Bay to Lake: A Failed 1940s Plan Would Have Turned

San Francisco Bay Into Two Lakes by June Morrall

In the early 1940s Redwood City resident Francis G. Hutchinson attended a meeting that featured John Reber, “the man who wanted to remodel San Francisco Bay.”

As Hutchinson listened closely, the author of the controversial “Reber Plan” explained how his “super-colossal” job of geographic re-configuration would effect the Peninsula.

Standing before a small audience in a Sequoia High School classroom, John Reber, a retired actor, pointed at detailed maps and charts, rendered by the eminent San Francisco structural engineer, L.H. Nishkian.

Exuding the polish of a “dignified politician,” Reber described building earth-and-rock-filled dams at the northern and southern ends of San Francisco Bay which would create two huge freshwater lakes, connected by a freshwater ship channel. As causeways, these dams would carry as many as 32 lanes of automobile traffic, as well as railroad tracks.

If his plan became reality, Reber said, it would in part stop saltwater encroachment on agricultural lands, thus creating new valuable urban property. Under the plan, San Francisco International Airport would find a new location at Treasure Island.

Reber was passionate on the subject and made his plan sound like a resort atmosphere, a “little old paradise,” remembered Hutchinson, a former high school principal and chairman of the Redwood City Public Library’s Archives Committee.

The Reber Plan included well located piers, fishing facilities and boating on the freshwater lake.

For Hutchinson, Reber’s plan triggered memories of the failure of Pacific City, a short-lived amusement park erected at Coyote Point in the 1920s. He was a small child when he attended opening day ceremonies there, dazzled by the concession booths, dance hall and newly created sandy beach along the Bay’s salt flats.

One of about 30 people, drawan by curiosity to hear John Reber’s presentation, Hutchinson remained cool to it as there seemed to be too many defects in the plan.

Some experts said that for the Reber Plan to work, all sewage disposal into the Bay would have to stop and that even with sewage eliminated, it would take seven years for the salt and filth to be washed out. More importantly, with creeks and streamlets running into the Bay, where would sufficient water come from for the freshwater lake? Water had to come from somewhere, and it had to be other than rainfall.

Reber remained undaunted by the criticism.

Born in Ohio in the 1880s, John Reber migrated to the West Coast, settling for a short time in Los Angeles. He sailed north into San Francisoc Bay aboard a sloop in 1907.

That was one year after the devastating San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, a time when men of talent and means talked of re-building the city. Some of the proposals concentrated on making San Francisco more beautiful with flowers and trees planted along broad thoroughfares–but not all the plans were financially feasible.

The wealthy James Phelan, a former San Francisco mayor, retained famous landscape architect Daniel Burnham to draw up new street plans but they were never implemented.

Around the same time, Burnham’s firm created a unique street grid for Granada, the Ocean Shore Railroad’s showplace town located on the San Mateo County Coastside.

Surely Reber became infected with ideas for a new, post-earthquake San Francisco. Perhaps his view was oblique–for as soon as Reber sailed through the Golden Gate, he began to complain about San Francisco Bay.

The Bay was a “geographical blunder,” he said, because the fingers stretching north and south were kept forever salty. To anyone who would listen or so went the story, Reber talked about the geography that nature got all wrong. He became known as “the man with the big gripe.”

Reber established an important relationship with eminent San Francisco structural engineer L.H. Nishkian. Credited with significant accomplishments, including many Bank of America branch buildings, as well as the million-square-foot Merchandise Furniture Mart in San Francisco, Nishkian earned a sterling reputation as an “ace construction engineer.”

A graduate of the University of California’s “earthquake class,” Nishkian also performed structural work for San Francisco’s Castro Theater, and, in Los Angeles, the Loews Warfield Theater.

“I don’t know how my grandfather met John Reber,” Levon Nishkian, told me, “but he did all of Reber’s work pretty much for free. [In the late 1990s when this story was written, Levon Nishkian, a structural engineer, headed up Nishkian & Associates in San Francisco.

Nishkian is responsible for the structural engineering for software giant Oracle’s Redwood Shore’s headquarters.

An avid fisherman, he speculates that the Reber Plan would be “devastating to the environment” in the South Bay. The salinity in the water is too high, Nishkian said, further explaining that “there’s not that much freshwater influence in the South Bay and they would have to figure out how to get the salt water out of there.”

On the other hand, a freshwater lake in the North Bay looked more positive to Levon Nishkian, who believed “the fishing would be great there.”

John Reber’s unorthodox views were not confined to San Francisco Bay. He also found it ludicrous–for example, that the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, received credit for having connected the east and west coasts. In his view, Oakland, the railroad’s western terminal, fell four miles short of the mark. Reber often viewed circumstances through his own lens.

Although we do not know how the chronology of his plan evolved, we do know that even during his brief acting career, Reber kept sets of “the plan” with him at all times. That meant backstage, as well, for Reber helped put on productions for service groups such as the Elks.

