve ever heard of blowing out are those that are open channels that go into culverts under roads.  Those culverts, if undersized, can be at risk of blowing out (usually destroying the road/bridge) during severe events.  But a long, continuous culverted channel has relatively low risk of structural failure due to extreme runoff events. 

    The number one reason why traditional engineers like restoration of creeks is because of the erosion control it affords on the banks.  Of course this doesn’t really apply to daylighting, where erosion is a non-issue. 

  5. Andrew,

    Bursting Culverts?

    FEMA isn’t worried about culverts bursting in 100 year or even 500 year floods. See our own planning and development document on hydrology which states in part: “Except for small areas located within the 100 and 500 year flood zones, as shown in Figure IV.J-2, the majority of Berkeley is defined by FEMA as being subject to minimal flooding.” From:

    A Central (Water) Park for Berkeley?

    I agree, waterways add wonderful charm to a city, San Antonio, Florence and Venice come to mind. And perhaps the suggestion to daylight Strawberry in the block west of campus would add a similar benefit here. But it’s not civic amenities that have been the focus of local our creek crusades. Rather creeks, have joined “landmarks” in the nimby’s arsenal against change. The grief given Beth El is an excellent example. 

    However, as San Francisco was once called “Paris of the West”, making Berkeley the “Venice of the West” would eliminate the need for a ‘sit-lie ordinance’.

  6. Lets not forget, though, the location of the Spenger’s Memorial Asphalt (Car) Park which commemorates the location of a Native American shellmound.

  7. libraterian – love that name! good one

    I’m with you on the progress/violence thing.

    I’ve been researching creek restoration for a piece myself, and you might be glad to know that there’s more to the motives of creek restorers than hating development. The most pressing issue that comes up is that when there’s a 100- or 50-year flood, the culverts will wash out, and they are so costly to replace these days (at public or private expense) that the cost can get up in the neighborhood of the land value itself. The blowout of these culverts is only a matter of time, so the question is what to plan for when it happens, and who should pay. Daylighting the creek has been analyzed by civil engineers and often comes out as the cheapest option.

    Another point creek restorers bring up is that restoration itself is a better version of progress, wealth and development. For example, a neighborhood with a big creek park running through it would be a more valuable (human) place to live for everybody nearby – a lot of people would even accept to live closer together, to be near such an amenity. Think of Central Park in New York: yes, that could be sold off as valuable housing real estate. But the park wasn’t put there because people hated progress, it was put there to increase the quality of life for everybody who lives near it. Suburban parks work the same way; there are benefits that residents get from open space that they cannot get from neighboring yards and sidewalks – a feeling of freedom and relaxation, a safe place to take kids and dogs.

    Another human-benefiting outcome of creek restoration, in neighborhoods (such as in the Seattle area) where it’s been done, is the return of spawning fish. Can you imagine people fishing for steelhead trout right here in Berkeley? It’s not only possible, it’s a likely outcome of planning to open up these strips of land again to flowing water. That’s why I favor it as a long term goal. I don’t favor pushing people out of their houses, but I favor working towards making this happen as a neighborhood benefit.

  8. I love creeks. What I detest is the characterization of all human progress as violence against nature. I see these maps and praise the wisdom of the town’s builders for the thousands of houses, and the tens of thousands of lives lived in them, made possible by culverting these creeks.  

  9. I love creeks. What I detest is the characterization of all human progress as violence against nature. I see these maps and praise the wisdom of the town’s builders for the thousands of houses, and the tens of thousands of lives lived in them, made possible by culverting these creeks.  

  10. Daylighting creeks is fine where they go through parks… but most of them go under people’s houses. Maybe that’s not so great.

  11. There is a plan to daylight Strawberry Creek between Shattuck and Oxford on Center Street… don’t know where tha tis in planning stages though.

  12. The exposed section is  between 1649  and 1651 Curtis Street, and can be seen behind a fence. It’s beautiful when it’s full and bubbling along in the wintertime.  There are a lot of newts and salamanders in our neighborhood as a result, which is very nice. There isn’t any open creek area at Cedar Rose Park that I’ve seen. The house on Cornell (what happened to the posted link?) does have an open section of the creek as well, but it is not at all visible from the street.

