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Thomas Home Ranch
Gateway to Nortonville Canyon and Kirker Pass
Size: 145 acres
Location: Kirker Creek, Pittsburg Area

Celebration and Art Sale on Thomas Home Ranch

Save Mount Diablo's Thomas Home Ranch

Save Mount Diablo Saves 145 acre Thomas “Home Ranch” Not Once, But Twice
Imagine what the biggest oaks at the Thomas “Home Ranch” have witnessed over the past 200 years.  The ranch is located at the intersection of Kirker Pass and Nortonville Roads, just south of Pittsburg.  Two hundred years ago the view down to the waterfront included herds of pronghorn and tule elk and the occasional grizzly bear or Indian hunting them.  As Spanish missions expanded their influence, antelope and elk were replaced by cattle and horses, then the missions were succeeded by Mexican ranchos—but what would become the Thomas Ranch was left alone up at the edge of the Diablo foothills.  A shortcut through the hills became known as Kirker Pass then the gold rush started.  In 1849 the landscape was “barren and desolate enough to look upon, rising in swells like the waves of the ocean, with Mount Diablo towering far above it, but without a house or tent visible.”  Coal was discovered and a road constructed across the property, leading from the boom bust “New York of the Pacific” up to the mining town of Nortonville. 

In 1869 the property was homesteaded by the Thomas family, Welsh miners by way of Nortonville.  Widow Margaret Thomas sold a strip of land for a railway up to the mines, dividing the ranch into two pieces.  Then the county bought a strip for a new road, north of Kirker Pass but named for it, and divided the property again.  The growing family just wanted to be left alone but the property was located too strategically at the mouth of the canyon and the pass.  “New York” became “Black Diamond” then “Pittsburg.”  Coal mining sputtered with fits and starts and then sand mining took over.  The county repeatedly demanded more land to widen Kirker Pass Road.  Similarly, utility and energy companies wanted power and pipeline and telephone easements.  Meanwhile, Pittsburg was stretching south.  It surged when Camp Stoneman was built during World War II, then one tract after another was subdivided, rising up “Railroad” toward increasingly congested Kirker Pass.  The Thomas’s loved their land and resisted the outsiders who wanted a piece of it.

“Save Mount Diablo recently won an estate court auction to purchase the 145-acre Thomas “Home Ranch” for $1,376,500,” said Ron Brown, SMD’s Executive Director.  “The other bidder was almost certainly a developer.  This is the second time that SMD has saved the property.  Working with the Thomas family we also stopped its development in the late 1990s.  A number of family members have thanked us recently for making sure the property will finally be preserved for good, but we can only do it with the continued support of our donors.”

The Big PictureKirker Creek at Thomas Home Ranch
Also known as “Thomas North,” the Home Ranch is being acquired at the same time that East Bay Regional Park District is purchasing the 160-acre “Thomas Central” and 852-acre “Thomas South,” and a few months after their purchase of the 798-acre Barron property, another Thomas property and the final gap between Mt. Diablo State Park and Black Diamond Mines.  Although those properties are bigger, they are also more rugged and remote.  The Home Ranch was far more developable, threatened and expensive.

It was a close call.  The Park District was interested in purchasing the property but a variety of problems, including developer competition, timing, and technical issues related to funding threatened to get in the way.  SMD stepped in to help.  “The Park District is very grateful for Save Mount Diablo’s role in protecting this strategic property at the mouth of Nortonville Canyon,” said Nancy Wenninger, Assistant General Manager/Land Division for the District.  “We were very interested in this acquisition but we weren’t going to be able to complete the purchase.  Save Mount Diablo’s ability to move quickly and be flexible really made the deal happen.  The property is important by itself, but it will also help preserve open space further up the canyon and includes an important trail connection which will help make the final link between Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and Concord Naval Weapons Station.  Over the year SMD has been one of the District’s most valuable allies and has helped us achieve success many times.  We have a great partnership.”

