Huge, historic 'Cooley Landing' dredge salvaged

Mechanical parts of an old dredge, abandoned at the end of Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto, are being salvaged for a future history display there

Mechanical components of a massive dredge abandoned at the end of Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto -- the site of a future community and subregional park -- have been salvaged for inclusion in a future history display.

The dredge is of indeterminate age but is believed to date back into the 1920s or early 1930s, at least. It was set afire and badly damaged several years ago.

On Thursday, May 7, a group of firefighters from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District showed up at the landing with heavy equipment to salvage a massive winch, gears and other metal equipment from the ruins of the dredge.

They were enthusiastically supported by about two dozen citizens intrigued by the history of the dredge and landing, who were there to thank the firefighters for their help and watch the salvage operation.

The machinery is now being stored by the fire district for eventual return to the landing as part of a public history display, according to La Rue V. Ragan, an organizer of the salvage-day event which was videotaped by, a community website and media-training program.

The drag-bucket dredge also is believed to be the dredge that for decades kept the former Palo Alto Yacht Harbor from silting up. There is an enduring story of a dredge operator who lived aboard the dredge with his family and each morning rowed his children ashore to catch a school bus, picking them up in the evening. It is not confirmed that it is the same dredge, however.

It was also rumored to have been used in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1920s, also unconfirmed.

The dredge eventually was retired to Cooley Landing after more efficient hydraulic dredging replaced it, depositing the "spoils" or mud on Yacht Harbor Point to dry, where the cracking mud resembled a moonscape as it dried.

The harbor was closed in the early 1970s for environmental reasons, but only after a long-running battle with boaters who berthed their boats there and members of the Palo Alto Yacht Club. A Sea Scout base also inhabited the building that resembles a ship's superstructure, designed by legendary Palo Alto architect Birge Clark. The former "Sea Scout Building" is being refurbished after being relocated a few feet to slightly higher ground, as it was sinking into the mud.

For years, the old dredge was occupied by the late Carl Schoof, who operated a boatworks on Cooley Landing. Schoof and his wife, a physical education teacher at Stanford University, owned a six-acre strip down the middle of the bulb of land and extending out to a channel for access to the main channel down at the end of the shallow bay. They lived aboard the dredge while Schoof did fine refinishing and repair work on classic wooden boats in a still-standing building on the northerly side of the landing.

The flanks of Cooley Landing were owned by Utah Mining Company, which once harvested oyster shells to use in making cement before the oyster colonies died from sewage discharge from cities around the South Bay. The firm since the 1800s claimed title to hundreds of acres of tide-flooded bay mud extending nearly to the central channel.

The title was purchased by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in the early 1980s, along with a 145-acre Leslie Salt Co. salt pond just north of the narrow extension of Bay Road reaching out to the bulb at the end.

The Schoofs later sold their strip of land to a public agency.

Cooley Landing itself was created in the mid-1800s by Dennis Martin, an Irishman who purchased a Spanish land grant that extended from the bay up into the redwood canyons above Woodside and Portola Valley. It was then called Martin's Landing. It was used to ship lumber, redwood shingles, wheat and wool north to San Francisco and other cities, originally in flat-bottomed sailing barges, according to reports.

Martin also built a small town at the base of the foothills, including a church and store, but he eventually lost title to the land because an overlapping land grant was based on geographic features, which trumped grants based on compass readings in legal disputes.

Martin and his heirs fought for years to regain title to some or all of the land without success, according to historical accounts.

The future of Cooley Landing is being considered, with a site plan map showing a park, walkways and facilities on the bulb, a concept first made public in 2005.

The park is being created through a two-year grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation under the "EPA Can Do" program. The City of East Palo Alto working with Project Director Lilly Lee, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who is working with the open-space district and other officials to bring the park into reality.

Ragan is a member of a subcommittee of EPA Can Do, the Jane Leech Memorial Fund Advisory Committee. He is the founder and CEO of the Raven Works Field Sports Ministry.

He said Advisory Committee members have been volunteering time and energy "to assist in the recovery and future of Cooley Landing as a history landmark and community social-wellness asset."

For 2 1/2 years the committee "has worked to cultivate a spirit of regional collaboration, neighborly good will and shared investment in our community heritage as a guiding operational principle," he said.

"The history, beauty and complexity of Cooley Landing stands as a metaphor on the need for continuing in this mindset and approach to effectively address our local community needs as well as those of this particular project."

