Oakland Needs To Stop Stealing Its Own History

Oakland, California doesn’t have the greatest reputation. Crime, failed redevelopment efforts, and petty politics all contribute to this.

That aside, I’ve been living in Oakland since 2008, and I really do enjoy it here. The weather is better than San Francisco. It has decent public transportation and freeway access. Not to mention, the cost of living is more reasonable than other areas around the Bay.

However, the way Oakland disregards its own history is really sad, as was recently seen by the theft of a monument to the USS Maine.

This story begins when Sara and I first began visiting Lakeside Park, near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. There are definitely nicer, better maintained parks in the area. But, they are a bit further away, making Lakeside a perfect destination for an afternoon walk.

On one of our first trips there, we spotted an odd looking object in the middle of an open green. We headed over for closer inspection.

The object appeared to be a monument of sorts.  It consisted of a  bulky, oval piece of metal resting upright on a concrete base. We searched it for any identification, and while we didn’t find any, we could see a plaque had once been mounted on the base. We joked that someone in Oakland had probably torn it off to sell as scrap metal – as tends to happen around here.

We would visit the monument several more times before I finally became curious and went in search of some information about it.

This would prove more difficult than I had initially thought. The monument had no text on it, nor was it clear what the metal piece was from. It might have been from an old factory, maybe a tank, or perhaps a ship. Oakland is a major port city after all.

After a few hours of searching the internet, I finally stumbled upon a page that mentioned the monument. Lakeside Park had a bronze torpedo port from the battleship USS Maine.

Now, the Maine is an important part of United States history. Its 1898 sinking in Havana harbor was one of the key events leading up to the Spanish-American War. Eventually, it would gain more notoriety for the questionable circumstances surrounding the sinking. Had Spain really done it or was it a United States conspiracy?

Image Courtesy of Harry S. Yaglijian

On learning its identity, I felt a bit sad for the neglected monument. Here was a piece of history encountered by people every day. Yet, because it had no plaque, few knew what it was or the story behind it. Devoid of any meaning, it became just an object for children to play on.

I thought to print out a piece of paper with a description, laminate it, and attach it to the base. Though, I never did.

Fast forward a few years to the spring of 2011. Sara and I were taking a walk through Lakeside Park and noticed that the monument was missing. The base was still there, though it was surrounded by cones and police tape. We hoped that they were in the midst of restoring it.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth. We soon came to learn that a thief had somehow stolen it. That’s right. Someone brought a truck into the park, loaded up the one ton piece from the Maine, and drove off with it. The goal, not surprisingly, was to sell it to a local scrap recycler. Thankfully, a person working there knew of the theft, called police, and the artifact was returned.

It’s unfortunate to think that Oakland has neglected its history to the point that people value it for nothing more than the material it is made from.

The final twist in the story comes from the city itself. Now that the monument has been recovered, there are no plans to restore and rededicate it in Lakeside Park. Rather, it may be put on display in the Veterans Memorial Building a block away. While this would certainly be more secure, taking the monument from public view seems like a form of theft as well.

Monuments, like this piece from the USS Maine, were meant to be enjoyed by everyone. They enhance our public spaces, educate us about the past, and help us to better connect with history.

Let’s Remember the Maine and put it back in Lakeside Park.


  1. Although I believe theft of historical objects is rare, the disregard or ignorance of objects on display in parks or cemeteries is common. Teaching my Rev. War class to retirees at Messiah Village yesterday, I covered the Battle of Monmouth. We live close to Carlisle, so I told the story of Maria Ludwig Hays, Molly Pitcher, and asked how many had ever been to her gravesite and the memorial to her in the Old Carlisle graveyard. ONE person out of 40 raised a hand. And, nearby Maria lies William Thompson, his grave topped by a 7 foot Celtic cross. William Thompson was the first Colonel in the newly formed American army, commissioned in June, 1775 the day after George Washington was appointed Commander in Chief of the army. When asked who knew anything about Thompson, not one person responded positively. Sad! AND, so glad that I now know the story of the Maine monument in Oakland. Yes, remember the Maine and Molly Pitcher and William Thompson!

    1. Thanks for the story, Dad. I think a lot of people have this perception that history of any kind was “a long time ago” and therefore doesn’t matter too much today. To some degree that’s true. There often isn’t much the past can show us about iPhones, etc. But, I do think that because history shows us how we got to where we are today, it is useful for informing how current events might play out.

      Here’s a link about Thompson. Not sure how good the information is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Thompson_%28general%29

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