Thomas is gateway to beautiful Nortonville Canyon and Kirker Pass.  Above it a rugged open space corridor stretches from Black Diamond north toward Suisun Bay.  It decreases development threats to the canyon and pass area.  It’s a critical recreational connection, historically important, and biologically rich. 

“Thomas’ location is very strategic in terms of its relationship to the Urban Limit Line, Pittsburg, Kirker Pass and the entrance to Nortonville Canyon and the resources there,” said Malcolm Sproul, SMD’s President.  “It’s the northwestern most extension of the San Joaquin Valley, with similar habitat and environmental conditions.  There was even a confirmed San Joaquin kit fox sighting at the far end of the canyon in the early 1990s.  Given its canyons and creeks, it’s both a major wildlife corridor and an ideal and beautiful recreational connection,” said Sproul.  “It includes a cattle tunnel under Kirker Pass Road.  The fact that a safe undercrossing already exists is a real asset.  Nortonville Canyon can be another access into Black Diamond Mines.  It’s highly scenic with great rock outcrops, and it allows a natural connection to lands to the west.  It’s clearly a key in the Black Diamond Mines to Naval Weapons Station corridor.”
“Thomas is one of the best examples of the importance of our organization,” said Brown.  “It underscores our flexibility and ability to step in and acquire an important piece of land.  This is why we exist—we can act quickly when others may not be able to.”

Gloria Thomas
Sisters Maxine Barron and Gloria Thomas circa 1977There are relatively few twenty-first century ranching families around Mt. Diablo, just a handful who own more than a thousand acres or who can make a full-time living from cattle.  Most of them have invested several generations of sweat in the rugged canyons and grassland slopes their ancestors bought over a hundred years ago and they often lease Park District land.  As the number of heirs grow so do the pressures to cash out, in order to split the proceeds.  Around Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve that’s a description of the Thomas family.
I first met Gloria Thomas in 1996 at the little farm house where she lived on Nortonville Road.  Her grandparents homesteaded there in 1869, after two years in Nortonville, and she was born in the house in 1928.  Less than five feet tall, Gloria is slender, feisty and loved to walk in the hills to look at wildflowers.  (Sisters Maxine Barron and Gloria Thomas circa 1977 pictured above).

She’d invited me over because Pittsburg had proposed expanding the city by 25%, stretching south to overlook Clayton.  Its “Southeast Hills Annexation” was a proposal by the Southport Land & Commercial Company to add 2,745 acres for at least 1,549 houses.  The three and a half mile long project would have stretched from the city limits on Railroad Avenue/Kirker Pass Road, through Gloria’s property, up Nortonville Canyon high into the hills west of Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.  No detailed plans were ever provided, but undoubtedly the number of houses would have been increased once the land was added to the city.  Most importantly, the plan would have broken the county Urban Limit Line for the first time ever.  The city relied on one of the worst Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) we’ve ever reviewed.

Pittsburg’s “Southeast Hills Annexation”
View from Thomas Home RanchAt first Pittsburg had tried to use rugged Keller landfill buffer open space to make a connection—at least on a map—up into Nortonville Canyon and the Southport lands, but Keller objected.  The Thomas Home ranch was substituted in the plans.  It was really Gloria’s family’s land that mattered—without the Home Ranch, Nortonville Canyon couldn’t be physically connected to Pittsburg.

Even though the project would hugely increase the value of her property, Gloria and her sisters and brother were dead set against it.  She called whoever she thought might help.  She described herself as a “parks person” and preferred that her family’s land be eventually added to the regional preserve than be developed.  Better yet if it remained in cattle ranching. They didn’t want to be part of Pittsburg and they figured the project was all for the benefit of Pittsburg developer Albert Seeno.  Over the next three years Gloria became our poster child; a longtime landowner opposed to the development project that could have made her rich.

