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History of El Cerrito

Before the Spanish explorations of the San Francisco Bay region, the Huchiun group of the Ohlone (or Costanoan) Indians occupied an area which included what is now El Cerrito. Other branches of the Ohlone extended south along the coast to Big Sur, and north to Martinez. The Ohlone had occupied this area for thousands of years, and had developed a lifestyle which allowed them to flourish without making major changes to the natural landscape. They ate acorn mush, seed cakes, and seafood and meat from a variety of wildlife. Because of the abundant food available in this climate, they had no need to cultivate crops, although they did utilize a variety of excellent land management practices. The Ohlone produced a great variety of baskets for different purposes, including even water tight baskets. They also had rich ceremonial practices and a strict social system, which helped to maintain peace within and between communities. Although the Ohlone were decimated by the policies of both the Spanish missionaries and the other European settlers, and the last native speaker of an Ohlone language died in 1935, descendants of the Ohlone still live in this area, and some are trying to revive their ancestors’ culture and language. For more information on the Ohlone, see The Ohlone Way by Malcolm Margolin (1978), from which most of this information is taken.

The Spanish explorations into California began with the expedition of Don Gaspar de Portola in 1769. After setting up a base in San Diego they set out for their main objective, the Port of Monterey. In early spring in 1772, Pedro Fages, who had been invested by Portola with the government of Alta California, set out with Father Juan Crespi and twelve soldiers to explore the eastern shore of the bay. This was the first exploration of what is now the counties of Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa. On March 27, 1772, they halted at the base of a small hill on the bank of a creek opposite the Golden Gate — the present site of the City of El Cerrito and the “little hill” from which it derives its name.

At the time of the Mexican revolution, the area now known as Contra Costa County, appears in the records as a grazing land for sheep and cattle belonging to Mission Delores across the bay. It was about this time on 1823 that Don Francisco Castro, a former soldier at the San Francisco presidio and alcalde of the pueblo of San Jose, was a member of an exploration party through this area. Later that year he received a provisional grant for approximately for square leagues (19,394.40 acres) from Governor Arguello on April 15, 1823. The present city of El Cerrito fell within the limits of that grant which became known as the San Pablo Rancho, and which became final 1834.

Don Francisco Castro took possession of an old mission dwelling on this rancho north of El Cerrito in the present town of San Pablo.

It was in 1839 a son, Don Victor Ramon Castro, chose the edge of his father’s sprawling rancho near Cerrito Creek on San Pablo Road to build his hacienda for his wife Luisa, the daughter of Don Ygnacio Martinez, their neighbor to the north. The two story adobe remained for 117 years until it was burned to the ground in April 1956. Today one adobe brick remains on the site marked by a brass plaque in the El Cerrito Plaza Shopping Center. Victor raised cattle and vegetables; he also owned a schooner-launch and a whale boat which he employed ferrying passengers to various points on the bay when the gold rush hit California in 1849.

William F. Rust, a journeyman blacksmith from Hanover, Germany, is designated as the founder of El Cerrito. He came into the area in 1883 and later chose a location for his blacksmith shop on the main road between Oakland and San Pablo (San Pablo Avenue) near the county line. As Rancho San Pablo was excellent farming land, Rust began making farm implements for which there was great demand.

In 1909 a post office was established in William Rust’s store and he became postmaster of the station which was called Rust. The little community grew until August 23, 1917, after a spirited contest, the unincorporated areas of Stege Junction and Rust voted incorporation. Starting with an estimated population of 1,400 in 1917, the area grew slowly, reaching a population of 3,852 in 1930; 7,000 in 1940. During the war years, the population sky-rocketed to 16,624, with approximately half that number living in temporary war housing or government trailer parks. Then came the post-war housing boom. Population in permanent housing jumped from an estimated 7,000 in 1945 to 18,000 in 1950.

During the 1930’s and early 1940’s the community was perhaps best known for its casinos, poker parlors and dog racing track. The Castro adobe was one of the gambling spots at this time. In 1946 the slogan “The City of Homes” was adopted. About the same time, a new city council was elected. One of their first major acts was to outlaw draw poker and to embark on a vigorous enforcement campaign against all gambling activity. Two years later, the Council-Manager plan was adopted to aid in streamlining the reorganization of City Government.

Residents of the community embarked on a program of civic improvements to provide the facilities needed in a growing, modern, urban community.

As a result of these efforts, El Cerrito, with its population of 23,000 has evolved into a prime residential community and still is “A City of Homes”.

El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 538
El Cerrito, CA 94530

El Cerrito Historical Society
P.O. Box 304
El Cerrito, CA 94530