Strawberry Canyon, “a mountain gorge”

Framing Memorial Stadium is Berkeley’s natural landscape.

Janice Thomas

A view of Grizzly Peak from Canyon Road in Strawberry Canyon
(postcard published by Edward H. Mitchell c. 1905)

September 2005

Strawberry Canyon is the most frequented tramp in Berkeley, perhaps because one may stroll along the upper creek bed and lose sight of all that reminds him of a town—forget, for a little while, streets, and houses, and gardens...and books. Running between the walls of the hill, over a tumbled bed of boulders, and through regular tunnels of oak and laurel and willow, and tangled disorder of creeper and fern, Strawberry Creek has an untamed beauty and waywardness that pleases as no garden or park-land can.   – 1903 Blue & Gold

The beauty of the Strawberry Canyon setting was undoubtedly the compelling reason behind the final choice for the California Memorial Stadium site. The view to the east encompassed the residential neighborhood of Panoramic Hill and the undeveloped land of Strawberry Canyon, while the western view took in the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate. A more spectacular setting for a stadium could hardly be found—and still can’t—anywhere in the world. And so it came to pass that the stadium was constructed at the mouth of a canyon.

Strawberry Canyon had always been a place to explore, a natural escapade within walking distance of the campus. The vegetation along Strawberry Creek and its the north-facing canyon slope was dense with coast live oaks and scrub. The creek itself, strengthened by contributions from such tributaries as Chicken Creek, Ten Inch Creek, Ravine Creek, Banana Creek, and Botanical Garden Creek, was once so copious as to be the primary water supply for the emerging university. In fact, the creek was the main reason for choosing the College of California site in 1858.

Strawberry Canyon in 1870 (photo courtesy of U.C. Berkeley)

In 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted was hired by the College of California to lay out the Berkeley Property Tract for a gracious residential neighborhood adjacent to the campus. Writing about Caņon [now Canyon] Road, he identified the mountain gorge and flowing creek waters as nearby scenic amenities:

As this road follows a stream of water from the open landscape of the bay region into the midst of the mountains it offers a great change of scenery within a short distance, and will constitute a unique and most valuable appendage to the general local attractions of the neighborhood.

Today, the canyon continues to be an attraction for all who have discovered its fire trails, wandered its deer paths, and climbed down its steep creekbanks. Not just utilitarian, the fire trails meander through the hills, offering tranquility and inspiration.

Strawberry Canyon in 1914. The central vale is the current location of Memorial Stadium. Rieber house is visible top left, and houses along Bancroft Steps are top right. (photo courtesy of U.C. Berkeley)

The U.C. Botanical Garden found its home here in the 1920s, moving from the center of the campus. Aside from these cultivated gardens, the canyon enchants with its abundant native flora. Amelia Sanborn Allen, a Panoramic Hill resident who was an avid birdwatcher and the wife of Classics professor James Turney Allen, wrote in the March-April 1915 issue of The Condor:

To the north and east the oak forest is continuous, interspersed with bay trees: and there is a dense undergrowth of hazel, cascara, poison oak, spiraea, wild rose, snow-berry, wild currant, blackberry and brakes, with thimble-berries and wild parsnip filling the cross ravines.

Charles H. Rieber House, 15 Canyon Road, in 1914 (photo courtesy of U.C. Berkeley)

While Mrs. Allen appreciated the flora as bird habitat, another resident of the canyon neighborhood had carefully and methodically classified California plant species. Willis Linn Jepson (1867–1946), the first doctoral graduate from the Botany Department(1898) and then a professor until 1937, author of the standard reference book A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California (now The Jepson Manual), founder of the California Botanical Society and co-founder of the Sierra Club, built his Julia Morgan–designed home on Panoramic Hill, where the entire canyon and its flora were literally at his feet.

The native flora are still here today, as is a variety of fauna. The discerning eye might spot a a patch of prized trillium in spring. An early morning walk might yield the sighting of a Great Horned Owl not yet sated from nocturnal hunting. During a late afternoon ramble, a covey of quail might be observed quietly scurrying across the fire trail. In the distance, crowds might be cheering and cannons booming. The day may have started with the sound of songs ringing out from the Sather Tower carillon. The day may end with the sight of a fog bank forming away in the distance.

Facing the Golden Gate, aligned with the Campanile, a precious sanctuary in the Berkeley Hills. This is Olmsted’s “mountain gorge”—Strawberry Canyon.

Read also:
Amelia Sanborn Allen on Strawberry Canyon

On the dangers of upgrading a Beaux-Arts coliseum in a sylvan setting with no parking

Blighted campus neighborhoods:
Stadium project’s potential effect spreads far and wide

Memorial Stadium—controversial from the start

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