Contra Costa County History
“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
- David McCullough
The history of Contra Costa County extends back beyond its formation as a unit of government. It was one of the original 27 counties created by the legislature in 1850. The name refers to its position on the “opposite coast” directly across the bay from San Francisco. However, when a new county was formed from part of Contra Costa in 1853, the territory which actually was the opposite coast became part of the new Alameda County.
The Spanish visited Contra Costa County in the 1770s during exploratory expeditions and named many of its geographic features and created some of the earliest maps. Later, Spain and ultimately Mexico granted great tracts of land called ranchos to settlers. Cattle ranching came first, followed by more varied farming.
One of the early responsibilities of the county was roads which were important in the early days as connectors of the communities that spread across the county. These earliest communities such as Antioch, Danville, Lafayette and Walnut Creek have grown into thriving cities and towns.
There are also several examples of towns that no longer exist. The great boom in coal mining in the eastern part of Contra Costa County created several thriving settlements such as Stewartsville. Coal was a big deal here from the 1860s until the early 1900s.
Agriculture was the latest economic activity in the 19th century and through the years there was a succession of crops grown. While cattle have been present from the earliest times of Spanish ranchos, major crops came and went. Wheat and grapes and walnuts all enjoyed prominence in our county’s history. Industrial development eventually occurred with the Standard Oil refinery in Richmond as well as others later. Sugar refining, canning, explosives and lumber also flourished in the late 1800s. The presence of deep water along the western shore and the Carquinez Strait made all this possible.
The coming of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads in the latter part of the 1800s and the early 1900s made this industrial development even more attractive.
Port Costa was an important spot from 1879 until 1930, serving as the point where the trains crossed the Carquinez Strait on an immense ferry, the largest in the world.
Our members provide a great source of knowledge related to historical issues. Many have conducted their research at our History Center and many of their articles have appeared in the CCCHS Bulletin newsletter. These essays are reproduced here for your enjoyment and information.
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