The Pictures

“In an age of megastores, monster tract houses and coast-to-coast homogenization, Livermore is a testament to power and preservation and a celebration of old-fashioned civic pride.” 
— The makers of LIVERMORE, the movie
picture: Top of Totem Pole, view from below

Grass Roots

With such an evolving self-image, it’s fitting that the oldest city in in California's Amador Valley is a misnomer. Rancher and landowner Robert Livermore, whose image sits atop the town’s famous totem pole, had been dead for more than ten years when his friend William Mendenhall established the city of Livermore in 1869.

Group shot of laborers in the vineyard
Ravenswood Winery picking crew (1940s)
Courtesy Livermore Heritage Guild

In the early nineteenth century, the area currently known as the Tri-Valley was merely grazing land for livestock. The Gold Rush and subsequent railroad growth brought prosperity; by the late 1800s Livermore boasted numerous cattle ranches and vineyards, some of which are still in operation today. Businesses and train depots for what later became the Union Pacific Rail soon created a bustling downtown district. Located off of Highway 84 and First Street, downtown Livermore now sports local gift shops peddling wines and Western garb, small restaurants and historic landmarks such as the Carnegie Building and town flagpole.

Space age type image of big lit ball with two scientists in front


Robert Livermore dies.


William Mendenhall establishes the town of Livermore.


Population: 1,500.


Light bulb starts burning in Fire Station One. It was later moved to Fire Station Six, where it remains today.


Western Pacific Railroad tracks built.


The Livermore Fire Brick Company begins operation.


Coral Hollow coal mines close.


First Livermore Rodeo.


Naval Air Station opens.


Population: 4,000.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory opens on former Naval Air Station site.


Population: 12,000. Sandia National Laboratories opens.


Population: 31,000.


Centennial festivities. Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall places a curse on the city’s sewer system when his totem pole is “stunted.”


Population: 40,000.


Director of Public Works Dan Lee secretly buries time capsule.


South Livermore Valley Area Plan implemented to promote greenery expansion.


Local historian Barry Schrader attempts to uncover lost time capsule and faces hurdles regarding its whereabouts: “If they can find land mines, they can find something the size of a propane tank.”


Millennial Time Capsule is buried in a publicly recorded location, using a Sandia cask designed to contain radioactive material.


100th birthday celebration for the oldest working light bulb in the world.


Population: 77,000 and growing.

The twentieth century saw Livermore’s agricultural beginnings develop into full-fledged suburbia. In 1952, the Department of Energy established the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a nuclear physics research facility. Four years later, the Sandia National Laboratories opened. With Livermore’s new labs came a new nickname, the “City of Energy and Progress.”

Fourth of July picnic on book cover of Suburbia

More job opportunities brought more residents, and the swelling population – from 4,000 in 1950 to 40,000 in 1970 – led to tensions between “old-timers” and recent arrivals. Fear of change supplanted fear of nuclear radiation as vineyards gave way to housing developments, four-lane highways paved over cattle fields and office complexes obscured the hills. Local photographer Bill Owens’s photo collection Suburbia and its depiction of boozing barbequers made Livermore an unwitting representative of post-war “suburban sprawl.”

According to former Livermore Mayor Cathie Brown, sixty percent of the Laboratory’s current employees live in the Tri-Valley. Population continues to increase at a rate of two-and-a-half percent a year, double the national and California averages. Livermore has grown younger: the median age is 35. Tract homes and refurbished Victorians now house young families, although the ethnic breakdown remains more than 80 percent Caucasian. With its four golf courses and vast parks, the city also maintains an average household income that places it at solidly middle to upper-middle class.

From Silos to Strip Malls

Photo by Glenn James

Thousands of windmills dot the green hills along the Interstate 580 and the old Altamont Pass. But these graceful turbines are actually one of the largest wind-fueled power plants in the world, generating energy for nearly a million homes each year. As the science and tech industries transformed Livermore’s image as well as its landscape, residents have struggled to preserve, as well as redefine, the town’s identity.

Livermore’s 22 square miles expanded with the implementation of the South Livermore Valley Area Plan, which devoted more acreage to vineyards and parks. When freeway megastores such as Target and Wal-Mart drove commerce away from the sleepier downtown district, the city announced plans to build a community center and arts facility to spur in-town spending.

Cowboy on bucking bronco
Photo by James Willard

“The Livermore where I grew up in was the Livermore where you could see the farms,” says painter Tilli Calhoun. Possible extensions of Livermore’s borders north of I-580 could add even another 30,000 people to the population. Yet the town’s good-humored recovery from its famed time capsule burial misplacement proved that it hadn’t lost its identity along with the burial map. Through annual events such as the Sunol Bed Race (participants steer double beds through a 200-foot course) and the Livermore Rodeo (started as a World War I fundraiser and now a week-long televised event) Livermore demonstrates how a town can not only survive change, but also prosper as it navigates the seemingly contradictory space between rural and suburban and new and old.

View a photo tour of Livermore yesterday and today >>


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