“Reber earned his living producing amateur theatrics throughout the West, using local folks while he raised money for their favorite charity,” Francis Hutchinson said. Reber also wrote musicals which he titled “Pep,” “Collegians,” “Aha” and “Who’s Who.”

At one of these productions earlier in his career, John Reber met his future bridge, singer Jane Gallagher, who supported his lifelong dedication to the “Reber Plan.” There wasn’t much money in the field Reber had chosen–and he and his wife barely made ends meet.

At another musical production, a California congressman walked backstage and told John he wanted to take him to Palo Alto to meet former President Herbert Hoover. Reber often told friends that Hoover, an engineer himself, liked the Reber Plan. Hoover, who had just lost his 1932 presidential re-election bid, never followed up on his interest.

During his quarter-century involvement in amateur theater, Reber claimed he got to know 15,000 Northern Californians. He dubbed himself “the stage manager for San Francisco Bay, the greatest pageant on Earth.”

By 1940, at the outset of WWII, John Reber, who had been a corporal in WWI extended his reputation to the military. By then both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge had been constructed and some experts said these structures were vulnerable military targets that would be expensive to replace.

Reber’s dams, carrying multiple lanes of automobile and railroad traffic, would be more difficult to destroy and cheaper to rebuild.

At the meeting attended by Francis Hutchinson at Sequoia High School in the early 1940s, John Reber told the group his research of the Ohio and Mississippi River flood control projects contributedto his refinement of the Reber Plan. The dams in San Francisco Bay, he noted, would be equipped with spillways for flood control.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Reber Plan received its most serious hearing. The future development of the Bay had long been in conflict. World War II was a benchmark event as war factories lured thousands of new Bay Area residents, GIs who had returned from the war, created an unparalleled demand for housing and services. Few limits or restrictions were imposed on developers.

As land values skyrocketed, especially near the airport, author Alan Hynding pointed out in his book, “From Frontier to Suburbia [1982], that builders turned to tidelands and underwater property to fill sites for homes and businesses.

Alan Hynding blamed “careless legislation dating from the 1900s for tens of thousands of acres of Bay Area tidelands that had been sold for practically nothing to speculators and corporations.” What we would today call environmentalism had a small voice at the time.

Hynding was not friendly to the Reber Plan, which he called “appalling.” In his view, John Reber “concocted a scheme to dry up most of the Bay for building sites and to turn the rest of it into a freshwater lake by erecting a series of transbay dams and canals.”

While the Reber Plan attracted a great deal of attention, it received little official support and was rejected in a local referenda in 1942, according to Hynding.

In spite of these disappointments, John Reber remained undiscouraged.

Prompted by a $2 million appropriation in the 1950 Rivers and Harbors Bill to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to begin a survey of the best way to remodel San Francisco Bay, the “Saturday Evening Post” did a feature story on John Reber, the man and his plan, which was then also known as the “San Francisco Bay Plan.”

Although he was dealt with as a curiosity, his epic plan for creating two huge freshwater lakes at the northern and southern ends of San Francisco Bay, including tubes, moles, piers, airports and a railroad center and industrial development, now attracted national attention.

The military warmed to Reber’s plan because in it they saw a way to defend San Francisco, as well as a way to evacuate it if hit by an atomic bomb, according to the “Saturday Evening Post” article.

Farmers and industrialists liked the plan because they saw an unlimited source of water in the two freshwater lakes which would be created out of four-fifths of the salty bay.

Transportation officials linked the potential of a 32-lane water-level speedway between San Francisco and the East Bay, with room for railroad tracks.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration believed the new location for the airport at Treasure Island served the best interests of airline passengers.

Finally, recreation experts envisioned incomparable beaches and boating facilities.

Levon Nishkian said tthat in 1956, nine years after his grandfather’s death, the Army Corps of Engineers built the San Francisco Bay Model, a scale mock-up of the Bay. One of their goals was to test the rock-and-earth-fill dams of the Reber Plan.

The tidal hydraulic model, also used to test the effects of oil spills, salt-water intrusion and pollutant dispersion, can be viewed at the San Francisco Bay Model Visitor Center, 2100 Bridgeway in Sausalito.

Francis Hutchinson echoed the sentiments of many critics when he observed that Reber’s plan was “misguided. How soon before we would have a freshwater lake for fishing and boating, and what impact would it have on our weather? The plan was unworkable.”

“We were intrigued by the Reber Plan,” David H. Keyston, Sr. told me. Keyston was the founder of Anza-Pacific Corp, developer of the Burlingame Bay front. “But we never gave it serious consideration because it could not be funded.

John Reber died at age 72 in 1960. He was a curious man and is much remembered for the decades he committed to selling the Reber Plan–as to the plan itself.