Vintage Views: Mount Diablo – The Great Sun-Dial

Nineteenth century appreciators trended toward the baroque when describing (or illustrating) Mount Diablo, dipping their quills in an ink mixed with equal parts of the fantastical, grandiloquent, and flamboyant to put to paper prose and pencil-lines overly purple in their embellishment. Viewed from certain vantages around the bay area, Mount Diablo’s bulk can loom over the landscape, while from others its settles into the skyline. But it is in those former instances, when the peak puffs out its chest against a cerulean sky braided with clouds, that we can best appreciate our neighborhood mountain.


In this 1878 engraving by F.S. King, one of many vintage images of Mount Diablo I’ve collected over the last few years in association with my wife and my Vintage Views: Mount Diablo project, author Benjamin Parke Avery celebrates Mount Diablo as a “great sun-dial” and a “spectre” that “looms up in the perspective of every view in all directions around it”:

Behind the Alameda hills rises the double cone of Monte Diablo, very near to the view, but separated from the hills named by the San Ramon Valley, and distant from the city easterly about thirty miles. This peak is three thousand eight hundred and fifty-six feet high. Rising from the centre of a wide basin which runs into the great valley of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and being the most elevated spot in this region, Monte Diablo looms up in the perspective of every view in all directions around it, and is one of the most familiar landmarks to the citizen of San Francisco, who sees it daily and almost hourly. Its dark blue mass lords it nobly over the brown hills of Alameda, and when it takes on its snowy cap for a few days in the rainy season it is more peculiarly prominent. It is a great sun-dial, for the stages of the coming or going day are marked in bands of shifting color upon its top. Around its base, fertile valleys swell to meet its foot-hills as if they would embrace it, and hold a score of thrifty towns. From its summit one of the most extensive and beautiful views in the Union can be obtained. The great plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, stretching from the northeast to southwest nearly three hundred and fifty miles; the rivers of the same names winding their yellow currents from north and south, meeting at the head of the upper bay; the vast bulk of the Sierra Nevada with its snowy crest, along the eastern sky, from Lassen’s Peak at one extremity to Mount Whitney at another; the isolated ” Buttes ” of Marysville in the centre of the Sacramento Valley; the line of the Coast Range from Mount St. Helena on the north, to Mount Hamilton, four thousand four hundred feet high, at the south, broken into lesser spurs around the bay; the whole scenery of the bay itself, the city, the Golden Gate, the ocean beyond, — all this magnificent panorama, in clear weather, lies spread out before the spectator on the summit of Diablo. The area included within the bounds of this view is probably not less, according to Professor Whitney, than forty thousand square miles; adding what can be seen of the ocean it is much more. It might well have been on such a commanding height as this that the enemy of mankind tempted the Saviour; and an early Spanish legend, to which the mountain owes its name, actually located here a terrifying appearance of the devil to a party of explorers. This legend would seem to indicate a belief that the mountain is of volcanic origin, as it has been said to be by some writers; but it is simply a grand mass of metamorphic sand- stone, flanked by jasper, shales, and slates, with limited coal-beds at its base and deposits of cretaceous fossils. The gap between the two peaks is eight hundred feet deep, and the north peak is nearly three hundred feet lower than its companion. From certain points of view the two peaks are brought into line and have the effect of a single perfect cone. Seen from the upper bay or river, the mountain seems to rise in this shape directly from the water’s edge, and is very imposing in its near bulk. The ascent of it from any quarter, with the ever expanding outlooks revealed, is full of picturesque charm. The nearer scenery of the foot-hills and lower flanks — embracing Graceful wavelets of harvest-land, melting into level spaces, deep gorges filled with ever- green growths, sandstone cliffs weathered into fantastic forms, and bits of charming brooks and grassy springs — is itself a treat to the lover of nature. Sunrise and sunset are the best hours for visiting the summit. At the former, the air is clearest, and one gets the widest view, besides the glorious spectacle of the great round orb flashing up above the crest of the Sierra, bringing its highest peaks of snow into sharp relief. The shadow of the peak is thrown in a pyramidal form over the whole country to the west, across the Alameda hills, the bay and peninsula of San Francisco, and into the ocean beyond, forty miles in length, — a dark bluish triangle of shade that shortens slowly as the sun rises higher and higher, that withdraws by almost imperceptible degrees from the ocean, from the peninsula and bay, from the Alameda range and San Ramon Valley, up the flanks of Diablo himself, and there at last quite disappears. At evening this spectre of the peak is reversed, falling over the San Joaquin Valley, up the Sierra, and even into the sky, at first gradually lengthening as the sun sinks lower in the west, and then losing itself in the general twilight and darkness of his disappearance. Looking seaward then, we observe the myriad lights of the city, if no fog obscures them, and on the distant Farallone Islands the flashing of the beacon set to warn mariners.

Other picturesque views of Mount Diablo and greater California that we’ve collected on behalf of the Vintage Views project are available through the (bio)accumulation Etsy storefront.

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