Book Review: Tilden Regional Park—Queen of the East Bay Regional Parks, 246pp, 420 photographs

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service and the 75th of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), a magnificent two-county system now comprising 65 parks and 120,000 acres of remarkably varied land. Both occasions were celebrated with several public events in Tilden Regional Park in the hills above Berkeley, including the debut of Richard Langs’ comprehensive history of the heavily used 2,000-acre park only minutes from the University of California campus.

The connection between the two park systems—as well as the state parks—is not coincidental since it was faculty and graduates of the University who created and largely built the NPS and then, 25 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, did the same for the nation’s first regional park system. Langs makes clear that Tilden Regional Park is yet another overlooked New Deal legacy.

CCC “boys” made the ten enormous relief models of the East Bay used to persuade voters to pass a bond measure needed to purchase surplus watershed lands that would otherwise have been developed, as was land in the Oakland hills and beyond once New Deal tunnels and roads made them accessible. CCC and WPA workers constructed roads, buildings, picnic areas, and water systems, removed poison oak, and planted thousands of trees now in their maturity.

Langs—an ardent golfer—gives special attention to the building and history of the Tilden public golf course which democratized a sport previously available only to a few. He also chronicles the park’s two steam trains, historic merry-go-round, lakes, Little Farm, and other attractions.

Historic photos culled from the EBRPD archives demonstrate the enormous investment in thought and labor that went into the creation of Tilden. Yet, few visitors regard it as a cultural rather than natural landscape designed for the benefit of millions and generations to come. Fewer still who use Tilden (myself included) know the personal stories of the visionary leaders and staff who made it and its sister parks possible. With the aid of Langs’ research and writing, they can now enjoy the Park in time as well as in space. Available at Tilden Nature Center or by emailing [email protected]

Preserved Forever: How the CCC Helped Build a Park District

Robert Sibley: Park District Board Member Robert Sibley (center) highlights the Tilden Nature Study Area on the relief model in the mid-1950s.

Robert Sibley
Park District Board Member Robert Sibley (center) highlights the Tilden Nature Study Area on the relief model in the mid-1950s.
Photo Credit: Courtesy EBRPD

In 1928, conservationist, hiker, and University of California alumnus Robert Sibley, saw into the future of the open rolling hills above the Berkeley campus. “These valuable pieces of land ought to be preserved forever,” he forewarned. So began a movement to save thousands of wild acres from certain development. The New Deal played a critical part in gaining the public’s support.

A 1930 report, “Proposed Park Reservations for East Bay Cities,” by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Ansel F. Hall, first chief naturalist of the National Park Service, laid out a plan for a system of regional parks and a single agency to manage them. As early as 1933, local CCC enrollees, under the direction of the Western Museum Laboratory in Berkeley, set to work on a project to help win the public over to the idea.

Unveiling the Restored Map District General Manager Robert Doyle welcomes visitors to the unveiling of the newly restored CCC relief model at the Tilden Environmental Education Center on August 27, 2016.

Unveiling the Restored Map
District General Manager Robert Doyle welcomes visitors to the unveiling of the newly restored CCC relief model at the Tilden Environmental Education Center on August 27, 2016.
Photo Credit: Courtesy EBRPD

Often more than a hundred CCC men at a time worked to fabricate a series of 6-foot by 12-foot replicas of the East Bay region based on maps in the Olmsted-Hall plan. The hand-painted plaster relief models highlighted the ridgelines, hills, and valleys that park advocates hoped to conserve. Local cities used the topographical models to promote the cause. The prospect of federally funded labor and construction dollars through New Deal programs also had a role in winning over voters.

In 1934, despite the Great Depression, voters approved a tax to establish the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the first regional park systems in the country. With parklands secured, WPA and CCC crews arrived in 1935 to begin building the roads, trails, stone bridges, buildings, and fountains that remain a lasting tribute to their work.

CCC Camp Wildcat Canyon : Tilden Environmental Education Center sits on the former site of Camp Wildcat Canyon, a CCC camp that housed several hundred young men who built the trails, restrooms, and picnic areas for the new parks

CCC Camp Wildcat Canyon
Tilden Environmental Education Center sits on the former site of Camp Wildcat Canyon, a CCC camp that housed several hundred young men who built the trails, restrooms, and picnic areas for the new parks
Photo Credit: Courtesy EBRPD

Today, one of the nation’s oldest regional park systems is also one of the largest—with 65 parks totaling 120,000 acres, and 1,200 miles of trails.

Recently, the last known remaining model the CCC built for the parks campaign was resurrected from a seldom-used building where it had languished for decades. Its significance came to light in the course of preparing for the District’s 80th anniversary.

Experts from the Richmond, California-based Scientific Art Studio, which manufactures museum exhibits, were called in to help with the model’s restoration. They carefully patched and reinforced the crumbling plaster and removed many added layers of paint revealing the map’s original colors and hand lettering. Original errors were left intact, including a puzzling reference to “Citizens Conservation Corps.”

Ansel Hall, chief naturalist at the National Park Service, points out the proposed Regional parklands to local civic leaders in 1934

Early Park Leaders
Ansel Hall, chief naturalist at the National Park Service, points out the proposed Regional parklands to local civic leaders in 1934
Photo Credit: Smithsonian, Civilian Conservation Corps Collection

In August, the restored model was unveiled to the public to great fanfare. It is on permanent display at the popular Environmental Education Center at Tilden Park—the former site of CCC Camp Wildcat Canyon.