A STEEPLE AMONG THE OAKS
A CENTENNIAL HISTORY OF THE
FIRST METHODIST CHURCH
ALBERT E. NORMAN
It is unfortunate that this is the only photo available of the First Methodist Church built at the southwest corner of Ninth and Washington Streets in 1864.
Oak trees obscured the view of the photographer atop the Wilcox Building at Ninth and Broadway.
During his stay in Oakland Rev. Rich found more and more demand upon his time. Besides preaching, he was Superintendent of the Sunday School for his newly established church. He was also Superintendent of Alameda County Schools in these formative years of the county. But First Church was his honest pride and joy. He remained nearly three years, and he directed the construction of the second structure to house First Church. The second edifice was at the southwest corner of Ninth and Washington Streets.
His life was crowded with incessant toil and heroic service. Rev. Rich lived to be 76. He died June 10, 1909.
When Rev. Rich began his second year in Oakland the Sunday School membership totaled 35 members. At the 1863 Conference the lot and church at Sixth and Washington Streets were sold to the African Methodist Church and the building was moved to Seventh and West Streets. The lot at Ninth and Washington Streets was purchased for $1,000. Plans were drawn for a church to seat 300 persons, the completed church to cost $6,000.
When Bishop Clarke dedicated the structure on December 14, 1864, there was an indebtedness of $2,000.
In closing his pastorate Rev. Rich reported 20 registered members, 10 probationers and 91 in the Sunday School.
Rev. Rich had remained in Oakland long enough to see the San Francisco & Oakland Railroad inaugurate service on Seventh Street; trains connecting at Gibbon’s wharf with the ferry Contra Costa. There was every indication that First Church was on solid ground. Oakland continued to grow. The old cemetery between 17th and 19th Streets that extended out between Webster and Harrison Streets was being moved to the foothills northeast of town, and henceforth would be called Mountain View Cemetery.
The tiny Contra Costa Academy that the Alameda Circuit Riders had watched Congregationalist Henry Durant organize at Fifth and Broadway as early as 1853 had now expanded into the College of California and had a campus that extended between 12th and 14th Streets and Franklin to Harrison Streets. Each year new buildings were going up for a growing enrollment.
In 1865 the annual Methodist Conference sent the Rev. Charles Miller to First Church to succeed the Rev. Rich. It was a year of trial to the church, although membership kept apace of the growing population. Rev. Miller was a transfer to the California Conference in 1862 from New Jersey and Oakland was his first charge. First Church membership totaled 38 when he departed.
His successor was the Rev. H. H. Hartwell, who remained through 1866, followed by the Rev. Lysander Walker, who was in turn succeeded by the Rev. T. S. Dunn (1869-72) and then by W. J. Maclay (1872-73).
Maybe you will recall that the Rev. Rich was Sunday School Superintendent during his three-year stay here. On his departure it was James Stratton, who once taught at old Prescott School in Oakland, who took over direction of First Church’s Sunday School. He held the post from November 24, 1866 to November 23, 1870.
Under James Stratton’s leadership the Sunday School grew and prospered.
By this time First Church was on its way to statewide recognition. The second structure was a substantial edifice in an excellent location.
Was it any wonder they called Seventh Street “Railroad Avenue” back in 1869?
This was the line of steam trains that ran from Gibbon’s Wharf, down at “The Point,” and to the eastern boundary of Oakland.
Note the boardwalks, and the coaches lined up awaiting the evening train.
From 1862 to 1864 First Church was but two blocks away to the left at Sixth and Washington Streets.
When this photograph was taken in 1869 First Church was three blocks distant (right) at Ninth and Washington Streets.
On the post in left of photograph is the first gas light installed on Oakland streets December 31, 1866.
Looking back at that Sixth and Washington Streets establishment the Rev. Rich must have smiled at his own courage. The Civil War was beginning to make itself felt on the Pacific Coast when he had fastened the roots of First Church solidly to Oakland soil. Even though far removed from battle scenes, Oakland and First Church shared in both the joy and grief generated by the war between the states.
