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College of California
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Location NE corner of 13th & Franklin Sts., Oakland, California
Reference no. 45

The College of California was a private college in Oakland, California. It was the functional predecessor of the public University of California, and the site of its first campus. It was established in 1853, and initially known as the Contra Costa Academy. In 1868, the College agreed to merge with the public Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College, which had been created by the state to take advantage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act. However, the private and public colleges ended up contributing assets and objectives to the new public university, which was formed as a new entity and was not an actual merger.


In 1853, in the recently established town of Oakland, California, noted educators Rev. Henry Durant and Dr. Samuel H. Willey founded the Contra Costa Academy to provide boys with a liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the classics (i.e., Greek and Latin). It was nominally nonsectarian with a general Christian atmosphere, although its trustees, educators, and supporters consisted of a coalition of Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

This private college preparatory school grew quickly and by 1855, with the benefit of government grants and a new charter, the newly renamed College of California opened in what by then had become the city of Oakland, on the four blocks bounded by Twelfth, Fourteenth, Franklin and Harrison Streets. Despite the new name, it continued to operate as a college preparatory school, only adding college-level courses in 1860.

Within a few years, the downtown Oakland site had become too small, and in the eyes of the faculty the distractions of a growing city seemed unsuitable for scholarly pursuits. In 1866, the college trustees sought out a quieter, more rural site north of Oakland for their College. At a time when the East Bay region did not yet have its own municipal water system, they also needed to ensure access to water by buying a large farm to the east which included the headwaters of Strawberry Creek. They planned to finance this expansion by buying, developing and selling land to the south of the prospective college site. To this end, they formed the "College Homestead Association" and purchased 160 acres (65 hectares) of land north of Oakland on a site that is part of the City of Berkeley today. The college hired landscape architecture firm Olmsted, Vaux & Co. for recommendations on the site. Olmsted produced a 25-page survey and plan, dated June 29, 1866. Olmsted's work is now regarded as part of the legacy of UC Berkeley's planning, even though it was largely discarded.

The homestead plan might have worked if all 128 lots had sold out immediately. In reality, the lots sold much more slowly than expected, while high interest quickly accumulated on the loan used to buy the land. Undeterred, the trustees formed the "College Water Company", built a reservoir in Strawberry Canyon, and tried to make more money by selling running water to the homesteads and to nearby parts of Oakland.

At the same time, another setback was that although the college's trustees and supporters strongly believed in the importance of a liberal arts education, it turned out there was not much local interest in pursuing one at the college level.

Meanwhile, the State of California had established an Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College in 1866, but it existed only on paper as a placeholder to secure federal land-grant funds. In 1867, Governor Frederick Low suggested a merger of the already-functional and land-rich but cash-poor College of California with the state college, which had money but nothing else. On October 9, 1867, the college's trustees reluctantly agreed to the merger on the condition that the new institution would be a complete university with a liberal arts college (the College of Letters, now the College of Letters and Science). They were aware the new state institution would have to be entirely secular but recognized it was more important to find some way to preserve the College of California's liberal arts educational mission as part of the new university.

The University of California was chartered with the enactment of the Organic Act on March 23, 1868, although it continued to use the College of California's Oakland facilities while the campus at Berkeley was being built. As legally constituted, the new university was not an actual merger of the two colleges, but was an entirely new institution which merely inherited certain objectives and assets from each of them. Governor Henry Huntly Haight saw no need to honor any tacit understandings about institutional continuity which the College of California people thought they had reached with Governor Low. As Haight himself said, "these gentlemen expected to have a good deal to say about organizing the University, but I'll see that they don't". As a result, only two trustees of the College of California became regents of the university and Martin Kellogg was the only faculty member of the college hired by the new university. The College of California had been founded and run by Protestants, who were dismayed to discover that the university's Board of Regents included several men regarded as "indifferents and skeptics", along with a Jew and a Catholic.

By April 1869, the college's trustees were beginning to have second thoughts about their agreement to donate the college's assets to the state and disincorporate. Their failure to promptly comply with the agreement forced the regents to suspend the development of the university's planned campus on the college's land in Berkeley. To get the trustees to proceed as promised, regent John B. Felton helped them bring a "friendly suit" against the university to test that agreement's legality. The Supreme Court of California swiftly ruled against the college's trustees and upheld the agreement. Although another year of negotiations lay ahead, the court victory strengthened the regents' bargaining position and cleared the way for them to eventually receive the college's assets as expected. Twenty years later, Willey was still bitter about what he regarded as Haight's betrayal.

In September 1873, the university moved, with great ceremony, to Berkeley.

On December 6, 1932, the former site of the College of California in Oakland was designated as California Historical Landmark #45. As of May 2019, the site of the plaque at the corner of Franklin and 13th Street has been under construction as part of the Atlas development by Carmel Partners.

Notable alumni

  • Margaret Cairns Munns (1870-1957), teacher, social reformer, parliamentarian
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