I still have notes of her comments, this one from September 16, 1997:  “None of us want our land sold.  It would feel like I wasn’t true to my parents’ wishes that it remain in the family.  I live on 145 acres.  I like it because it’s peaceful and quiet.  It’s not a good area for development because it’s so beautiful, the steep hills would be destroyed, the oaks would be gone, and it wouldn’t look anything like it does now.  Pittsburg has a serious problem already, if they want to attract people, they have to fix up what they have.  All these upscale houses!  The hills would suffer with the tremendous earth moving.  They'll destroy the springs that provide fresh water year round for a lot of wildlife.  Where’s the wildlife going to go if they fill in the creeks and put them in culverts and fill in the valleys?  Lots of birds and animals depend on the creeks.  My family wants to continue cattle grazing, my brother‘s whole life is cattle grazing.  This development plan is about a few landowners trying to line their pockets.  All they’re thinking about is the almighty dollar; they don’t have any attachment to the land.  We’ve been here five generations.  These hills are too pretty to be destroyed.”

Save Mount Diablo was the leader of the opposition campaign with a lot of help from Greenbelt Alliance.  Gloria wasn’t rich by any means but she donated $1000 so that we could “tell people how horrendous this project would be” and allowed us to post big signs on her property next to Kirker Pass.  The two organizations led hikes into the hills and we gathered significant public support from residents and other environmental groups.  Concord, Clayton and the Contra Costa Water District were opposed.  For three years newspaper articles, many of them by Matt Weiser of the Contra Costa Times and often including a picture of Gloria Thomas, provided a blow by blow of the many criticisms:  effects on the Urban Limit Line, landslide and coal mine hazards, ranching, real estate values, traffic, water supply, endangered species, the area’s beauty, increasing opposition from a long list of agencies and organizations.  “Our land’s been in the Thomas name since 1867,” Gloria said in a Sept. 9, 1997 article by Weiser, “We don’t take too lightly to being run over by the city of Pittsburg.”  Gloria’s sister Delores told the city Planning Commission, “We want out!”  The Times editorialized against the project, “Contra Costa County is facing a crucial test of its urban limit lines in the hills above Pittsburg…they would cease to have any real effectiveness as a barrier to unbridled growth.  That must not be allowed to happen.”

Nonetheless, on November 17, 1997 the Pittsburg City Council approved their EIR and a request to submit the plan to LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission, which considers boundary changes.  LAFCO commissioners, normally pro-development, had been reading the news articles too, and expressed concern.  East Bay Regional Park District challenged the decision in court, joined by the Contra Cost Building Trades Council, delaying the project. 

El Niño to the Rescue
Gloria Thomas in the Contra Costa TimesIt was really Mother Nature and County Supervisor Joe Canciamilla who saved the day.  Although SMD and the Park District had been warning of unstable slopes and historic coal mining hazards, among many other impacts, we were ignored.  The El Niño rainy season of 1997-1998 couldn’t be; it included nearly twice the average rainfall.  In February 1998 more than two dozen land slides and slumps appeared in Nortonville Canyon, including high speed debris flows that literally unzipped hills leaving scars down steep slopes. 

Storms turned creeks into torrents, depositing deep layers of sediment and flooding Highway 4 at Loveridge Road, closing the freeway for two days.  Part of Nortonville Road next to the creek collapsed, another part was buried under a football field sized mudslide.  As if that weren’t enough, a huge unmapped, subway-sized coal mining tunnel collapsed in the Regional Preserve adjacent to the project, near the site of the deaths of four cousins in a similar tunnel in 1980.  We took reporters and TV crews out to film the dramatic scene.  Weiser reported “the spot looks like a massive bomb crater.”  Gloria told the Ledger Dispatch, “Every place you look there’s a slide.  It’s worse than I’ve probably seen in my lifetime.”