At the war’s end the western expansion caused eyes to focus on Oakland as a railroad terminal. Rails were rapidly spanning the nation. The Rev. Dunn was pastor of First Church the day the first transcontinental train rolled into town November 8, 1869. It was also Dunn’s good fortune to witness the first horse car operation up Broadway to Telegraph Avenue and out to 36th Street. When this railway franchise was first granted it was the Rev. H. H. Hartwell who was in the pulpit, but bickering held up actual operation of Oakland horse cars until late in 1869.
Three years before Oakland boasted of horse cars and bragged about being the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad, the town went wild over gas lamps along its main streets. The first gas lamp was installed in December of 1866.
By that year First Church was already at Ninth and Washington Streets. Sewers were another Oakland improvement in 1866. Already there were demands for more street railway franchises. Residents were elated with the new transportation. A few even disposed of their horses and buggies once the horse cars put in an appearance.
First of Oakland’s three City Halls, to stand on 14th Street at Washington Street was erected in 1869.
Fire destroyed it August 25, 1877 - less than one year after First Church was dedicated diagonally across the street.
During the Rev. Lysander Walker’s pastorate at First Church in October of 1868 an earthquake rocked the community. Damage in Oakland was negligible, but the tremor flattened the San Leandro Courthouse, killing one man. July of 1868 was highlighted by a smallpox epidemic. One year later, July 1869, Oakland opened its first public high school in connection with Lafayette Grammar School at 12th and Jefferson Streets.
Pastors Dunn and Maclay ushered in the 1870’s, but it was the Rev. C. V. Anthony, Rev. Robert Bentley, and Rev. Thomas Guard who filled out the next decade with a long list of accomplishments.
The Rev. Charles V. Anthony had been in charge of the Alameda Circuit with Rev. J. E. Wickes in 1861 and had visited Oakland. He was a native of Portage, N. Y., born February 22, 1831. He first arrived in San Francisco March 20, 1851, but in 1853 he returned to Fort Wayne College in Indiana for a year of schooling. The winter of 1854-55 found him back in California and teaching at Santa Cruz. He joined the California Conference in May of 1855. Eighteen years later (1873) he was welcomed as pastor of First Church in Oakland, a post which he held for three years. He was a son-in-law of Charles Campbell, Oakland’s second mayor.
During Rev. Anthony’s pastorate in 1875 the Ninth and Washington Streets church building was sold for $500 to the German Methodist Church. These folk moved the church to the north side of 17th Street, between San Pablo and Telegraph Avenues. Meanwhile the lot at Ninth and Washington was traded for a 100 x 200 foot lot at the southeast corner of 14th and Clay Streets.
Once again First Church was moving farther uptown. There would be a bigger and more modern edifice at 14th and Clay Streets.
In the meantime the Rev. Anthony needed a meeting place for his Methodist faithful. He found it in Dietz Opera House at 12th and Webster Streets. Once-upon-a-time this was Brayton Hall on the College of California campus. Now that the campus was moved to Berkeley, A. C. Dietz bought the hall and had it converted into a theater. Our Methodists forefathers found it convenient.
Brayton Hall was one of the buildings on the College of California campus, which was located from 12th to 14th Streets between Franklin and Harrison Streets, from 1860 to 1873.
A. C. Dietz had Brayton Hall moved to the northeast corner of 12th and Webster and called it Dietz Opera House.
Members of First Church used the theater structure for a church while their new edifice was being built at 14th and Clay Streets, 1875-1876.
All of this First Church activity came on the heels of other major changes. East Oakland Methodist Church was established in 1874 in Washington Hall at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and East 12th Street. Its original membership was made up chiefly of First Church members. Early in 1875 First Church lost a few more members. They established Centennial Church on Campbell Street near Eighth Street, down on “The point,” in West Oakland.
Oakland was growing by leaps and bounds. Church membership was likewise booming.
In 1871, the year Snell’s Seminary was established on 12th Street between Clay and Jefferson Streets, Mills College moved to Oakland from Benicia and established a campus in East Oakland. One year later (1872) Oakland annexed Brooklyn, and in December of 1872 the city arranged that all homes and business firms henceforth carry street numbers.
