Historian Bill Mero says his new book, “Shadows on the Hills,” began as a list of place names that had been changed over the years, a tool to help researchers at the Contra Costa History Society find what they were looking for. His fascination grew for learning how the names on old maps and documents came to be, and after eight years of documentation, the book was born.
“From its beginnings as a wild frontier, to a sprawling collection of bedroom communities, Contra Costa’s history is echoed in its place names,” Mero writes in the book’s forward. “The ghosts of Indian wars, Spanish explorers, scalp collectors, grizzly hunters, elk herds, range wars and infamous brothels linger on as place names or wispy notes on fading maps. Spanish dons, criminals, mining barons, silver and copper rushes, logging empires, cattle and wheat kings have risen and fallen. After both scoundrels and heroes are gone, only their names remain, fading and fleeting like the shadows on the hills.”
With help from historians Kathy Leighton, Nilda Rego and Mero’s wife, Kathleen, he penned the book hoping it would help newcomers understand the history behind the places they now call home.
“We’ve gotten so many new residents in the last five years who know nothing of Contra Costa County,” he said. “This is a good way for people to educate themselves.”
Despite the hundreds of entries contained in “Shadows on the Hills,” Mero harbors no illusions that it’s comprehensive, or that everyone will agree with its entries. “Talking about the origin of a place name is like talking religion or politics,” he says. “Everybody has pretty strong opinions. Everyone says, ‘I wish you had talked to me’ or ‘my grandmother has a different story.’ I’m a stickler for accuracy, and I’d be glad to include it in the next edition.”
Some of the stories – such as the claim that Byron was related to the distance a horse and wagon could travel in two hours, a “by run” – have little or no basis of fact, but make for good entertainment. Those, says Mero, often lack footnotes and sources, but are included with a “literary smile” for their entertainment value.
But most are thoroughly sourced and documented in the book’s expansive index, which includes maps, lists of prominent homes of the 19th century, land grant information and more.
The book, now available on eBay, can also be ordered through the CCCHS Web site, www.cocohistory.com. Additional names or alternative stories to those the book contains can be contributed by e-mailing Mero at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below are a few of the book’s entries about places familiar to residents of East County:
Originally “Smith’s Landing,” the first settlers of present-day Antioch were twin brothers J.H. and W.W. Smith. The brothers were first invited to settle on the original site of Antioch by Dr. John Marsh, first U.S.-born pioneer in Contra Costa. In 1851 the current name was selected at the town’s Fourth of July picnic. The town was named after an ancient Syrian city in the Bible. The story is that some wanted to call their new town “Paradise.” But given the growing land disputes, most of the settlers didn’t want to be known as “Paradise Lost.” Antioch enjoyed an early land rush in 1865 when an oil-drilling boom swept the area. The city was incorporated in 1872.
Brentwood is named after Dr. John Marsh’s ranch, “Brentwood,” an English town in Essex, the ancestral home of the Marsh family. (Marsh was the first U.S. –born settler in Contra Costa.) Located on the Marsh Rancho, also known as Los Meganos, the town was laid out and surveyed in October of 1878 by Lewis and Lord, and incorporated in 1948. Brentwood was a Southern Pacific Railroad stop in 1893. The Balfour Guthrie Company established orchards and gardens that stimulated Brentwood’s early growth.
The first houses in Byron were a hotel and post office built in 1878, and a Southern Pacific Railroad depot. The railroad company might have named the depot after one of several other East Coast Byron stations. Byron gained national infamy in 1902 as the site of a horrific railroad crash on the Southern Pacific Line that killed 27 or 28 passengers and helped bring about new national safety standards. The town is two and half miles north of Byron Hot Springs.
A favorite story of local historians is that the original name of the railroad stop was “Byrun.” Supposedly the distance between railroad stations was set by the distance a horse and buggy could travel in two and half hours. This distance was called a “by run.” There is no evidence for this interesting tale. An often-quoted explanation is that a railroad official named the railroad station and resulting community after his young son or a railroad employee. One story is that the original railroad depot was named after the poet Lord Byron. There also is a possibility that early pioneer settlers Henry and Rosina Byron gave their name to the area in the 1860.
