by Tom Knight
San Francisco is a worldwide tourist destination, but I wonder how many Bay Area residents who routinely watch “California’s Gold” with Huell Howser or “Bay Area Backroads” with Doug McConnell on TV are aware that they live at the beginning of the most profoundly beautiful and historic road in the entire state: Highway 4. Truly, this must be one of the best kept secrets for those who enjoy a great road trip. An entire book could be written just on the several hundred miles which is absolutely the most diverse and fascinating cross-section of California’s geography and history. You could drive it in a day, but if you took a week you would never be bored. Here’s why…
Going from West to East, the road begins in Hercules where one sees lots of new homes and lots of eucalyptus trees. The trees are reminders of the past, when they were planted to protect the public from inadvertent explosions from Hercules Power Company, maker of explosives for both World Wars. Also present is a rail line, now owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, but once carrying passengers on the silver streamliner “Santa Fe Super Chief” from Richmond to Chicago. The brightly colored red and yellow “war bonnet” décor of the locomotives was a sight to see.
Immediately leaving the shores of San Pablo Bay, the road rises rapidly and winds over the rolling hills of the coast range, still grazed by cattle as it has been continuously for more than a century and a half. You might catch glimpses of old barns or ranch homes surrounded by tall palms or sycamores. Soon you pass the environs of Martinez with the beautifully maintained John Muir house on the left and a spectacularly large and rusty railroad trestle (still in use) on the right, spanning Alhambra Creek. Not long after that the striking view of Mt. Diablo comes into view on the right, the top of which is a landmark for the legal description of real estate throughout most of California. At 3,864 feet elevation and with no other mountains nearby, it is said to possess a view from the summit on a clear day of more of the earth’s surface than any other place on earth. The nearby Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve was once the site of California’s largest coal mining operations.
Passing through Concord and just before rising over Willow Pass to the Pittsburg/Antioch area, one may notice the bunkers, raised mounds of earth and concrete, which are the reminders of explosives stored by the U. S. Navy during World War ll. Few people may know that this was the location of a great tragedy during the war, when a massive explosion occurred killing 320 men and injuring another 390, mostly African-American, who were loading ships bound for the Pacific Theater. The area on the waterfront was called Port Chicago, now the site of a historic marker commemorating the service and sacrifice of these young men. Immediately following the Port Chicago Disaster, the largest mutiny ever to take place in the U. S. Navy eventually resulted in the desegregation of military services in the U. S.
Descending the highway from the summit of Willow Pass, one views the heavily industrialized area along the Pittsburg waterfront, a reminder of the economic power of the Bay Area. Next is Antioch and the gateway to the Delta, a place forgotten by time, the repository of memories past, place of pears and parties, floods and ferries, fishing and follies, crawdads and Chinese, a place bypassed and unknown by most travelers passing by on the distant busy interstate highways which surround it.