The year Rev. Anthony arrived here (1873) was the same year the Courthouse was moved from San Leandro to Brooklyn. The Grand Central Hotel was completed in June that year, occupying a whole block along the south side of 12th Street between Webster and Harrison Streets. It was destroyed by fire March 8, 1881. More exciting to youngsters was the snowfall in December 1873.
On February 21, 1874, the Oakland Tribune appeared on the streets for the first time. The publishers were Dewes & Staniford.
In 1875, while Rev. Anthony and his trustees studied plans for their new church at 14th and Clay Streets, Alameda County opened its new courthouse in Washington Square, Broadway at Fifth Street. Franklin Square, across on the east side of Broadway was held for erection of a Hall of Records the following year. The year 1875 was also the year California Conference founded Pacific Grove on the Monterey peninsula for use as a retreat center.
Camron Hall is in the center of the block on the south side of 14th Street between Broadway and Washington.
The photographer aimed his lens across the plaza from the City Hall.
Methodist church services were held temporarily in Camron Hall while the 14th and Clay Streets church was being constructed.
Despite such marked progress in Oakland during these early years there was trouble ahead for First Church.
When the Rev. Anthony arrived in 1873 he found a great asset in Eli W. Playter, who had been Sunday School superintendent since 1870. Playter turned the post over to W. H. Rouse at the end of 1873, but was again superintendent in 1875-1876.
First Church had traded its old Ninth and Washington Street lot for the larger 100 x 200 foot property at 14th and Clay Streets and contracted for a new $25,000 church building. That was in June of 1875. To help defray expenses they sold the south 75 feet of their new land acquisition that extended down Clay to 13th Street. This added another $4,000 to their bankroll.
Ground was broken for the new church in June, only a few days after the contract was let. Cost had been estimated at $25,000 but now the lowest bid was $30,000. The trustees groaned, but work went ahead. Then came a financial crash. Stocks fell, and banks failed. Worst of all, subscriptions for the church building fund came to a standstill.
The trustees were disheartened. They considered giving up the project and probably would have done so had not the contractor assured them that he would ignore strict compliance of the paragraph regarding payments. But when church trustees found it necessary to hold up payments for two months the work came to a halt. The frame of the church steeple pointed skyward, and scaffolding was everywhere. But there was no industry. There stood First Church, hardly a good example.
“After many vicissitudes, much hard work and noble sacrifices on the part of those having the matter in charge, the building was eventually dedicated,” Rev. Anthony records. “But I hardly think First Church would have survived had it not been for the generosity of Eli W Playter,” he adds.
The task of completing the new church structure created enough of a problem to give the Centennial Year of 1876 a double meaning for Pastor Anthony and his trustees. Fortunately, the worry was eliminated after a short time, and on May 21, 1876, the new church was dedicated.
The initial sermon on Dedication Day was preached at 11 a.m. by the Rev. F. F. Jewell, but special rites were conducted later in the day by the Rev. J. H. Wythe. Church debt on Dedication Day was $17,000. Total value of the property, in round numbers, was $50,000.
Because of the construction delays brought about by the financial panic of 1876, Rev. Anthony found he was unable to hold on to the Dietz Opera House for temporary services. A second temporary home was secured after much scampering about. This was in Camron Hall on 14th Street between Broadway and Washington Street, across from the City Hall Plaza and but a short distance from the new church.
Records of church trustees in that year of 1876 tell of an official motion appointing a committee to procure hitching posts for in front of the church. These posts were to be installed at intervals at the street edge. How times have changed! Now we bump into the parking meters.
These same records say the Rev. Anthony closed his labors in Oakland in September of 1876 with a church membership of 314. He was succeeded by Rev. Robert Bentley.
The Rev. C. V. Anthony and his church trustees had some headaches getting this church built, but it served as First Church for 36 years after it was dedicated in 1876.
Again the photographer works from the upper floors of the City Hall at 14th and Washington.