The caves are within sandstone outcrops about five miles southwest of Byron Hot Springs. There is some evidence they were frequented by Native Americans during the Spanish era. A large cave, the King’s Palace, is located there. It’s claimed that the caves were a hideout of Francisco Cervantes, a Famous Contra Costa bandit of 1866, who was finally captured by Undersheriff George A. Swain and John McGrath. The romantically inclined claimed that the legendary outlaw Joaquin Marietta also used the caves as a hideout. If true, the caves would have been a busy place.
Originally “Todos Santos,” “Drunken Indian,” present-day Concord was founded by Salvio Pacheco in 1828. He initially named the new settlement Todos Santos. Salvio Pacheco, Fernando Pacheco and Francisco Galindo laid out Concord’s streets and lots in 1869. Samuel Bacon was the first man to take advantage of a free lot offer if the settlers would move from the flood-prone Pacheco townsite. In the early days there was a local Indian named Juan Vaca famous for begging pennies in order to buy strong drink. His nickname was “Dan Empty.” The local wits thought it was hilarious to refer to the new settlement as “Drunken Indian.” Don Salvio wrote to the Contra Costa Gazette that Concord is the name that “… the sponsors have decided to call the new village that is to form the east extension of Pacheco town.” By 1873 the name “Concord” was the accepted name for the growing village.
Deer Valley is a small northwest-southeast-trending valley in the general vicinity of Byron. Deer Creek drains the northern flank of Mount Diablo. In the early days, the local deer population was abundant. Market hunters harvested game on Mount Diablo for the tables of San Francisco.
Originally “Riverside,” “River Lake,” Discovery Bay is a relatively recent, upscale, unincorporated community whose planning began in 1964. Jorgen Lunding is credited with changing the name to “Discovery Bay” around 1967. The community was built on the Byron Tract, a barley and potato growing area. By 1988 more than 2,000 acres had been developed and 18 bays carved out of the farmland. The artificial bays were then flooded by breaking a levee on Indian Slough.
In 1887, James O’Hara planted the first orchards and transformed the region. The Oakley post office was established in October of 1898. The town was founded in 1897 and named by R.C. Marsh, the first postmaster, for the local abundance of oak trees. The initials of the five original streets – Marsh, Acme, Ruby, Star and Home – spell out his last name.
The town was a free-spirited locality during the early decades of the 20th century. Few women inhabited eastern Contra Costa in those early times. In the Oakley Hotel’s upstairs rooms, numerous prostitutes entertained the large number of single men who worked on the surrounding farms and ranches. Many stores on Ruby Street served as fronts for gambling establishments. It’s claimed that Chinese farm hands frequented opium dens in houses behind the old Oakley Hotel.
Orwood was an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad stop about a half mile west of Old River and the Contra Costa San Joaquin County line. The post office was established around December, 1913 and lasted until November, 1921. Orwood was named after Orville Y. Woodward, promoter of the Orwood Tract.
Point of Timber Landing
The landing was located on Indian Slough across from Discovery Bay. The original landing was about 2½ miles east of today’s Union Cemetery. The landing was used after the early 1860s. Tule fires burned the landing in 1881-82. The landing was rebuilt in 1884. Jack London anchored his yacht “The Sea Wolf” at Point of Timber Landing. While at Point of Timbers, London worked on “The Seafaring Life of a Captain” with Captain C. W Lent, a sailing ship captain who had retired to Byron. An alcoholic, London suffered from a flare-up of kidney problems, preventing the book’s completion.
Lent became an important figure in the history of Delta reclamation by operating the first floating pump, using Point of Timber as his main base. From Point of Timber Landing, Lent also ran a regular passenger boat to Stockton. The Wolf and Kahn store and the Lehman & Davis blacksmith shop were located there. The landing was built by Josiah Wills, who organized the digging of Indian Slough. The slough connected the landing to the open water of Old River.