On February 9th, everyone was surprised, including the developer, when the city asked LAFCO to delay its review until June.  On March 3rd County Supervisor Joe Canciamilla, a former Pittsburg mayor who had been involved in the early stages of the annexation, announced his opposition.  A member of LAFCO, which controlled whether the annexation could take place, Canciamilla said at the time, “There are too many problems…I think we’re moving too many things far too quickly.” He said the annexation left too much doubt regarding safety, environmental problems and prudent planning—especially in regard to the urban limit line.  Southport pulled the application and the project died. 

In 2000 Canciamilla would sponsor a tightening of the line.  In 2004 another measure would pass requiring that cities as well as the county adopt voter-approved urban limit lines.  Meanwhile the Seeno developers would propose then table their Montreux development on part of the project area just north of Thomas (a once again active project).  The city would start and stop environmental review for its Buchanan Bypass, or “James Donlon Extension,” just north of the Home Ranch.  Gloria weighed in each time. 

At our 30th anniversary in 2001 SMD awarded the Thomas family a Mountain Star Stewardship Award for their care of their property for more than 130 years:  “The family has resisted Pittsburg’s efforts to annex and develop their ranch lands. Without their commitment to their land, the scenic Black Diamond foothills of Mt. Diablo would have long since been paved over.”  Canciamilla and East Bay Regional Park District also received awards.

The AuctionThomas Home Ranch wetlands
Thomas North (the Home Ranch), Central, and South are jointly owned by eighteen different family members, some owning as much as 1/6th, some as little as 1/90th.  Over the years SMD made overtures, even as Canciamilla became head of the Parks and Wildlife Committee in the State Assembly and could have helped with funding.  As time passed fewer family members were interested in cattle ranching but the family couldn’t come to agreement on what to do with the land.  Gloria Thomas, now 83, began suffering from Alzheimer’s and moved to a convalescent home.  Ultimately a court-appointed receiver decided that sale of the land was necessary to resolve conflicting claims, including for Gloria’s medical care.  The receiver approached the East Bay Regional Park District and agreement was reached about sale of the three parts of the Thomas property. 

At the final court hearing a snag developed.  Even though it was the receiver who had approached the Park District, the attorney for one family member argued that the court should have marketed the properties and needed to conduct an “overbid” auction to see whether there were other interested buyers.  The auction was held two weeks later.  Only the Park District bid on the first two properties, Thomas South including Kreiger Peak south of Black Diamond and Thomas Central on the slopes above Nortonville Canyon. 

When the Home Ranch, the 145 acres including Gloria’s house, was placed up for bid, a broker representing a private party made a bid of $917,000, higher than the Park District’s Board of Directors approval.  The auction was delayed for two more weeks for Park District staff to confer with the District’s Board.

It’s difficult for public agencies to acquire land for more than the appraised value.  It’s a questionable use of public funding.  It would also disqualify the Park District from using East Contra Costa Habitat Conservancy funds which were to provide 90% of the purchase price.  It was very likely that a developer was the undisclosed bidder on the property.  The Park District was resigned to losing the property.

After significant discussion, SMD’s Board of Directors decided the property was too important to our conservation objectives to lose without a fight.  We set a maximum bid and hoped that our involvement would find the other bidder unprepared.

SMD has fought Pittsburg development projects many times over the years.  On the chance that a developer was the private bidder and might be especially motivated by our involvement, we sent a representative to the final auction who couldn’t be connected with us.  Bidding was in $25,000 increments over previous bids.  Twice the other bidder had to get approval by phone to continue.  Finally the other bidder dropped out and SMD’s next bid of $1,376,500 won the auction, just four business days after SMD’s Board approved our involvement.  Eventually we will transfer the property to the Park District.  A number of Thomas family members have already thanked us for stepping in to save the Home Ranch.

We Need Your Help
We saved the Thomas Ranch in just a few days, and had to pay the purchase price in cash. Funding was provided by SMD’s Mary Bowerman Fund - your donations at work. We are also in the process of purchasing several other properties and are making offers on several more. We are only able to move quickly because of your generosity.

