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The History Files: San Leandro, Alameda County Seat

As the town of San Leandro grew in the 1850s, it gained regional importance from its central location. San Leandro briefly won the tug-of-war for county seat status, and reigned as Alameda County seat from 1856 to 1873.

In 1853, the California legislature carved out a large chunk of the vast Contra Costa County and a smaller chunk of Santa Clara County to create the county of Alameda (the Spanish word alameda means a poplar grove or a tree-lined boulevard, a name that originally was given to the Arroyo de la Alameda. The willow and sycamore trees along the banks of the creek reminded the early Spanish explorers of a road lined with trees).  The first county seat was established in the south county at New Haven (Alvarado, in today's Union City).

Complaints about the difficulties of getting to the south county, especially on muddy roads, led to an election a year later to choose a new county seat. Seven towns vied for the honor. San Leandro won in a run-off with 1,301 votes -- but it took an act of the legislature in 1856 to settle allegations of voter fraud and make San Leandro's county seat status official. 

A brick, two-story courthouse was built on land donated by Juana Estudillo at the southwest corner of Clarke and Davis Streets.

Soon after, a boarding house and hotel was built across Clarke Street. One famous resident was Sheriff Henry N. (Harry) Morse, who, as Alameda County Sheriff, chased down horse thieves and bandits. The hotel and boarding house would later become the Webber House.

At 7:53 A.M., on October 21, 1868, the waves from an estimated Magnitude 7 earthquake on the southern end of the Hayward Fault quickly traveled across the Bay Area and beyond. Considered one of the most destructive earthquakes in California history, property damage was extensive and 30 people were killed. One of those killed was J. W. Josselyn, a deputy county clerk who tried to escape through the courthouse door but was crushed by a cornice as the second story of the courthouse collapsed. 

Deputy Sheriff P. R. Borein (father of famous western artist Edward Borein), who was sleeping in a guardroom near the jail cells, was tossed out of bed. He escaped by climbing out of a window but left the keys to the jail behind. Prisoners trapped in the basement jail were eventually rescued and transferred to Oakland.

The nearby First Methodist Church was used as a temporary courthouse while makeshift repairs were made. The destroyed courthouse was the beginning of the end for San Leandro as the county seat.  Oakland, the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, had grown considerably larger than San Leandro, and Oakland promoters had never ceased in their lobbying efforts to move the county seat to Oakland. An election in 1873 decided the matter in Oakland's favor, and the county seat has remained in Oakland ever since.

San Leandro would veer onto a quieter path, forging an identity as an agricultural and industrial center.

The History Files column from the San Leandro Historical Society appears monthly. To find out more about Sheriff Harry Morse, read "Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912", by John Boessenecker. This month's photos are all from the San Leandro Historical Photograph and Document Collection at the San Leandro Library.

Visit the San Leandro Historical Society website at www.sanleandrohistory.org.

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