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  • UC conceived in 1853 in Nevada City

    A meeting of the minds led to the creation of state university system

    Steve Cottrell




    In May 1853, in a wood-frame Congregational Church on a lot where the Baptist Church is now located on Main Street, a handful of Congregational and Presbyterian ministers gathered in Nevada City for a convention. Before adjourning, they unanimously resolved that a public university should be established in the new State of California.


    Henry Durant, a Congregational minister who attended the Nevada City session, took the resolution to heart and soon opened Durant’s Academy, a boy’s high 

    school in Oakland. 

    The school was soon renamed Contra Costa Academy and, in April 1855, chartered as the College of California. Two years later, after deciding to expand and relocate the campus to the northern edge of Oakland, the college began acquiring several large, contiguous parcels.

    On April 16, 1860, trustees of the College of California met at what is now called Founders’ Rock (at the corner of present-day Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road in Berkeley) to inspect and dedicate the school’s future campus. And when Trustee Frederick Billings looked west toward the Golden Gate that day and referenced a 1726 poem by George Berkeley containing the line, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” a new town was born.

    In 1867, after acquiring several hundred acres, the College of California donated its downtown Oakland buildings, furnishings and real estate to the State of California – provided the state established a full-curriculum public university on the college’s newly-acquired property in Berkeley. 

    Culmination of the goal set in Nevada City in 1853 was finally realized when the University of California was founded in March 1868 with Henry Durant as its first president.

    Classes continued to be taught at the Oakland campus, but in 1873 the first graduating class (12 men) received diplomas in ceremonies held at Berkeley.

    When the university’s charter was written in 1868, trustees affirmed that all past graduates of the College of California were to “rank in all respects” as graduates of the University of California. Without a doubt, then, what happened here in May 1853 was the beginning of a 15-year gestation period, and Henry Durant was at the helm from the day of conception until the university’s birth.

    Although not present at the 1853 meeting of clergymen in Nevada City, 29-year-old Martin Kellogg arrived in Nevada County in 1857. After graduating valedictorian of his 1850 Yale class and attending Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he was ordained and sent to California as a missionary pastor assigned to the Grass Valley Congregational Church. 

    In 1860, however, Henry Durant convinced Kellogg to join the College of California faculty. Then, in 1868, when the University of California was established and Durant named president, Kellogg was appointed professor of Latin and Greek. Two years later, he was appointed Dean of the Academic Senate – second-in-command to university president Durant.

    Durant remained president until 1872 and was mayor of Oakland when he died in 1875.

    Professor Kellogg continued to teach classic languages at the university and in January 1893 was named president, serving until 1899. It was during Kellogg’s presidency that Phoebe Hearst, widow of former Nevada City miner George Hearst, funded an international search that led to a comprehensive architectural plan for the campus.

    Following his retirement, Kellogg and his wife made a trip around the world before returning to their Berkeley home. The former Grass Valley pastor was then appointed Professor Emeritus of Latin and taught at the university until shortly before his death in the summer of 1903.

    Benjamin Ide Wheeler, (1854-1927), who succeeded Kellogg as president of the university, said, “From the very beginning of the university in the form of the little college in Oakland, (Kellogg) was more intimately connected with the full life of the institution than any other man.”

    Fellow Congregational pastors Henry Durant (1802-1875) and Martin Kellogg (1828-1903) are buried at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

    Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevada citymayor@gmail.com.

    About the photo:  

    Martin Kellogg became pastor of the Grass Valley Congregational Church in 1857 and served as president of the  University of California from 1893 to 1899.