Rev. Robert Bentley, a new pastor at First Church, was a native of England. He came to California via Chicago, but after his arrival in 1874 he was sent to Oregon. He remained in the Pacific Northwest until 1876. Upon returning to California he was immediately assigned to Oakland.
Rev. Bentley served First Church with unusual ability, being especially active in benevolent work. He remained here from 1876 to 1878.
Following Rev. Bentley in 1878 was the Rev. Thomas Guard. Rev. Guard was a native of Ireland who had been in South Africa and Australia before coming to America. He transferred to the California Conference from Baltimore. His sermons were popular, though he sometimes spoke for two hours.
Rev. Thomas Guard’s service brought to a close the second decade of First Church activities in Oakland. Meantime there were constant improvements in the community.
While First Church struggled to complete its downtown towers in 1876, this is what the Eighth Avenue Methodist Church looked like.
It stood on the west side of Seventh Avenue between East 14th and East 15th Streets.
During Rev. Bentley’s stay the submarine cable beneath San Francisco Bay linked (1876) Oakland and San Francisco by telegraph. One year later, August 25, 1877, the City Hall, almost across the street from First Church, burned to the ground. Emma Nevada, an unknown girl from Austin, Nevada, graduated from Mills College in the spring of 1876. She returned to Mills in the fall to teach German there, and in the spring of 1877 she departed for Europe with the Adrian Ebell party. Emma Nevada became world famous as a concert vocalist.
Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Oakland shortly before Christmas in 1879, seeking Fanny Osborne, his bride-to-be. They wed in 1880 and spent a summer honeymoon on Mount St. Helena. Former President Grant visited Oakland in September 1879, and President Hayes the following September.
The towering steeple of First Church at 14th and Clay Streets would mark Methodist headquarters here for more than three decades (36 years) and witness a parade of seven more pastors before giving way to progress and a new era in the history of First Church.
They’ve been to church, and now they’re off for an outing in Trestle Glen. These 1880 Oaklanders were fresh air fiends.
Or was it simply because those tall top-hats needed sky room?
Who said Oakland was a “one horse town”? Car No. 1 of the Oakland, Brooklyn & Fruitvale line and its two-horse hitch waits at the famous Tubbs Hotel, East 14th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1880.
Rev. E. S. Todd arrived in Oakland in 1880 to take charge at First Church, and remained until autumn of 1881. He was followed by the Rev. C. A. Holmes, who held the pulpit at First Church from 1881 to 1882. After Rev. Homes came the Rev. C. C. Stratton, who had come west in 1858 to join the Oregon Conference, coming on to California from Salt Lake City. He was a rapid speaker. There may be members of First Church today who remember his sermons that were rattled off in rat-a-tat-tat machine-gun fashion. Prior to coming to Oakland he had served as president of the University of the Pacific on the College Park campus in San Jose. In 1887 he was president of Mills College, but left there in 1890 to return to Oregon.
Rev. John Coyle was next to take over at First Church and remained one year longer than any of his three predecessors. He was here from 1884 to 1887. Rev. Coyle came to California from the Newark Conference, where he had 12 years of work. He arrived in California in 1863. His two stations before coming to Oakland were the Powell Street Church in San Francisco, and the charge at Stockton.
After leaving Oakland the Rev. Coyle saw service at Napa, Alameda and Berkeley in addition to serving the San Francisco district as a delegate to the General Conference and the 43rd Conference at Pacific Grove in 1895. He was a talented man and an efficient pastor.
Back in those hectic days when the Rev. Charles V. Anthony and trustees were struggling to complete the new First Church at 14th and Clay Streets there were some goings-on outside Oakland that made excellent sin-and-punishment themes for ministers everywhere, as well as from the pulpit of First Church. It was the “Black Bart” era, and the romantic “Po-8 highway-man” had everyone agog with his 27 stage coach holdups.
