El Cerrito’s lost legacy captured in young girl’s prescient 1956 snapshots

The fountain added to the Castro adobe in the late 1930s by El Cerrito gambling boss Walter “Big Bill” Pechart as seen after the April 20, 1956 fire in this photo by Cynthia Cameron.

A significant piece of Contra Costa County history was lost when the Castro adobe, the county’s oldest still-standing building related to the Spanish-Mexican period in California, was destroyed in an arson fire on April 20, 1956. The building was well over a century old.
A young girl living nearby had the presence of mind to go visit the site and take three snapshots — and hang on to them after all these years. She has generously shared them with the El Cerrito Historical Society. Cynthia Cameron, now living in Fresno, is also letting us share the images with you, along with her memories of the event.
(The original Oakland Tribune coverage of the fire from April 21, 1956 follows the photos along with earlier views of the adobe.)
If you have snapshots or memories of the adobe and the Castro family we’d love to hear from you.

“I was an 11-year-old girl with a Brownie camera, I lived two blocks from the Castro adobe in El Cerrito and the day after it burned down my cousin and I went exploring. This was 1956, where the El Cerrito Plaza now sits.

“I’m so glad I took these, even then when I was so young I sensed a profound loss of our history. I used to have a piece of the adobe but that got lost in the shuffle of life.

“It was a huge loss! I feel sad even now when I think about it. I remember that day very well, I was struck by the beauty of the fountain. Until the fire I had never been there, it had been a gambling casino and had a bawdy ‘reputation.’

“The Castro adobe was an important part of the heritage of the entire state of California. I remember just having a feeling about the importance of the event. My Mom didn’t allow me to have a lot of film because of the cost of developing, but this seemed very worth it. I wish I had taken more but I’m glad we have these.”

The fire, which witnesses said broke out in five locations at the same time, destroyed the wooden second story.

The adobe and surrounding grounds. A police car is to the right.

Those responding to the fire had no doubt it was arson. The building reeked of kerosene and witnesses reported that five blazes started simultaneously. The fire was investigated and arson was confirmed and attributed to a bored young man. The blaze ended a debate over the fate of the site, as the Tribune reports below:

By Firebug
Contra Costa’s Famed
Rancho San Pablo
Adobe Burned Down

EL CERRITO. April 21—Arsonists have defeated a last ditch effort to save Contra Costa County’s oldest historical landmark — the adobe Rancho
San Pablo.
Five fires burst out simultaneously in different sections of the 126-year-old structure last night and witnesses told firemen: “All of a sudden, the whole building seemed to go ‘whoosh’.”
The spectacular blaze halted a controversy over whether the listoric Spanish landmark could be preserved as an historical monument, or would go down under the wrecking bars of a Berkeley concern which will shortly construct a modern shopping center on the site at San Pablo and Fairmount Avenues.
Paul Hammerberg, architect and one of the owners, said that in view of the sentiment aroused by word that the adobe might come down, a survey had been started only yesterday to determine the feasibility of moving it intact, or leaving it where it was as a restaurant or monument to the county’s “first family”— that of Don Victor Castro.
There no longer is any need for discussion, all principals agreed today. Only the walls remain of what was once the headquarters of Don Castro’s
mammoth ranch.

Herman said there was a definite odor of kerosene about the premises and added, “it is hardly possible that a fire would start slowly, then flash up like this one
did without having some help.”
Among the first to reach the scene were two off-duty firemen, Lt. William Dugan and hoseman Jim Sadler. Dugan said he and Sadler raced into the patio and that—”suddenly POOF!, the whole building went up in flames.”
The flames also gutted the two-story annex constructed there in 1930 as the Rancho San Pablo gambling casino, headquarters for Contra Costa County’s night-life enthusiasts in the Prohibition era.

The fire broke out at 2:15 p.m. and shortly after flames shot 100 feet into the air, attracting a crowd estimated at more than 2,000 persons. Traffic was blocked for nearly two hours on San Pablo Ave.
An estimated 100 person* telephoned in reports of the blaze and firemen and equipment from the El Cerrito. Albany and Kensington departments responded, aided by scores of volunteer and reserve firemen.

The fire Was well out of control by the time the first equipment ranched the acene. but was confined about an hour later.
Historians say the rancho was originally built by Don Castro in 1830 and consisted of two buildings and a chapel. Only a wall of the original chapel remained, prior to the fire, but visitors touring the top ctory of the largest building could still marvel at the rosewood paneling and stairways that hinted of the rich life of the early California dons.
The rancho was laid out in the form of a “U,” with the largest building in the center.
Don Victor Castro was one of the 10 children of Don Francisco Castro, who settled early in the 18th century in one of a group of adobes built for the Spanish vaqueros in what is now San Pablo.

An early view of the Castro adobe.

The adobe in the 1930s, when it was the Rancho San Pablo night club, later just called The Rancho.

Chris Treadway

  • John Brennan

    Tragic lost indeed, yet photographs survive to document that which once was thank goodness. I am a member of the Berkeley Brennan clan who married into the Castros. Exceptional peoples who were true pioneers in the East Bay. Their mark will forever be knitted into the historical fabric of California.

  • Sandy Faccini Berry

    I remember going to the Castro Adobe ruins in grammar school. It was across the street from my grandparents house. I also remember the drive in theatre & sitting on grandma’s porch watching cartoons. I heard stories about the dog track that was there too before the plaza.