America’s First Wildlife Preserve and Oakland’s Crown Jewel…
Lake Merritt is not a lake. It’s the first thing you should know about Oakland’s urban waterpark. It’s a tidal lagoon or estuary. Formed roughly 12,000 years ago after the end of the last Ice Age, the lagoon has been reshaped over the last 150 years into a water park. Lake Merritt, originally known as Laguna Peralta, is fed by a canal that flows under the Nimitz Freeway, seeping saltwater between itself and the Bay.
For many, Lake Merritt is an excellent way to spend a weekend afternoon. The calm waters of the lake and the dissident of migrating birds create a serene atmosphere amongst the urban sprawl. The depth of the Lake’s history and what it offers Oakland is worth discovering.
A Short History of America’s First Wildlife Preserve
Lake Merritt was originally the home of Ohlone Indians that settled in villages across the banks of what is now known as the Trestle Glen. This community fished the lagoon and made the estuary part of their home. Later, the lagoon along with the surrounding 44,800 acres became the sole possession of Sergeant Luis Maria Peralta of the Mission San Jose. Spanish Crown grant it to him for years of loyal service. It was seized by hawkish American squatters after California became a U.S. territory and was incorporated by the City of Oakland in 1853.
The tidal lagoon would go on to become the United States first Wildlife Preserve. Mayor Samuel Merritt, the lagoon’s namesake, successfully lobbied to establish the preserve while he was mayor of Oakland in 1869. To increase the water flow into Lake Merritt, the city built a dam to regulate the tidal waters with a 3.18 mile retaining wall around the perimeter of the lake. The lagoon includes five bird islands that were built to act as sanctuaries for the local fowl.
A Quite Space in the Center of the City
Home to a denizen of birds, fish, amphibians, and other life; Lake Merritt is nature’s citadel within the bosom of a major American city. North, just across the street, is nestled the downtown skyscrapers and densely packed metropolitan center of commerce. South of the lake is the beginning of the residential sprawl surrounding International Boulevard. West is the water-port district and Oaklands industrial embarcadero.
Acting as rest-stop for the Pacific Flyway, the super-highway for many migrating birds, Lake Merritt is an important rest stop for many amazing birds— California Brown Pelicans, Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, Cranes, Ring-billed Gulls, Black Crowned Night Herons, Canadian Geese, and Mallard Ducks. The birds struggle with their own Bay Area housing crisis as they scamper around the bird islands and the serene waterscape of the lagoon. Meanwhile under Lake Merritt’s blanket of brackish water; crabs, shrimps, and mussels scamper on the estuary’s bed. According to Dr. Richard Bailey, Executive Director of the Lake Merritt Institute and the self-proclaimed “Lakekeeper,” there are more fish in the lagoon than all the people in Oakland. He has mentioned that he has seen everything from small sharks to large salmon, halibut, and striped bass.
A Serene Space on a Sunday
The surrounding landscape of Lake Merritt offers many opportunities for relaxation and escape. The shoreline stretches for 3.4 miles and makes an ideal local for both joggers and urban hikers. A variety of spaces around the lake are pristine greens for a formal outing to a simple picnic. There are also many interesting characteristics and locales around the lake worth visiting.
Necklace of Lights, a string of over 4,000 Florentine light bulbs lacing the 126 lamp-posts that encircle the Lake Merritt, make it an enticing evening destination if only to drive across and peruse the glimmering jewels that make it the Crown Jewel of Oakland. The lights were first placed in 1925 but were removed in 1941 because of World War II wartime blackouts. They remained unlit until they were finally revived years later in 1985.
Lakeside Park reside east of the park, nestle between the Wildlife sanctuary islands and the Oakland downtown. An elegant green where couples can stroll through the various edifices and peruse the waterfowl on the lake, wander through the Gardens at Lake Merritt’s seven-acre collection of fauna, or rent a boat to tour the lake from the water. A Bonsai Garden resides in Lakeside Park and offers some amazing landscaping that enhances Lake Merritt’s collection of Japanese tree
Children’s Fairyland provides a unique experience for families with small children. A nostalgic favorite for many locals, the small theme park located in the southern portion of Lakeside Park offers a remarkable fairytale themed parkland space with art installations children can climb and story tale audio narrations to bring the exhibits to life.
Lake Chalet is a restaurant located in the western shore of the lake between 14th Street and 17th Street. Offering romantic views of the lake and dining area, it is cousin to San Francisco’s Beach Chalet and was originally intended as the Oakland Fire Department’s high pressure salt water pumping station back in 1909. Later, a boathouse and public pavilion was added. Over the years, it was run down until a renovation in 2009 brought it back to life and introduced the Lake Chalet.
Camron Stanford House neighbors just west of the Lake Chalet. The big white house by the corner of 14th Street is the last of an armada of old Victorian mansions that encircled the lake. Being the private residence of five different families, it became the first museum in Oakland in the early 20th century. The house was saved from demolition in 1971 and restored as a gallery museum of 19th century life.
Cleveland Cascade lies nestled between some densely constructed apartment buildings near the south-eastern area of the lake and close to Boden Way. Originally a fountain constructed on the side of the hill, it was shut down in the 1950s and filled in. After decades of neglect, it was restored in 2004 and it’s contemporary manifestation as an elegant stone stairway.
The Serenity of Lake Merritt
Today, Lake Merritt is a semi-pristine Wildlife refuge and recreational park. The Oakland sunshine lavishes the estuaries banks as waterfowl cruise across its brackish water. Couples and families saunter through it green shores while joggers and mid-day hikers circulated under the Florentine lights lacing the lamp post. In a city where urban congestion is swelling the population, Lake Merritt has become a sanctuary for not only wildlife but urban life as well.
Want to Visit? Here is a map to get you started:
Further Reading About La Mujeres Muralistas:
- Loving Lake Merritt
- Our Beloved Lake Merritt of Oakland
- Lake Merritt Institute: Lake Description
- Wildlife Sanctuary
- Merritt Pay / Oakland Lakekeeper talks trash, fish and why it’s really a lagoon
- Lake Merritt: The Jewel of Oakland
- Birds of Lake Merritt