Grappling With History

On May 22, 2013, in Newsletters, by Dean Brightman

Dean Brightman takes a look back at Hercules’ industrial and suburban past.

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

With Hercules’ industrial past disappearing, the April 1979 edition of the newly-named Herculean (formerly the City Newsletter) detailed the developing suburb’s early attempts at documenting and preserving its history as a company town.

During those early days, Hercules could very broadly be divided into three districts, the “Powder Works” plant itself on the waterfront along today’s Bayfront Boulevard and Sandering Drive, “The Hill,” a ridge where the Powder Works’ administrative and social buildings were located, including the still-standing Clubhouse and Administration buildings, roughly the area between the Powder Keg and the former Sala restaurants.

The“Village,” was where most of the company housing stood, including the current Historic District homes, and the areas around Santa Fe and Fawcett, and Hercules Avenue and Peace Road.

The City Council once entertained the possibility of purchasing the area of the Hill as part of a waterfront park. But, since Valley Nitrogen still owned it and was interested only in selling the entire plant property, they were not yet able to move forward. The Council also looked at preserving the surviving company housing.

Architectural historian Sally Woodbridge was hired to make a survey of the old houses. Woodbridge felt that there were twenty houses that were structurally secure enough to be renovated.

However, due in large part to the efforts of HERC (Hercules Environmental Resources Council) and Dr. Joseph Mariotti of the Pinole Historical Society, the area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in March 1979. This meant “that the Council would have to re-examine its position on the area.”

At subsequent meetings, the Council reiterated their interest in preserving the historic area. They also expressed a strong desire to keep the land in Hercules under the control of the City with as little State and Federal interference as possible.

They instructed City staff to explore in detail a municipal historic district such as the Council had proposed before, and to suggest “ordinances that would govern this area without the need of State and Federal guidelines and mandates.”

While considering the past, Council was also looking for volunteers to serve on several committees to help shape the future of the growing city. The Hercules “Tomorrow Committee” would review “land use, housing mix, commercial and industrial development, annexation policies, traffic impacts, and social impacts of rapid growth.” The Open Space Maintenance Committee “would discuss the proper use of public open space, alternative means of maintenance, maintenance costs, and related topics.”

The Sister City Committee had an interesting backstory. “Since the Pacific Refinery in Hercules was the first refinery in this country to receive crude oil from the Peoples’ Republic of China, some overtures were made to the Chinese government regarding a possible Sister City in that country. The committee would “explore this as well as connections with cities in other countries.”

To get a snapshot of how the rapidly growing city was changing, Hercules conducted a special census in early 1979. The comparisons are telling:

1979 2010
Population 3900 24,060
Median Age 27 39
Median Income $26,000 $94,653
Ethnicity:
White 47% 22%
Filipino 21% 25%
African American 10% 18.9%
Chinese 8.4% 8.4%
Hispanic 4.9% 14.6%
2010 figures obtained from the U.S. Census (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html).

 

While Hercules has always been a diverse city, it has become even more so over time. Though, it is apparently always been a bedroom community as well.  According to the 1979 study, “over 75% of the families in the City have two wage earners, which is why the City seems so empty during the day.”

Finally, to celebrate this diversity, the City announced a new Cultural Festival. “Filipino, Japanese, Hawaiian, Caucasian and other groups will be providing food, crafts and entertainment for the whole family… The citizens of Hercules represent many cultures from around the world. This festival is a chance for everyone to share their culture and learn about their neighbor’s way of life.”

Dean Brightman is a member of the Hercules Historical Society.

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