Albany Hill, the prominent landmark named after the city in which it resides, did not always have such a straightforward name—and it has not had a straightforward history. In fact, the hill has had at least four different names that provide links to its intriguing past.
Local Huchiun Indians may have had a name for the hill, but it is unknown today. However, it is clear that Native Americans frequented the area.
The northeast side of the hill provided shelter from bay winds, as well as easy access to fresh water streams and nearby acorns and shellfish. It’s here that visible evidence—mortar rocks and numerous shells in the soil—indicate the long-ago presence of a village or seasonal camp.
In the spring of 1772, Spanish explorer Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespi led an expedition through the East Bay. On March 27 they camped on a creek near the hill (known today as Cerrito Creek). It was likely the Fages party that named the hill El Cerrito de San Antonio (the Little Hill of St. Anthony). Journal entries from the trip indicate there were numerous bears in this area at the time, including one that was killed close to their camp.
By the early 20th century, the hill was commonly referred to as “McKeever’s Hill.” This name, which frequently appears in old newspaper articles, may have referred to a local homesteader.
It was during this time that dynamite manufacturers and at least one chemical company were located on and near Albany Hill, a place they considered a suitable, out-of-the-way location for their factories. But numerous combined incompatibly with the growing local population, and limited dynamite production in the Albany area to 25 years.
It wasn’t long before the hill was called "Cerrito Hill," a shortened version of its original full Spanish name, but erroneous in that it actually translates to "Little Hill Hill." "Cerrito" was also one of the names seriously considered for the city of Ocean View (Albany’s original name), when the name was changed in 1909. (The nearby city of El Cerrito was not formed until 1917.)
In the early years of the 20th century, developers keen on selling East Bay property after the great San Francisco earthquake mapped out numerous lots in Albany, including a neighborhood called “Sunset Terrace” on Albany Hill. “Regents Park,” the name of another large housing tract in Albany, included portions of the hill as well.
However, the hill developed more slowly than the level areas of the city, and for years was a favorite playground of Albany children, some of whom slid down the grassy slopes in wooden crate "toboggans." Longtime resident Gene Hellwig recalls riding his bicycle down the slopes of the hill in the 1930s.
In 1937, the Albany City Council officially changed the name of Cerrito Hill to “Albany Hill.” Over subsequent years a number of controversial developments were proposed.
One 1953 proposal suggested taking 200 feet off the top of the 340-foot hill and building a fashionable "Nob Hill" district of 300 homes. A local newspaper article featured dramatic before and (simulated) after photos to help readers visualize the change. The plan was never approved.
Later that same year, the East Bay Municipal Utility District proposed to cut 111 feet off the top of the hill and build a multi-million-gallon water reservoir. The proposal met strong opposition and was rejected.
In 1961, Golden Gate Heights Inc., a developer that reportedly owned much of the hill, proposed a large $40 million project that also failed. The development was to start with a 12-story apartment building, later adding a hotel and much more.
“(The developer) can see schools, hospitals, university buildings, office buildings, a shopping center—virtually a city in itself—as possible construction in the future,” stated a news article from the time.
Although other proposed large developments met a similar fate, the east and south sides of the hill began to fill in with residential housing.
One large-scale development that was controversial, but eventually approved, was the Gateview complex, which included seven high-rise towers built on the west side of the hill in the 1970s. The towers were a scaled-down version of the originally proposed development. The smaller-scale condominiums on Pierce Street were added in the 1980s.
Citizens groups, including the Friends of Albany Hill, have been active at various times throughout the hill’s history, advocating for open space. Eventually Albany Hill Park and Creekside Park were established, and currently, a new .
Today, the existing parks and adjoining areas of open space are home to eucalyptus trees (first planted during the years of dynamite manufacturing), , a native oak forest, and many species of native plants.
Over the years, Albany Hill—in all its various designations—has stood (more or less) solid amidst diverse populations and change, even explosions. Today, the hill is the source of numerous memories and stories. There are likely many more that can be told, and many more to be created.
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