Concord: From small farming town to largest city in county

This story is part two of a three-part series leading up to Concord’s 150th birthday celebration.

As Concord’s downtown flourished with new businesses in the early 1900s, the first signs of a real estate boom began in 1910.

Robert Noble Burgess, a businessman from San Francisco, purchased 3,700 acres from Foskett & Elworthy’s holdings they had obtained as early settlers to the area. Then, 380 people purchased lots from the Burgess Tract at the eastern end of Concord Boulevard. With the beginning of WWI, the shipyard in Bay Point was in full swing building ships, and the workers were looking to build homes in the temperate climate of Concord.

At 2 a.m. on April 25, 1917, a fire started at the Concord Inn and spread to adjoining buildings. The fire destroyed two entire blocks, including Frederick Galindo’s Concord Mercantile Co. However, Concord residents showed their resiliency and rebuilding began.

When WWI ended and ship building halted, the fevered pace slowed and Concord slipped into a depression. Ship workers left the area, and fewer people were shopping downtown. Agriculture was still the main industry.

They came by bridge and tunnel

Two events occurred in the Bay Area in the late 1930s that would change Concord forever. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Caldecott Tunnels were completed, making the East Bay more accessible to workers in other parts of the Bay Area. Lewis Lehmer saw an opportunity and opened the first auto sales agency in 1940.

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Concord transformed from a small farming town into an important commuter community. In 1940, the population was 1,373. By 1970, it was the largest city in Contra Costa County – with more than 85,000 residents. People flocked to Concord for its central location, good climate and flat land near scenic Mt. Diablo.

WWII had dramatic effects on Concord. Farmlands were taken for the Naval Weapons Station. In 1942, the Air Force took over land purchased for Buchanan Field. There was a need for housing, and subdivisions replaced orchards, wheat fields and grasslands at a frantic pace.

Concord was one of the first cities to build a sewer system. In order to access it, home developers had to annex their property to the city. The city grew not just in population, but in area too – from 9 square miles in 1960 to 24 square miles by 1970.

Wanting to preserve their own unique identities, neighboring communities like Pleasant Hill and Clayton voted to incorporate as separate cities so they wouldn’t be annexed by Concord.

City manager oversees growth

As Concord grew, people needed places to shop, more schools, parks and things to do. Farrel A. “Bud” Stewart, city manager from 1960 to 1986, guided the city through this period of incredible growth.

The library, which had been housed in Todos Santos Plaza since 1917, was moved to a new building at Parkside and Salvio in 1958. Park & Shop became the first ­shopping center in the late 1950s, followed by many others located closer to the new housing developments.

Twenty-six schools were built between 1949 and 1959. The city set aside land for parks and recreation areas, and Camp Concord in Lake Tahoe was established to give kids something to do in the summer.

In this era, Concord was a friendly, family-oriented bedroom community. Boy and Girl Scout troops and Little League flourished. Major League Baseball player Tom Candiotti got his start in Concord’s American Little League. The Concord Blue Devils started in 1957 as an all-boys drum corps and all-girls marching team, achieving national attention. The Pow-Wow Parade held in August drew as many as 30,000 people to see floats, the drum and bugle corps, horses and men in feathered headdresses. The Concord Horseman’s Parade was another annual event.

More business opportunities

As Concord’s leadership transitioned from farmers to businessmen, city leaders saw the need to attract more businesses to sustain economic health and provide services that residents needed. One of the first large businesses to come to Concord was Systron-Donner Corp., an electronics company, in 1965. In 1970, Standard Oil Co., which later became Chevron, was the largest employer in Concord.
Sun Valley Mall opened in the late 1960s, establishing Concord as an important destination for shopping. With the growth in shopping areas, the original downtown began to deteriorate. Even so, in the heart of downtown, the plaza remained the pride of Concord. In the 1960s, the city council officially named the square Todos Santos Plaza. Redevelopment of the downtown area would become a priority in the decade to follow.

This series includes details from three books on Concord history: “Images of America: Concord” by Joel A. Harris, “History of Concord: Its Progress and Promise” by Edna May Andrews and “Concord’s Dynamic Half Century: The Years Since World War II” by Lura Dymond.