  13. From the research I’ve done, the waterfront was actually very close to where Spenger’s currently is — which is why old Mr. Spenger originally put the restaurant there; close to the boats coming in. Landfill destroyed much (most?) of our waterfront. 

  14. Love this article and those maps!  I’d love to see more creeks daylighted.  Come on Berkeley!  

  15. For those with the patience for it (it’s worth it, if you ask me) here’s Sylvia McLaughlin giving a talk in 2007 about the Save the Bay project that helped pull back filling in the bay:

    This, along with some of Gray Brechin’s work, seems like it should be part of some canon that introduces unfamiliar residents of the Bay Area to their political, economic, and ecological context.

    Also, the marina, the boat yard, the dump … there are a bunch of ecological problems there that are the legacy of that fill work and the product of their current state.

    Berkeleyside:  I think an on stage conversation between Frances and Gray about Hellman’s role in overcoming the banking crisis (not the current one … the one that nearly took down San Francisco back during the gold rush)  could (if all parties are interested in doing it) be a neat Berkeleyside “event”.

  16. If you look at that map and trace the Schoolhouse Creek green line to its eastern-most point — at Shattuck just above Milvia — your finger rests roughly on the location of the “well” at the Safeway store. There is a commemorative plaque. I suppose the well was placed to take up water from that creek or an associated spring.

  17. Carter,

    That is not a snide comment; it’s a good point that you make. Here are the facts.The entire Berkeley-Albany waterfront area was destroyed by the desire of government workers and private entrepreneurs to generate more revenue and more tax dollars… the hell with the environment. For example, from 1923 to the early 1980’s the park now know as Caesar Chavez Park was the Berkeley garbage dump. All of that land is fill; at one time, not that long ago, it use to be part of the Bay. Much of the area along the current Berkeley shoreline is fill. That area use to be marsh land. In fact, Schoolhouse Creek originally emptied into marsh land in the area between 4th and 6th Street. The mouth was extended as the fill was added, so that eventually it ended where it is now, at the end of the fill. Codornices Creek use to enter marsh land in the area just east of Golden Gate Fields. But the racetrack was built, the marsh land was filled, and the mouth of Codornices Creek was redirected about 1/4 mile to east where it now empties into the Bay at the Albany Bulb, another garbage dump. I could go on… but I won’t.

    The point is that the shoreline that you saw in that movie made in 1923-24 simply shows that the rape of the land has been going on for a while. Does that mean that a movie which was made 85 years ago shows what the shoreline looked like 150 years ago. I think not. I am not trying to romanticize anything. The only thing that I am suggesting is that you try to visualize what the land looked before your grandparents or great grandparents were born.

  18. I hope this does not sound too snide but I have to question the idea that it must have been a lovely sight early in the last century. Remembering the shot of the Berkeley shoreline in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, there was nothing lovely about it. Perhaps we romanticize nature more than it needs to be.

  19. Yes, you are correct. Although the majority of the creek is underground, some small portions of the creek on private properly are exposed. Cornell Street and Curtis Street have exposed section of the creek located on private property. 1690 Curtis Street has an exposed section of the creek which is visible from the sidewalk. In addition a section may be exposed in Cedar Rose Park, but I can not confirm that. Has anyone seen an open creek in Cedar Rose Park?

  20. You have to wonder if that’s why it fell out of contract.  Always read the disclosures (preferably before you make an offer!).

  21. I was at an open house for a home in Berkeley recently that had a creek running through the center of the property. It came out of a pipe on one side, and disappeared back into one on the other. You can see the bridge over the creek in some of the photos here.

    Could it have been Schoolhouse Creek? The Google Map location for the property is incorrect. It’s around the middle of the block of Cornell between Virginia and Cedar.

  22. Very neat.  I love those creek/watershed maps.  I think the legend is useful: the dotted red line are “underground culverts and storm drains”, “creeks” are in blue, and “former creeks, buried or drained, circa 1850” are in green.  All are here: