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March 16, 2004 > Peek into the Past

Peek into the Past


The people of Washington Township have always been proud of their cultural progress. Many felt that the founding of Washington Union High School in 1892 under the Union High School law was one of the greatest cultural and economic forces in the township. Classes were first held in the Masonic Hall on Peralta Boulevard. A new three-story building was completed and occupied in March 1893 and used by the community until 1923.

The old three-story building on the Niles Centerville Road (now Peralta Avenue) served the needs of students and adult groups from Alvarado to Warm Springs, from the bay to the mountains. It was probably the only building owned by and available to all citizens of the township. It was used so much at nighttime that the board decided at one point that "hereafter the schoolhouse be not used in the nighttime for any purpose whatsoever without the clerk's permission."

Time and use took their toll on the old building and by 1921 extensive renovations were needed. It was estimated that it would cost $40, 000 to update the old building so the Woman's Club formed a committee led by Mrs. J.E. Thane to arrange a bond election for a new building. The first election failed so the trustees and Mrs. Thane called together representatives of local organizations. This group passed a bond to erect a new building on the Centerville-Irvington Road at a cost of $250,000.

The students were happy to move to their new campus. The editor of the 1924 edition of The Washingtonian, the senior yearbook, paused long enough to pay tribute to "the old building that had sheltered us so long and faithfully and a certain well-known object on our campus." That well-known object was a rock.

A ten-ton rock had been hauled from Alameda Creek above Clark's Bridge. It had been placed in the front yard and a sequoia tree planted beside it on Washington's Birthday, 1897 as a memorial to George Washington and the Union High School system. The earth around it had been mingled with soil from Mount Vernon, Lincoln's Tomb, Bunker Hill, and Plymouth. A bit of soil from each township school district had been added to signify the unity of the township high school.

The rock became a school symbol. It served as a prop for plays and photographs. Generations of students clowned, visited and ate their lunches by the rock. When the school moved, the rock was left behind. Anthony Lewis, Jr. bought the land to farm. The rock was in the way so he asked Principal E.B. Hodges if he wanted it. Mr. Hodges said that he was too busy trying to open the new school to worry about moving a ten-ton rock.

Lewis dug a big hole and buried the rock deep in the ground so the plows would not catch in it. The Lewis family farmed the land for many years. John Lewis showed me where they had buried the rock and Centerville druggist, Allan Walton, a graduate of Union High School, and I decided to try to find it. We secured permission from the property owner and a permit from the city and tried probing with rods but found nothing. We found a volunteer to dig up the area with a backhoe, but still no rock. We took an infrared aerial photograph of the area in 1977. The photograph showed a depression, so we dug there but again found nothing.

The search intensified in the summer of 1988 because condominiums were going to be built on the Peralta Avenue site across from the end of Parish Avenue. Streets were excavated and water and sewer lines installed. There was extensive excavation and digging, but nobody found the rock. It's apparently still there, buried deep in the soil, probably under a condominium.

There are very few people around today that remember the old Washington Union High School building on Peralta Avenue. There are even fewer who remember that there ever was a ten-ton memorial boulder and Sequoia redwood tree that created a familiar group of rocks and trees enjoyed by the high school students.

Although the rock and original memorial trees were left behind, a new Memorial Grove was planted on the present Washington High School campus February 22, 1932 to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington's birth. Trees were planted in memory of former principal George Wright and former trustees John Whipple and James Logan. The school newspaper, The Hatchet, reported in 1935 that "this beauty spot is held sacred because of the loyalty and devotion of the men it honored."

The grove continued to be a favorite spot of students until it was destroyed in the process of demolishing and rebuilding the school in 1977. Washington High School Senior students have taken on the project of restoring the Memorial Grove. Call Helen Paris (510) 505-7112 if you are able to help in any way. Donations are needed and will be appreciated.

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