Sign at north end of Aquatic Park - Berkeley CA
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the mile-long Berkeley Aquatic Park on the bay front south of University Avenue in 1935-37. It was created as a water park for water skiing, canoeing, sculling and model yacht racing, and is still used for practice by collegiate rowers and for water sports.
The park lies between the freeway (Interstate 80) and the former Southern Pacific Railroad tracks (now Union Pacific). Tidal gates under the freeway keep the water level constant and refresh the basin with water from San Francisco Bay. The aquatic park project grew out of the Eastshore Highway, a feeder road for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which created a causeway/barrier farther out in the bay.
The cost of aquatic park and the Berkeley yacht harbor together was $668,000 out of $1,040,000 allocated to 23 WPA projects around the city in 1935 (Tribune, Dec. 12, 1935).
There are four wooden boat houses, two now used for bicycle shops and other activities. One of the current shop buildings near the north end of the basin appears in the 1937 photo, so it was built by the WPA. The origin of the others is uncertain, though they are certainly old and in rustic park style. An island in the middle of the lake has another wooden building on it, marked Berkeley Waterski Club.
At the south end of the basin is a set of stone bleachers for viewing model yacht races. On the west side is what looks like a former concession stand, two old wooden bleachers and stone fireplaces. The origin of those is uncertain.
In 1939, it was reported that the WPA was completing a road around the entire park and planting 10,000 trees and shrubs (Berkeley Gazette 1939). The road along the west side of the basin still looks original and many of the trees and shrubs survive, to judge by the handsome old Monterey Cypress trees along both shores. Widening of the freeway took out another row of plantings in the 2000s.
The east side of the park has been developed over the years by the city of Berkeley for multiple recreational activities, with a children’s play area, winding path, picnic tables and frisbee golf course. It does not appear that any of that work was done by the WPA.
The very tall eucalyptus trees along the railroad were planted in the 19th century by the Southern Pacific to stabilize the embankment when the tracks were laid across bay mudflats.
"WPA approves 23 projects for Berkeley," Oakland Tribune, December 12, 1935, p. ?
Berkeley Gazette for January 18, 1939, as quoted in Steve Finacom, "City and regional parks in the news in 1939," The Berkeley Voice, January 24, 2014.
Smith, Harvey. 2014. Berkeley and the New Deal. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Project originally submitted by Richard Walker on July 2, 2020.
We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.SUBMIT MORE INFORMATION OR PHOTOGRAPHS FOR THIS SITE