During the 1960s, young people from all over the country flooded into a small village tucked behind the Oakland hills amidst a grove of towering redwoods. Some of them just came to party, but many sought to build an alternative to what they saw as the violence and reckless consumerism of mainstream society. In the forest, they built psychedelic cabins out of scavenged materials and taught each other how to garden, sew, raise chickens and goats, play music, bake bread, and much more.
By the end of the decade, this hippie enclave faced several major threats: a crackdown by local government agencies and – even more terrifying – a catastrophic explosion that killed a man and left several of the town’s most important structures in smoldering ruins.
Despite the devastating verdict, Canyon’s struggle to exist continued. (Image courtesy of Mark Harrigan)
This episode explores Canyon’s fight for survival… and why it was worth saving. Featuring interviews with: Christina Bernard, Ed Johnson, Karen Pickett, Deva Rajan, Vicki Saputo, Esperanza Pratt Surls, and also an archival interview with George Menge, conducted about two decades ago by Roberta Llewellyn. Big thank you to
Digital Roots Studio for digitizing the audio cassette. ( If you missed part 1 of this mini-series, here’s a link to the first episode.)
While EBMUD was destroying houses in Canyon, residents were building new ones – that were harder for water company officials to find. (Photo: Christopher P. Bisiar)
George Menge (seen here in 1942) was wary when countercultural elements started moving to Canyon in the early 1960s, but after getting to know them “several of the hippies became close friends of mine.” (Photo courtesy of Juanita Harrigan)
“I learned to love everybody… that wasn’t just a saying.” -George Menge, 1917-2002
Canyon resident Christina Bernard was less than a mile away when an explosion nearly destroyed Canyon. “I thought it was an atomic bomb,” she recalled. (Image courtesy of Mark Harrigan)
Shell employee Earl Davis was inside a phone booth when gas from the ruptured pipeline caught fire and engulfed him in flames. Canyon residents came to his aid, but he succumbed to the injuries four days later. (Image via Oakland History Room newspaper clip files)
The San Leandro Creek, 50 years after an attack on a fuel pipeline set the stream ablaze. (Photo: Eric Peterson / @Epocenter on Instagram)
Ed Johnson and Karen Pickett constructing one of Canyon’s “handmade homes” with scavenged materials. (Photo: Christopher P. Bisiar)
Canyon was celebrated by countercultural magazines, such as Ramparts and Rolling Stone, which featured this image in its May 14, 1970 issue.
Living in a house made of old windows is one way of connecting with nature. This structure no longer exists. (Photo courtesy of Karen Pickett)
Canyon hosted several fundraiser concerts in the redwood grove to pay for legal fees during the campaign to resist mass eviction. (Image courtesy of Mark Harrigan)
There aren’t as many geodesic domes in Canyon now as there were during the 1960s, but several still exist, including this spectacular example. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Pratt Surls)
Canyon resident Deva Rajan’s top-floor living room was open to the elements for several years until he finally got tired of removing leaves and fending off wild raccoons. Despite the addition of windows, sitting inside still feels like floating in an oak canopy. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
Deva Rajan’s wood-burning stove was originally an ocean buoy that he purchased from the Navy for five dollars. Other reclaimed materials in his home include: beams from a nearby railroad trestle, maple floor boards pulled out of Oakland High School’s old gymnasium, and redwood pilings removed from Mendocino’s harbor because of damage from wood-burrowing teredo worms. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
Painting of Canyon School by Esperanza Pratt Surls, who attended the school as a child and returned as a teacher for many years. Deva Rajan and George Menge were two of the many Canyon residents who volunteered their time to help construct the town’s school. As one of the only non-residential structures in Canyon, the school’s gym serves as a gathering place for many purposes.
Poster created by Jeanne Lorenz to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Canyon school.
This dome-like structure in the school’s courtyard was constructed by Canyon residents and has served as a stage for countless performances and ceremonies over the past five decades. (Photo: Elizabeth Sy)
Roberta Llewellyn (far right) seen here at a Canyon gathering circa 1970s. Many years later, Roberta collected oral histories of Canyon residents, including the interview with George Menge heard in this episode. Roberta’s most recent novel, “ Manzanita” is a generations-spanning tale of life in the East Bay and Northern California. (Photo: Christopher P. Bisiar)
This episode of the “Deep in Canyon” miniseries is dedicated to the memories of George Menge (seen here), Barry Smith, and all the other people who devoted their lives to building and defending Canyon. (Photo courtesy of Juanita Harrigan)
Lingering remnants from earlier eras still remain hidden amongst the thick forest. (Photo: Eric Peterson / @Epocenter)
If you enjoy the episode, please support East Bay Yesterday: www.patreon.com/eastbayyesterday
"It wasn't utopia... it was real."