6Oakland had a special interest in this stage robber and his attacks on the money boxes of Wells Fargo. J. J. Valentine, president of Wells Fargo, was a resident on 13th Avenue in East Oakland. J. B. Hume, chief of Wells Fargo detectives searching for “Black Bart,” lived at 1466 Eighth Street. Former Alameda County Sheriff Harry N. Morse was now a special Wells Fargo detective devoting full time to hunting “Black Bart”. Morse, too, was an Oakland resident. It was Morse who played such an important role in “Black Bart’s” capture in 1883.
Oaklanders not only read about “Black Bart.” They heard about him and his civil ways from the Sunday pulpits.
Mass transportation was by this time having its influence on church life. It made travel easier. Those who felt they lived too far from church now used the car lines for convenience. But there were still those who preferred the horse and buggy, and others who liked to stroll via boardwalks shaded by the massive oaks that gave Oakland its name.
One of the horse cars of the Oakland, Brooklyn & Fruitvale line, called the Hiram Tubbs’ line, heads from Oakland to Brooklyn, crossing the 12th Street dam.
The view is across Lake Merritt, looking north.
The cow is grazing just about where the Oakland Municipal Auditorium now stands.
Many members of First Church today hold cherished memories of this sanctuary at 14th and Clay Streets. Ten of our 25 ministers preached here, shaping many young lives and keying them to high ideals.
The Rev. Coyle departed in 1887, and now Oakland was introduced for the first time to the Rev. Elbert R. Dille. Anyone who met Rev. Dille would remember him well. His first term in Oakland was from 1887 to 1892. Then the Rev. Alfred Kummer was here for five years, 1892 to 1897, after which Rev. Dille returned for a ten-year stay from 1897 to 1907.
Years later, after Rev. Dille retired from the pulpit, he remained a resident of Oakland and was honored as the dean of Pacific Coast Methodist ministers. He died on June 4, 1933.
Rev. Dille was born in Middleport, Illinois, April 7, 1848. He was a soldier in the Civil War when but 16 years old, the army life giving him much valuable material for church sermons that were to come. After the war there was schooling at Frankfort Seminary in Indiana. In 1870 he was licensed to preach.
He transferred from the Indiana Conference to California and in 1874 was ordained as elder. In 1886, the year before he came to Oakland, he won a D. D. degree from the University of the Pacific.
From that time on his success in the ministry was outstanding. It has been unsurpassed by any member of the California Conference. He had the charge at San Jose in 1875, and in 1884 he was at Sacramento. Petaluma enjoyed him in 1878, Rev. Dille being succeeded there by the Rev. Charles V. Anthony.
Everywhere Rev. Dille served there was regret when he departed.
In Oakland he stacked record upon record. His 15 years here alone was a record for First Church. No other pastor before has such a tenure. Unique among all other records was his 1,000 pastoral calls in one year made on a bicycle. Rev. B. H. Fleming, his assistant, was so inspired he took his bicycle and made a number of calls.
The Rev. Dille is also credited with raising the necessary funds for a Sunday School annex to the church at 14th and Clay Streets. He personally supervised a three-year financial drive to complete the annex before he departed from Oakland in 1892.
Rev. Dille’s record of 15 years service here has never been approached. Runners-up have been Rev. George W. White and the Rev. John Stephens, both with nine years each, and both the immediate successors of Rev. Dille in Oakland. Rev. Elbert R. Dille was the first of two Pastors Emeritus at First Church.
Walking to church on Sunday morning was eliminated for many Oaklanders in 1869 when horse cars of the Oakland Railroad Company began operating on Broadway and Telegraph Avenue.
This photograph was taken in 1887, in front of the car barns at 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue.
He won this honor for his long and energetic service. Also winning this honor was Rev. Edgar Allen Lowther, of whom more will be said later.
Looking back from this point, the records show that the debt on the 14th and Clay Street church was paid in full during the administration of the Rev. John Coyle in 1884.
In 1885 a branch Sunday School was started in the Temescal District, the church school being set up on 48th Street just east of Telegraph Avenue, where Woodrow Wilson Junior High School now stands. The land and building was contributed by a Mrs. Chick. The Rev. John Coyle was then pastor.
In 1889 the Chick Sunday School building on Temescal’s 48th Street was moved to the northwest corner of 34th and Market Streets where it became the Grace Methodist Church. Grace Church developed an exceptionally active Sunday School.