The Gateway and Kirker Pass
Culturally and geologically the area is fascinating.  The thrust fault that lifted Mt. Diablo also upended the thin edges of sedimentary rock—the Great Valley Sequence that had been deposited from the ancestral Sierra into a frequently submerged inland Central Valley—and created the ridges northeast of the mountain, exposing narrow veins of coal. 

View of Thomas Home RanchBlack Diamond Mines, Keller Ridge above Clayton, and Kreiger Peak, at 1905’ the ridgeline’s highest point, all trend northwest from Mt. Diablo.  After crossing Kirker Pass the Los Medanos hills descend to Suisun Bay.  They’re named for the 1839 Mexican rancho that included present day Pittsburg and crowned by 1439’ Mulligan Hill.  The Home Ranch is a gateway to these hills separating Central and East Contra Costa and stretching between Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and open space that will become a new regional park at the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

Kirker Pass was originally a little further south of the present day road of the same name, a short cut across the hills named for Jim “Don Santiago” Kirker, a native of Belfast, Ireland, and a well-known explorer and Indian fighter in New Mexico and Chihuahua.  He spent his last days from 1849 or ‘50 through 1853 in a cabin at Oak Springs near Contra Loma.  The Pass was named for Kirker at a time when there were almost no other houses between the Ygnacio Valley or Todos Santos, and John Marsh’s house in Brentwood other than the new settlement of Antioch.

In 1861 Noah Norton built the first house in what would become the coal mining town of Nortonville.  Norton took over the abandoned 1859 Black Diamond Mine; it became the most successful and longest lived of the mines, owned by the Black Diamond Company.  William Brewer of the Whitney Geological Survey described a ride from Clayton through the area in October 1861, “I took my mule, to visit the hills eight or ten miles to the north and northeast of camp.  A very lonely ride, first through the Kirker Pass, then among rounded hills, almost bare of grass or herbage, in places entirely so—no trees to cheer the eye, no water in the many canyons and ravines.  I found much of geological interest, quantities of fossil wood—of the hardest flint, yet the finest grain of the wood preserved in the minutest detail—fossil shells of more than ordinary beauty, immense beds of sandstone, and thick strata, over a hundred feet thick, of volcanic pumice stone and lava.”

Nortonville and its residents cut most of the trees in the vicinity, for firewood, construction and use in the mines, but closed in 1885 and then reopened and closed in fits and starts in the 1920s and ‘30s, when sand mining began.  Miners from all over the world left the Gold Rush or the Comstock Silver rush and passed through the towns in the “Mt. Diablo coal field,” many of them then homesteading nearby, as the Thomas family did in 1869 at the Home Ranch.  Sand mining replaced coal mining but gradually trees grew back and the steep rugged area regained its beauty.  Open space lovers targeted the mines area for preservation for decades and finally in 1973 the East Bay Regional Park District made its first acquisitions for a new Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. 

Today Nortonville Canyon is spectacular, still framed by steep slopes with a backdrop of ridges over which Mt. Diablo towers.  Partway up the canyon the road forks, straight into the regional preserve and the old Nortonville town site, or steeply to the right up into a large bowl and on to Kreiger Peak, crossed by the old stage coach road between Clayton and the old mining towns.

Resources, Recreation & Corridors
The Home Ranch has flat, easily developable areas surrounded by steep hills and crossed by two deeply incised tributaries of Kirker Creek.  The creeks thread two major canyons that converge on the property and a third canyon drops onto it as well, from Keller Landfill protected open space.  The topography and creeks guarantee that the property is both a major wildlife corridor connection and will also be a major regional trail connection from Black Diamond Mines and Nortonville along the creeks, down into Pittsburg and across Kirker Pass Road.  A trail connection across the busy road might have been a major issue but the property’s preservation has solved that problem.

