How Contra Costa Marked the Armistice
From the May 2017 Martinez Historical Society Newsletter.
Editor’s note: This month we celebrate Memorial Day, the federal holiday on which the United States honors those who died while serving in our armed forces. In that light we’re including this article about Contra Costa’s Soldiers’ Monument, which honors veterans of World War I and was dedicated shortly after Veterans Day in 1927. (The article includes excerpts from Nilda Rego’s columns in the Nov. 8, 1987 and Nov. 18, 2007 Contra Costa Times and from the July 22, 1988 Oakland Tribune.)
It was 1919. The war to end all wars had been over for a year and throughout the nation, efforts were under way to honor the veterans of World War I. In Martinez, City fathers talked about a memorial for the “soldiers of this city who fell on the battlefields of France.” It was going to be a park at the waterfront. There would be an auditorium and a swimming pool. Seventy-five members of the American Legion listened to W. R. Sharkey tell them all about it at City Hall on November 6, 1919. Two days later, Martinez American Legion members started decorating a local hall. It took them two days. They were sponsoring the first of many annual Armistice Day dances.
Two years later, the memorial at the waterfront was no longer discussed. Instead, City fathers held an annual Armistice Day parade featuring veterans of three wars: WWI, the Spanish-American War and the Civil War.
Monuments to commemorate the soldiers of WWI were erected in almost every American town, big or small, in the 1920s. Contra Costa County Sheriff Richard R. Veale’s son Mortimer had enlisted in the Navy and returned home from the war safely. As a result Sheriff Veale became obsessed with the Soldiers’ Monument project. This involved placing a monument at the intersection of two major highways: the Victory Highway (later named Monument Boulevard), which stretched from California to Utah; and the Memorial Highway (later called Contra Costa Boulevard), which connected Martinez to Dublin.
According to local historian Nilda Rego, Veale “coaxed, pestered and even intimidated friends, foes and political allies for money, materials and labor to build the memorial.” Once the monument was completed, his next mission was to plan the dedication ceremonies.
Veale had hoped the monument could be completed by Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day) 1927, and this was anticipated in the October 20, 1927 Contra Costa Gazette with the headline “Towering Pile of Masonry Honors War Dead.” The article continued, “The monument is the brainchild of Sheriff R. R. Veale, who far back in 1922 conceived the memorial plan and during the intervening five years has labored early and late to enlist the interest and substantial financial support of Contra Costa industries and citizens.”
Dedication of the monument was held December 11, 1927 after the long struggle led by Veale to collect the $35,000 needed to build it. He attended to every detail and even arranged to have the attendees park in an undeveloped area on Jim Hook’s property, then called Hookston Junction. (Veale promised Mr. Hook that his family would be recognized for this service and indeed, the name “Hook” is prominent on the bronze donor list on the monument.)
Sheriff Veale had also “borrowed” two surplus cannons from Mare Island for the dedication and invited the governor of California, C. C. Young. Governor Young sent his regrets that he could not attend this event in “San Joaquin County” and received this reply from Sheriff Veale:
“My Dear Governor:
…This monument will be dedicated in Contra Costa County, the County where I have been Sheriff for so many years. Now Governor, no doubt you do not realize what this monument is. There are seven tons of steel in it; twelve hundred sacks of cement; several cars of sand, gravel, etc. and it takes fourteen thousand feet of lumber for the forms and we are building it by donation, and it has been my hobby.
Your name, as Governor, heads the list on the bronze plaque, and I think you could at least find time to be there…”
About three thousand people showed up for the dedication, but not the governor. He sent the lieutenant governor instead.
Twenty-six years later, the state highway department proposed to raze the Soldiers’ Monument in order to construct a freeway. County veterans protested in force. In May of 1954, a 40-wheel truck carried the 150-ton monument to a new location a thousand feet south of the intersection of Boyd Road and what was called Highway 21. Only two hundred people showed up when the monument was rededicated at its new site.
Thirty-two years later, the monument had to be moved again to make room for an even bigger highway, Interstate 680.
The monument survived a 1980 plan to build a restaurant on its latest site and remains intact, though largely ignored, beside the southbound onramp to Interstate 680 at Contra Costa Boulevard in Pleasant Hill.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160