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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

#45: Site of College of California

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Official State Plaque

The State Plaque in June 2015


Site of College of California

Original Campus of University of California

University of California chartered March 23 1869. Located between Franklin and Harrison, 12th and 14th streets. From 1869 to 1873, using buildings of former College of California, successor to Contra Costa Academy founded by Henry Durant, June 1853. He was elected first university President in June 1870. University moved to present Berkeley site September 1873.

California Registered Historical Landmark No. 45

Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the University of California, the Alameda County Historical Society, and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. May 22, 1968.


The University of California, Berkeley, is well known for its beautiful campus, represented best by the iconic Campanile rising from its center. However, the Berkeley campus is not the original location of the world's top public university.

In fact, before "Cal" was in Berkeley, "Cal" was at this site in downtown Oakland, now occupied by a parking garage. This was the location of the College of California, a private college that was transferred to the state and from which "Cal" was created.

The College of California originated in the Contra Costa Academy, essentially a liberal arts college-prep high school founded by Reverend Henry Durant. Durant had come to California as a Yale-educated Presbyterian pastor and high school teacher looking to found the "Yale of the West" in Oakland, a city known as the "New Haven of the Pacific." Durant launched the Contra Costa Academy in 1853, changed the name to College of California in 1855, and began offering college courses in 1860.

Even then, building a college campus in downtown Oakland did not seem practical, and the College of California trustees set about looking for a new location. After a thorough search, a large plot of land in Berkeley was selected, and the College purchased 160 acres.

The initial plan had been to sell off lots on the newly purchased land to finance the move to Berkeley, but sales proved much slower than expected. Additionally, enrollment at the College remained low due to a lack of interest among Californians and increased competition from a rival faction of Presbyterians who started their own school across the Bay in San Francisco. The outbreak of the Civil War deepened the divide between these two groups, as Durant's followers were New England Republicans, and the rival San Francisco faction were Southern Democrats.

Despite the raging war, Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which President Lincoln signed into law. The Act granted states large swaths of federal land they could then sell off to private buyers and mandated that the proceeds be used to initiate the endowment of at least one university in that state. Such institutions became known as "Land Grant Colleges." The intention was to create schools that taught agricultural, technical, and (since it was wartime) military skills.

Hoping to capitalize on this new funding source, the College of California added a "Mining and Agricultural College" and appealed to the state government for Morrill Act funding. Their request was denied.

Not wanting to miss out on the funding, the State of California created its own Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College in 1866. Since the state had no public higher education to speak of at the time, the new college existed in name only. Such were the two institutions: one well endowed but without students, faculty, or facilities, and the other struggling financially but with a full faculty, its own campus, and a significant land holding upon which to build a new one.

Recognizing the situation, Republican California Governor Frederick Low encouraged his friend Samuel Willey, then acting President of the College of California, to consider a merger of the two institutions.

The University of California was chartered on March 23, 1868, after the trustees of the College of California voted to donate all the institution's assets to the State, including the plot of land at Berkeley. Ten faculty members and 40 students gathered here in the buildings that formerly housed the College of California, and the "Cal" of today was officially born.

The Presidency of the University of California was first offered to George McClellan, a failed Union Civil War General who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential election. He declined the offer, and in 1870 Henry Durant, who had founded the Contra Costa Academy, took office for two years before resigning. He would later serve as Mayor of Oakland.

The University of California moved to its modern Berkeley campus in September 1873 and has remained there ever since. "Cal" is routinely regarded as one of the finest public universities in the world.


For further information:

The famous Campanile on the modern Berkeley Campus

Cal's iconic Campanile on its modern Berkeley campus

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