Capt. Tom Calvert is the fire district's Cooley Landing project manager.

Other recognized guests included R. Scott Baxter of Past Forward, Inc., a "historical archeologist" who studied Cooley Landing and the dredge some years ago.

(Note: Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson in the early 1980s worked briefly on a project to explore creation of a community marina and park at Cooley Landing. Photographer Christian Pease contributed to this report. His photos are reprinted with permission.)

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Like this comment
Posted by Trish Mulvey
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 14, 2009 at 11:47 am

Huge hugs & thanks, Jay, for finding such a great reason to finally write the story. I hope you will continue to share your fantastic store of local lore. Trish

Like this comment
Posted by Ghost of Ed Powers
a resident of Ventura
on May 14, 2009 at 8:04 pm

I think it was discovered by the Ghost of Ed Powers!

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on May 14, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Thanks, Trish, for all the work you do to spread knowledge about the baylands and maps of flood-prone areas in the Midpeninsula. And great post, Ghost of Ed Powers. For those not in on the joke, the late Ed Powers for years incessantly berated the City Council and officials for shutting down the yacht harbor. In 2- or 3-minute segments under oral communications, he must have talked to the council for hours, all told -- maybe days -- prior to his death.

Like this comment
Posted by fireman
a resident of another community
on May 15, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Jay , Just wake up? Its past noon. It is Friday. Don't worry people already know this . You do not have to cover it up.

Like this comment
Posted by Concerened Citizen
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 18, 2009 at 11:15 am

This sadly reeks of others taking over little East Palo Alto again. Not a mention of anyone from the city or anything THE RESIDENTS want to do with their City. Why is it that "others" always want to TAKE something from East Palo Alto? I'm sure just like we are proud of Palo Alto...East Palo Altans are proud of their city. This article expresses the desires of outsiders. Trying to control East Palo Alto.

I say East Palo Altans stand up and unite around Cooley Landing before you get something you don't want or can't use or you can't control in your own city. How is it that everyone owns Cooley Landing except East Palo Alto? Give me a break.

Like this comment
Posted by Ted Dolton
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 18, 2009 at 12:03 pm

I recommend that Mr/Ms Concerned Citizen read the article closer. Also, look into what East Palo Alto citizens and officials are doing to make the improved Cooley Landing a reality. You will find the "reek" you refer to is not there.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C.
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Kudos to all those folks who have the wisdom to see the value of such a great resource, including the old dredge, something that many would see as just a pile of old junk. Great story about the people who once lived aboard the dredge and inhabited the point. It's uplifting to think about how neat it must have been to live there. Glad to hear the boatsmith's shop may be preserved. Thanks for the history lesson as well, always very important for the well-being of the present and the future.
It's amazing to see how attitudes change over time. For many years, and in most parts of the country, areas such as this were only thought to be suitable for landfills and sewage disposal. Hopefully, with a little help, mother nature can rebuild the area. Also interesting, and kind of sad, to hear about the land survey troubles of the earlier landowner, Dennis Martin. Even sadder to mourn the loss of the oyster population. Now that's a resource that would be nice to have in the area!
I wish I had known about the project earlier. It would be fun to volunteer some sweat. Not much equity to donate though, unfortunately. I'll keep my eyes and ears open for future projects.

Like this comment
Posted by EPA Resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 18, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Thank you, Jay, for this story.

I hope Concerned Citizen rereads the article in its entirety, to get a better sense of how much the City of EPA & its residents are involved in the process. Plenty of people haven't checked out the site, gone to meetings or read about the project, because they're too busy or disinterested. However, folks have been working for quite some time on the preliminaries to get the ball rolling. Woo hoo! It's exciting to meld the interesting history of the place with modern planning so that people will be able to enjoy a park & the baylands & its critters will still thrive.

Like this comment
Posted by resident of Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 19, 2009 at 6:05 am

Enjoyed reading this one! Thanks!

Like this comment
Posted by Local resident
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 19, 2009 at 10:42 am

A big THANK YOU for good old fashioned journalism. It is a great pleasure to read a well-researched, balanced story, instead of the snippets that are now being passed off as "news".

Like this comment
Posted by Paula
a resident of another community
on May 20, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Apparently the "fireman" thinks the endeavor to save a Dredge is worthwhile. However, a house from the the same time or earlier is not -- very curious.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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