A Picaresque History
of the Port of Oakland
serialization of the priceless 1930’s Works Project Administration
history of the Port Oakland continues.
In returning the ordinance to
the council without his approval, Carpentier let it be known that his
veto was not of the perfunctory sort. Hostility does not exactly cover
his attitude. His motions passed through all the delicate shadings from
chagrin and deep personal affront to benign indignation and pity for a
citizenry who would so far forget its duty to its neighbor as to propose
such a piece of legislation. "Preposterous" was one of the
milder terms he applied to it.
In times of stress the cleric
turns naturally to his rosary and in similar circumstances, Carpentier,
the lawyer, turned to his law books. He found that the ordinance would
involve the city in costly litigation. It would make the city liable for
damages. But worst of all, it disregarded the rights of private
citizens. The rights referred to, incidentally, were his own claims to
The note which accompanied the
ordinance on its return contained many pages of carefully penned
foolscap and has since become a classic in Oakland’s legal literature.
It is printed here (in part)without apology, not only because of the
importance of its text, but because it reveals traits of character in
the man better than any collection of words objectively written could
Perhaps Carpentier laughed to
himself as he wrote his lines but to the populace he presented only a
stern and outraged dignity.
His reply read:
"To the Common Council—a
Bill for an ordinance entitled ‘An Ordinance to provide for the
construction and maintenance of a wharf in the City of Oakland,’ has
been presented to me and is herewith returned without my approval.
"My objections to the
ordinance go both to its form and its substance; to its form because it
is careless and illegal in its terms and contains no provisions of
safeguard to the city; to its substance, because, first it is calculated
to involve the city in long and costly litigation, and exposes her to
ruinous losses by way of awarded damages, and secondly, because it is in
open violation of private rights and in contempt of that good faith
which should mark the transactions of corporations as well as
"So bald is the whole thing
of any guarantees of remuneration to the city, or of performance on the
part of the grantee as to induce the belief that the ordinance was
artfully drawn and imposed Upon the city council under specious pretexts
by some designing person whose only object is to involve the city in an
expensive litigation with some of her own citizens under the hope of
gaining large advantage from the losses of others….
"There are unfortunately
persons in every community not particularly distinguished for enterprise
or attention to their own business, who are always eager to agitate and
embroil under the hope that out of confusion there will come
The council failed to be
intimidated by the mayor’s pronouncement. The matter was delegated to
a special committee, which took the matter up with an attorney in San
Francisco. The opinion of the attorneys (one of many lost documents) was
presumably in favor of the city, for at the council meeting, September
13, it was moved and carried that the ordinance providing for the
construction and maintenance of a wharf be taken up. This was done.
notwithstanding the veto of the mayor, who on the 23rd communicated the
following, together with an enclosure, no trace of which is to be found.
"To the Common Council—Herewith
is transmitted to you a copy of a communication from the owners of the
waterfront concerning the wharf lately constructed at the foot of
Washington Street, formerly E Street, in this city.
"I have carefully examined
said wharf and I find it to have been well and substantially built from
the shore to deep water, a distance of five hundred feet, according to
the terms and within the time specified in the contracts providing for
its construction, and I have accepted it on behalf of the city and in
full and final satisfaction and discharge of the terms and conditions of
the ordinances, grants and contracts for the sale, disposal and
conveyance of the waterfront of the town of Oakland."
In effect, Carpentier looked
upon the wharf that he, himself, had built, and found it good. At this
juncture the tables were completely turned, and the Carpentier faction
was elated, for pressure was brought to bear upon the council so that on
December 9, 1854, they repealed the ordinance to provide for the
construction and maintenance of a wharf which had been passed finally on
the previous 15th of September. Two days after the council meeting
Carpentier signed the repeal ordinance with a flourish and without
resorting to oratory.
At a special meeting of the city
council, held January 24, 1855, the mayor gave official information that
an outrage had been perpetrated on the previous evening, which took the
shape of an attempt to destroy or abstract the whole or a portion of the
records of the city.
Mayhap it was in the confusion
consequent upon this violent proceeding that the several important
documents mentioned were lost, and it is a remarkable coincidence that
nearly all of the missing papers refer to this question of the
waterfront. A reward of a thousand dollars was offered for the
apprehension and conviction of the perpetrators, but whether they were
ever arrested is a matter clothed in the profoundest mystery.
At the election of March 5,
1855, Charles Campbell succeeded Carpentier as Mayor, and a new council
was chosen There now entered into the policy of the city council an
evident desire to put their house in order and at once strike at the
root of the evil, for on June 6, 1855, Alderman Giggons presented to the
council "An ordinance repealing an ordinance entitled ‘An
Ordinance Concerning Wharves," passed October 29, 1853, which
abrogated all concessions made in regard to the waterfront.
The next move of the council,
which seemed bent upon giving a deathblow to monopolies, was directed
against an ordinance passed in April, 1853, granting to Edward R.
Carpentier, brother of the former ex-mayor, exclusive right of ferry
privileges between Oakland and San Francisco.
Thus was war declared on
Carpentier’s waterfront claim. To support their action in repealing
the ordinance regarding wharves, the following August the committee on
streets and buildings was authorized to advertise for proposals to build
a wharf at the foot of Bay Street. The jetty was not to be less than
eight hundred and fifty yards long with a T at the end, one hundred feet
in length and fifty feet broad.
This proposal had the effect of
launching the city on a program of active opposition to the claims of
the Carpentier interests.
The contract to build the Bay
Street Wharf was awarded to Rodman Gibbons, who commenced construction
with but little interference from the waterfront owners.
The waterfront problem now laid
dormant for some time. On March 4, 1857, Andrew Williams was elected
mayor, and in his message to the council, the waterfront problem was
again discussed. He said in part:
"The question of the city’s
title to its ten miles of waterfront property is of paramount
importance. Certain individuals are claiming this property. We believe
these claims to be without foundation. But there is a question as to its
ownership by the proprietors of the Mexican grant of the opposite shore.
To remove all these claims I recommend an immediate unit to quiet title
to our entire waterfront property."
In April, a resolution was
adopted instructing the attorneys to take such steps as they deemed
necessary to obtain from the proper court the appointment of a receiver
of the rents and revenues of the property involved in the suit.
Carpentier had secured passage through the legislature of "An Act
to amend an Act, entitled an Act to Incorporate the City of
Oakland," confirming all the ordinances passed while Oakland was
still officially designated "Town". At its next session the
legislature repealed the amendment. The waterfront dispute remained in
status quo for some years to come.