Thomas is a significant acquisition because it represents the westernmost extent of the San Joaquin Valley in Contra Costa County. There was no opportunity to visit the property in the four days before the auction but, as we learn more, the Home Ranch is becoming even more interesting.  The hills are even steeper than we remembered, and deep green during the rainy season.  The sinuous creeks, still flowing in mid-August, paint broad green stripes across a landscape otherwise now dry.  We are just beginning resource analysis, but despite two hundred years of cattle grazing the steep hills and creek banks support large stands of native grass and there are several locally rare plants including Jepsons coyote thistle (Eryngium jepsonii).

“Plant species more common in eastern Contra Costa County, near the edge of the Great Crwonscale at Thomas Home RanchValley proper, find their westernmost occurrence here like crownscale (Atriplex coronata var. coronata), a CNPS List 4 species, and valley saltbush (Atriplex fruticulosa)” according to Heath Bartosh, SMD’s botanist and member of the Board of Directors. “These species inhabit areas known as alkaline scalds where salts from the underlying bedrock are drawn up to the surface by evaporation and capillary action. These areas are so ‘basic’ that most plant species are absent from these salty white barrens. Salt grass grasslands are plentiful, spilling down from adjacent uplands into the slow moving waters that meander through the upper portion of Kirker Creek.”

“Alkali heath (Frankenia salina) is also common in the uplands, dotting the landscape and displaying its demure violet pink flowers to those who take a closer look, which we have only begun to do.  It is fortunate that we are preserving this peripheral extent of alkaline ground that was once a more common feature on the landscape in this part of the Mt. Diablo region.”

The 145.5 acre property is made up of three parcels.  54.5 mostly flat acres wedged between Kirker Pass and Nortonville Roads include the original 1880s house and more recent barns, an oasis surrounded by large fruit, nut and other trees—pomegranates, figs, walnut, elderberry, and huge pepper trees.  There are owls in the barn and probably bat species.

You can easily cross Nortonville Road to a 10.5 acre area dominated by Kirker Creek, sinuous and lined with big oaks, willows and cottonwoods and with a fire road leading north to the location of the proposed Buchanan Bypass, in a steep sandstone striped canyon.  The trees attract many bird species, including rare loggerhead shrikes.  A large songbird, it’s known as the "butcher bird."  It impales insects, lizards and small birds or mammals on thorns or barbed wire before eating it, because it does not have the talons of larger birds of prey.  The highly endangered San Joaquin kit fox was confirmed in Nortonville Canyon in 1992 and has been seen in the regional preserve more recently.  The property has to be at the very northwestern edge of its range.

Thomas Home Ranch cattle tunnel
The largest parcel, 80.5 acres, is west of Kirker Pass Road and crosses Kirker Creek at 280’ elevation before rising to the property’s highest elevation of 850’. The road is dangerous, steep, winding and divided with a concrete barrier.  Commuters drive very fast.  Some wildlife will follow the creeks to their junction just north of the Home Ranch and can cross under the dangerous road in a culvert with a deep pool at one end.  As we’ve been figuring out how to showcase the property for our members and the public, on our first visit, we made an important discovery:  an 8’ high cattle tunnel crosses underneath Kirker Pass Road as does a smaller culvert.  In addition to its use by cattle and wildlife, it will allow a major regional trail connection.

For a long time Nortonville Road was a public right of way up to the coal mining town now within the regional preserve, but for years it’s been too remote for a public entrance to the park, and has been gated just a few feet south of the Thomas Home Ranch.  SMD’s strategic purchase moves us much closer to a new park entrance near Kirker Pass Road, serving Pittsburg and area residents.

For more information read the Contra Costa Times article and our press release.

Save Mount Diablo's properties are closed to the public except by guided tour. Please see our Hike Calendar for upcoming dates and opportunities.

Thomas Home Ranch Map

Caption: Thomas Home Ranch ( a.k.a. "Thomas North") is a critical link in the wildlife and recreational corridor between Black Diamond Mine and anew Regional Park at the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

  Credits | Legal StatementCopyright 2012 Save Mount Diablo. Designed by Alison Martin. Funded by Clif Bar.