Hidden East Bay Wonders: Joaquin Miller’s Stone Monuments
Hidden East Bay Wonders brings you everything weird, whimsical and wonderful in the East Bay. This week: Joaquin Miller’s hand-built monuments in Joaquin Miller Park.
Imagine a time when the East Bay was nothing but a grove of Oak trees stretching to the water, interspersed with neat rows of Victorian homes, sprawling, estates, and stuccoed missions.In 1886, turn-of-the-century poet, environmentalist, adventurer, judge, newspaper writer, and occasional horse thief Joaquin Miller built his “Abbey” in the hills of Oakland–a modest, Victorian-styled white frame building that served as an artists’ retreat, hosting repeat visitors like Jack London, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, John Muir, Ambrose Bierce, and Walt Whitman. Acquired by the City of Oakland in 1919, the area is today known as Joaquin Miller Park.Miller’s Abbey hosted literary giants like Mark Twain and Jack London when Oakland was still part of the wild west.
The Abbey consisted of a single small room with a porch and a high-shingled peak with no ceiling. The rafters supporting the roof were left bare. Its rough board walls were decorated with animal hides, bear claws, antlers, horns, Mexican saddles, swords, daggers, and bows.
Sprawled across 70 grassy acres in “the Hights” (sic) above the “City of the Oaks,” Miller erected three stone monuments on the acreage surrounding the Abbey, today enshrined by the 75,000 cypress, pine, olive and eucalyptus trees that he had planted on the grounds.
The area where Miller built his home is naturally splendorous–wandering the hills, you can see the rare Oakland star tulip bloom in fields of purple needlegrass, leatherwood, and manzanita flowers. The elusive Gray Fox makes his home here, and all around the area are colorful rocky outcroppings of blueschist, serpentine, and pink basalt.This area, known as the “Writer’s Circle” or “Fire Circle” is where Bohemians like Stein, Twain, and Miller gathered for theatrics and readings. The stone fringe and reflection pool were constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1937.
Joaquin Hiner Miller was born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller in 1839 (though he lied and said it was 1941–he was a known liar) in Millersville, Indiana (supposedly founded by his father) and grew up in Oregon, making the journey to California during the Gold Rush.
On his many adventures, Miller lived and battled alongside the Wintu tribe, and even fathered a daughter with a princess of the tribe, Cali-Shasta (Lilly of the Shasta). He changed his name in 1870 at the behest of California’s first poet Laureate, Ina Coolbirth, who convinced him to take the pen name “Joaquin”–a bit sexier than “Cincinnatus.”
Dubbed the “Poet of the Sierras,” Miller traveled the world, producing several books of poetry and plays that were especially well-received in London, where he was more of a celebrity than in the United States.
On his literary tours and adventures around the world, he played the part of California bushwhacker and vagabond; a ruffian with a heart of gold and a tongue of silver. A womanizer, a scoundrel, an outdoorsman, and at his crux, a poet. Miller was at touch with worlds natural and manmade, and much preferred the former. His seminal body of poetry, “Songs of the Sierras,” is still known throughout the world today, and evokes the same sense of place and personality that it did when it was written:
“And I have said, and I say it ever
As the years go on and the world goes over
‘Twere better to be content and clever
In the tending of cattle and the tossing of clover.”
Back at home in Oakland, Miller built four strange concrete and rubble monuments scattered atop the eminences surrounding his property. The first monument, his “Pyramid to Moses,” was built in 1892 as a representation of Miller’s respect for the ten commandments (or so it’s said–remember: Miller was a known liar).
Sturdy and foreboding, its shadows chart a path along the ground with the hours of the day, and it stands ominously looming over the city below it.
Miller built his second monument in 1898 just north of the Pyramid: his own funeral pyre. The pyre was a Romanesque altar of stone indented at its peak to cradle Miller’s dead body.The Pyramid to Moses, damaged by assholes.
He wished to be burned without embalming and without a religious ceremony. Unfortunately, his wishes went unheeded. His very traditional funeral drew thousands in Oakland. After he was cremated, the mysterious Bohemian Club in San Francisco arranged to have his ashes scattered on the pyre that he built.The top of the Funeral Pyre, today filled with broken glass and trash.
Interestingly, in 2016, a local man named Reginald Richardson committed suicide by self-immolation, burning himself on top of Miller’s pyre. His body was found smoldering at noon when a jogger noticed the smoke as he was passing by. Today, the pyre is a punchbowl of broken glass, condom wrappers, and cigarette butts. East of the Pyramid, Miller erected his third monument in 1904: a small, medieval-style drum tower crowned with merlons dedicated to the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who were husband and wife.The Browning Monument in Joaquin Miller Park.
His final monument was built further east in 1904: a stone bastion with an arrowslit window and open roof dedicated to explorer, soldier, and California senator John C. Fremont, commemorating the spot where Fremont was rumored to have first seen the sunset over the Bay in 1848.The John C. Fremont Monument in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park. Sunlight pours through the monument built to commemorate the spot where in 1848 John C. Fremont first saw the sunset over the Bay.
Take a day to wander Joaquin Miller Park, 3300 Joaquin Miller Rd. in Oakland, and observe these special monuments, which have a quality unlike anything you will find in the East Bay. Note: due to vandalism, many of the monuments have been partially destroyed. Please be respectful of Oakland’s history and help protect local wonders for future generations to enjoy.
Visit: www.fojmp.org for information on how to donate or volunteer.