The lost history of Berkeley

March 31, 2008 7:59:53 PM PDT
At a time when many local newspapers are struggling to survive, we have a reminder about the critical role newspapers can play in preserving history.

A Berkeley man is learning that lesson first hand in what life was like in the East Bay more than 100 years ago.

Twelve years ago, Richard Schwartz stumbled on a treasure -- copies of the Berkeley daily gazette from the early1900's.

The old newspapers were being thrown away. But Richard came to their rescue; he brought them home and immediately started reading.

"I got lost in them and hours went by and I couldn't stop turning the pages because it was like finding these jewels," said author Richard Schwartz.

Richard makes his living as a building contractor, but he got hooked on learning about Berkeley's early days, a time when life was very different.

"The big thing was when you got home from work, you would go and buy a newspaper and you would get your favorite beer, and that was a big night," said Schwartz.

He was captivated by the details of people's ordinary lives.

"People are taking a midnight tramp on Mt. Tam and it makes front page news," said Schwartz.

Those first newspapers launched Richard on more than a decade of research. He's now written three books on old Berkeley and become a popular lecturer.

"We'll begin to get a little better idea of where our culture formed and how it formed," said Schwartz.

We caught up with Richard on the UC Berkeley campus.

"You look around and you see trees all over the place. Well back in the 1850's you would have mostly seen grasslands," said Schwartz.

"Really?" asked ABC7's Dan Ashley.

"With carpets and carpets of wildflowers and bunch grass," said Schwartz.

His latest book is called: Eccentrics, heroes and cutthroats of old Berkeley.

"Berkeley has a reputation of having a few interesting characters in its today," said ABC7's Dan Ashley.

"A few," said Schwartz.

"It came by that reputation honestly didn't it? There've always been fascinating and eccentric characters in Berkeley," asked ABC's Dan Ashley.

"It didn't start in the 1960s, it started in the 1850's," said Schwartz.

One of those characters was Mary Townsend, an early crusader against imminent domain.

Mary was a cleaning lady who owned a house near this corner on Shattuck Avenue.

The city condemned her property, so a private company could run railroad tracks through it. After the tracks were built, Mary got a permit to move her house -- and she moved it right on top of the tracks.

"She just felt like it was money and power kicking around working women and that insulted her working class values," said Schwartz.

Mary held off the authorities at gunpoint; the whole town was riveted. The newspaper declared: "gray haired old dame Townsend defies authorities."

She eventually lost the battle -- and an apartment building now stands at the corner where Mary took on City Hall.

But Richard Schwartz thinks marry's story and those of other early residents should live on.

"I think what fascinated me - that in their day, if you walked down the street and saw one of these people, they would be known to every single person in the town. And yet, they've all been lost, either totally completely or as near to completely as you can get," said Schwartz.

"Lost to history," said ABC7's Dan Ashley.

"Lost to history," said Schwartz.

Many have already been brought back to life in Richard's books and lectures, and he plans to keep writing and publishing -- spreading the word about the people and personalities that defined Berkeley's first years as a city.

"No matter how eccentric these people were, I consider these people my friends now," said Schwartz.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.