During the three days following the disastrous earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, more than 100,000 person poured into Oakland by ferry, railroad and other transportation means.
Oakland’s second City Hall on 14th Street was erected on the same foundations as its first.
The city continued using this building while present City Hall was constructed, 1911-1914.
First Church edges into the picture at the left.
Women in white and man wearing straw hats at midsummer.
First Church is two blocks west, to left of photograph.
This was equal in number to Oakland’s entire population of that day.
Many of these persons were almost insane with terror. The large majority were definitely destitute, having nothing but the clothes on their backs.
All churches in the East Bay Region were generous in extending relief. Also efficient was the Citizens Relief Committee, and the various fraternal organizations. All were given shelter and sustenance. Churches throughout the area were turned into dormitories, clothing depots, dining halls, employment and information centers, and hospitals.
At First Church, relief work was organized by Dr. Margaret Wythe, who demonstrated a positive genius for administration work. An organization was set up within 12 hours. Within that time meals were served hungry multitudes, and the auditorium of First Church took on the appearance of a dormitory. The stains on the carpets and mars on the woodwork were scars of glory. It was worthwhile to see our refined and cultured young ladies rise before dawn to work on the early shifts during those strenuous days. They were relieved late in the day by a second group, and the second group by a third group. They worked around the clock.
Looking south on Washington Street from 14th Street in 1892.
First Church was but one block down 14th Street to the right of photograph.
Bicyclists in the picture reminds that this was the day when “Daisy Belle” was the popular tune.
When this hotel was first built in 1892 it was called Laundry Farm. The name was changed to Leona Heights in 1894.
Many Sunday School picnics centered at this memorable inn with its park-like setting.
Oakland’s early-day trolley car transportation brought picnickers to what is now known as Trestle Glen.
The exhausted were sleeping on cushions in the pews of First Church. Our restaurant set-up fed 1,500 daily. A similar number were housed in a dormitory, while the employment bureau worked long hours taking care of applicants for work. At our free clinic was an Army surgeon aided by a group of nurses to help with first aid. Clothing was dispensed at a supply station, and there was a nursery for infants.
The Rev. E. R. Dille, who was then pastor of First Church, said he had never in his life been so proud of people as he was of First Church workers in those hours of dire need and emergency.
The last Sunday at 14th and Clay Streets was March 17, 1912. That date marked the close of 36 years for First Church in that location. At 7:30 p.m. that March night the Rev. George W. White preached a short sermon, followed by testimonials by congregation members. Memories stirred many that evening.
The building had been dedicated May 21, 1876. It had cost the enormous sum of $40,000 to complete. Now the building and real estate had been sold for $275,000.
Before March of 1912 was ended the Rev. White was conducting services in Maple Hall at the northeast corner of 14th and Webster Streets. Maple Hall remained temporary headquarters for First Church until dedication of the present edifice on January 18, 1914. During the stay at Maple Hall there were numerous occasions when pastor and congregation would gather early on Sunday evenings at 14th Street and Broadway for street preaching before retiring to the Maple Hall auditorium for regular service.
The land on which the new First Church was to be erected was obtained at a cost of $80,000. The building and furnishings would run another $205,000. Simple arithmetic shows the total investment to be $285,000.
Ground was broken on September 9, 1912. There was an address by Trustee George Miller, and a talk by J. S. Burpee, of the Building Committee. Miller was one of the oldest members of the church at the time and he turned the first spadeful (sic) of earth for the foundation.
The Central Bank Building is on the northeast corner of Broadway and 14th Street. It was built in 1895.
Left of the bank in the two-story Syndicate Building housing Ye Liberty Theater that opened in 1903.
To the right of Central Bank Building (but not in photograph) was the Walter Mackay furniture store.
The Colonial Cafeteria was there later.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Norman, Albert E., “A Steeple Among The Oaks, A Centennial History of the First Methodist Church, Oakland, CA, 1862-1962. Oakland, California. 1962.
© 2010 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.