The Port Costa Conservation Society, The Bull Valley Agricultural Center, and The Field Semester are joining FORCES to restore the degraded Big Bull Valley Watershed and revive the historic Port Costa Schoolhouse. The result will be expanded community resources, a thriving ecosystem, and an innovative campus for Social Justice and stewardship education.
The Big Bull Valley Watershed: Only 40 minutes from downtown Oakland, nestled into the hills on the shore of the Carquinez Strait, Port Costa is at the confluence of urban spaces and the cultural, political, industrial, and ecological systems that support them. The town embodies California’s rich and complex history: once the biggest wheat port in the United States, Port Costa today is a one-road hideaway, home to about 200 residents. It sits in the midst of a coastal region dotted with oil refineries, yet the town is surrounded by more than 3,000 acres of open space. The educational opportunities for The Field Semester's students are almost overwhelming. Though notably unique and isolated in feeling, Port Costa is geographically accessible to many urban student populations—ensuring our ability to attract a diverse student body that will represent a broad range of environmental perspectives and experiences. Port Costa and its natural beauty will give students an inspiring, perspective-changing immersion in nature without seeming too distant or entirely disconnected from their home communities.
TFS students will live in cabins around the Bull Valley reservoir, learn and dine in the school building, and regenerate and maintain these structures and the surrounding land. The campus will showcase ecologically sound land stewardship and innovative sustainable agriculture, while also connecting students to the region’s rich and complex history.
The site is located along an East Bay Regional Parks District trail, and Port Costa visitors will be able to view historical exhibits and period classrooms in the schoolhouse. Outside, they will find picnic areas alongside the creek, meandering paths and edible landscaping, natural play areas for children, and open space for dogs. The schoolhouse will continue to serve as a community center for the town. When The Field Semester is not in session, the Bull Valley Agricultural Center will use the cabins around the lake as a retreat center for people involved in regional sustainable agriculture. Together, the preserve, schoolhouse, and programming will demonstrate how innovative land stewardship can create ecologically restorative spaces that are well suited for recreation and learning, agriculturally productive, and of service to the local community.
Bull Valley Agriculture Center: Founder Earl Flewellen and his colleagues have a record of success in building businesses in Port Costa, a commitment to sustainability and the community, and a history of success at preserving the area’s natural and historical assets. They created the regionally sourced Bull Valley Roadhouse, a bustling restaurant and bar recognized as one of the Bay Area’s top 100 restaurants by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the 70 best new restaurants in the world in 2013; the historic Burlington Hotel, opened in 1883, which the team transformed from rundown seediness to a popular destination for travelers; the adjacent café; and E.G. Flewellen’s Bee Farm, a self-supporting apiary and retail honey business.
With these projects finally holding their own, the time was right to focus on giving back to the surrounding land and community. To these ends, the Bull Valley Agricultural Center was founded in 2015, and donations were raised to acquire the land where the bees were happily thriving—a first step towards preserving that land, protecting it from relentless vandalism and refuse dumping, and securing its future as a community resource. The site has been subject to a remarkably tumultuous past few hundred years. At the turn of the century, a dam was built that transformed the watershed into an industrial reservoir—supplying water for the steamships and trains that came to the port in town. Over the last century, subsequent hardscaping, neglect, mismanagement, and an odd range of uses have left the watershed overrun with invasive species, plagued by erosion and siltation, and a flooding liability to the entire town downstream.
Through careful studies of the site’s hydrology and ecology, BVAC, with the help of The Field Semester, aims to regenerate the watershed’s ecology such that it may become an asset for educational and recreational uses that respect habitat, connect people with nature, and enrich the local and regional communities.
Port Costa Conservation Society: For nearly 30 years, The Port Costa Conservation Society, the primary community nonprofit in Port Costa, has been transforming the town’s historic schoolhouse from a crumbling shell of a building into an impressive community center. The 1911 Classic Revival two-story building was on the brink of collapse when the PCCS purchased it in 1988. With no maintenance since the school closed in 1966, ceiling joists had cracked under the weight of rainwater pooling on the roof, plaster fell in great sodden chunks from the ceiling, wooden floors buckled, and lack of proper drainage undermined the foundation. With funds raised both locally and nationally and an incredible team of dedicated volunteers, PCCS has been working tirelessly to rejuvenate the 15,000-square-foot schoolhouse with renovations including extensive seismic retrofitting; upgraded electrical, plumbing, and fire-suppression systems; and ADA-compliant elevators and restrooms. PCCS board chair Ridge Greene is a longtime contractor with a focus on institutional buildings and schools, and along with the rest of the board, brings deep community ties and engagement to the collaboration. With the help of The Field Semester, PCCS hopes to finally finish the restoration and re-enliven the schoolhouse as a thriving educational and community asset. While The Field Semester will use the building for classrooms, a workshop, and a kitchen, the completed building will also offer the local community an improved center for meetings, recreation, and events. The space will allow students and locals to engage meaningfully through lectures, workshops, and projects hosted by TFS and residents of Port Costa and the surrounding region.
History of Port Costa
Port Costa has seen days of glory. Square riggers and other ships from Europe, Asia, and Africa crowded the wharves, loading grain from the Central Valley. As you walk the quiet streets now, it is hard to believe that the town once hosted eighteen saloons, a dance hall, and seven hotels swarming with workers from Spain, Portugal, China, and Ireland. During the boom, which lasted from 1883 until after World War I, as many as 3,000 stevedores worked the docks, loading 6 to 8 tall-masted ships a day, while 96 Central Pacific trains made daily runs from Benicia to Port Costa. Giant railroad ferries carried the trains across the Carquinez Strait from Benicia to the roundhouse at Port Costa where they were reassembled and sent to Oakland.
The town was even featured as a setting in Jack London’s John Barleycorn. The photo below could have been a page right out of the book, as one of the group holds a 5-cent bucket full of beer.In 1932, the Sacramento and Stockton channels were opened. Ships bypassed Port Costa to load much closer to the source of cargo. Fruit and walnuts replaced the grain of the valley. Much of these commodities were shipped from Port Costa, but a fire in 1941 brought an end to this trade. Five major fires from 1883 to 1941 closed the business district. All piers, docks, and buildings along the waterfront were destroyed.
In 1910, 40,000 tons of grain went up in smoke. In 1928 the fire loss was $850,000. In 1941 the last fire burned for a week. The commercial buildings left standing were the McNear’s grain warehouse, the Burlington Hotel, G.W. McNear’s sandstone-faced headquarters, a bar and boarding house across the street and the Port Costa Mercantile building. The grain warehouse now houses the Warehouse Cafe and bar. The old “Commercial Hotel” bar and boardinghouse now host Wendy Addison’s Theater of Dreams shop. The Port Costa Mercantile has been transformed into a gift shop and haberdashery. And the 1883 Burlington Hotel still stands next door to the sandstone-faced building, now home to the Bull Valley Roadhouse. In 1982, Time Oil Company donated 83 acres of land to the Port Costa Conservation Society. Since that time, the Society has played a key role in working with the State Coastal Conservancy and East Bay Regional Park District to preserve a large portion of the remaining undeveloped shoreline between Crockett and Martinez. The land, now known as Carquinez Shoreline Park, affords miles of hiking trails and breathtaking views of the Strait.