From the natural elements to atomic elements, the history of Livermore is about the land and the people who have lived, worked, created, and made a difference in the Livermore Valley and the world beyond. The natural elements of the land supported the Native Americans, then later the first settlers who raised cattle and planted the first vineyards, along the way creating the foundation for what Livermore is today. In the 21st Century Livermore enjoys a worldwide reputation for ingenuity and discovery as the home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Sandia National Laboratory; the city even has an element named after it on the Periodic Table of Elements!
Livermore’s First Residents
The original residents of Livermore were once part of the largest concentrations of Native Americans in North America. Going back four thousand years, people known as the Ohlone (or Costanoans) thrived in the Livermore, San Ramon, and Amador valleys. The region had ample water and food, including elk, grizzly bears, cougars, coyotes, many birds, and fish, as well as oak trees, sycamores, buckeyes, and other nourishing vegetation.
The Spaniards and Missions
The Spanish came to the area in 1722, bringing massive change. The Catholic padres founded Mission San Jose on June 11, 1797, which in turn led to the aggressive indoctrination of the Ohlone into mission life. The local valleys became pasture for cattle, which were used mainly for the lucrative tallow business. The missionaries were the first to plant wine grapes in the Livermore Valley, making it California’s oldest wine region. After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the mission’s lands were split into ranchos.
The First Livermore
In 1839, Robert Livermore and Jose Noriega secured a land grant for Rancho Las Positas, meaning “little watering holes”, which encompasses most of today’s Livermore. Livermore was a British citizen who jumped from a British merchant sailing ship in Monterey in 1822, becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen just a year later. He worked as a ranch foreman for many years, and in 1838 he married a widow, Maria Josefa de Jesus Higuera.
In 1840, with Rancho Las Positas secured, Livermore and Higuera settled in the Livermore Valley, in an adobe on Las Positas Creek. Like the padres before him, Livermore used his land for grazing cattle and horses, but he also developed interests in viticulture and horticulture. In 1846 he was the first person to plant commercial vineyards, as well as orchards of pears and olives.
Livermore’s Gold Rush Days
With the historic discovery of gold in the Sierra Foothills in 1848, the Livermore Valley and Robert Livermore were in a unique and fortuitous position. Thousands of people from all over the world bent on becoming rich were funneled from San Francisco right through the valley and over the Altamont Pass—the gateway to the Central Valley—to reach the gold fields beyond to the east. Robert Livermore’s rancho was about a day’s worth of travel from both San Francisco and San Jose, making it a popular rest stop for prospectors and business people on their way to Sacramento and the Sierras. Livermore played host and capitalized on the frequent guests by selling them longhorn cattle as food.
In 1849, Livermore used his profits to purchase what is believed to be the valley’s first wooden structure, a two-story home for his family. The house was created on the east coast, then sent disassembled on a ship for approximately 18,000 miles around Cape Horn.
The Town of Livermore is Born
Robert Livermore died in 1858, but his legacy as a friendly host lived on. A soldier in John C. Fremont’s Californian Battalion who Livermore greeted in 1846, William Mendenhall, returned to the bucolic valley and established the town of Livermore in 1869. An official U.S. post office opened in the new town that same year, and the Western Pacific Railroad built a connection between Oakland and Sacramento, with a stop right in Livermore.
Once a tiny ranch town, the railroad brought rapid growth to Livermore. New schools, churches, hotels, a bank, a library, a fire company, and a police department were established by 1876, the year the town was officially incorporated by the State of California. The police department was the San Francisco Bay Area’s second such agency, after the city of San Francisco.
Over the next 14 years Livermore continued to grow as an important business center, with the creation of expansive vineyards and wineries, and a large brick factory. A telephone line came to the valley in 1886, and electric lights were introduced by 1889. Also in 1889, a wine from Livermore won America’s first gold medal for wine at the Paris Exposition, drawing worldwide attention. By 1890 the town had more than 20 miles of streets.
Bright Ideas Light Up Livermore
In 1901 a hand-blown light bulb from the Shelby Electric Company was installed at one of Livermore’s firehouses, and was still in use in 2013, at 112 years old. The “Centennial Bulb” was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records more than once as the oldest known working light bulb, and was featured in numerous articles, books, and TV shows, including the popular Mythbusters. Carefully transferred to different firehouses over the years, the bulb now resides at Fire Station #6, at 4550 East Ave. The bulb has burned continuously since 1976, hooked up to its own power source.
Learning was an important value since the start of the city, with multiple schools and institutes established from the 1860s on. In 1878 the Livermore Public Library Association was established, and the first official public library was realized in 1901. In 1908 the library applied and won a $10,000 grant through the Carnegie Library donated by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The library was built in 1909, and opened in 1910. Today the Classical Revival building is home to the Livermore Heritage Guild History Center, located at the center of Carnegie Park.
World War II Brings New Elements to Livermore
Livermore’s existence as a farming and ranch community was destined to change with the U.S. government’s purchase of 692 acres of land in 1942. The one-time ranch became the Livermore Naval Air Station, where Navy pilots were trained for fighting in World War II. The base was decommissioned in 1946 after the war’s end, but remained a government property.
In 1951, the land was formally transferred from the Navy to the Atomic Energy Commission, and in 1952, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was born. The new lab, run by the University of California, was named in part after famed physicist Ernest O. Lawrence. In 1956 Sandia National Laboratories opened its California campus across East Avenue from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, also on government property. Today both laboratories are the largest employers in the city, with the Lawrence Livermore lab employing more than 6,500 people, and the Sandia lab employing more than 1,000.
In 2012, Livermore was named after a new element on the Periodic Table of Elements by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Livermorium (Lv, atomic number 116) is a synthetic super-heavy element. The IUPAC chose to name the element after Livermore to honor the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the contributions of the scientists there to heavy and super-heavy element research. Only two cities in the U.S. have elements named after them, Livermore and Berkeley.
Livermore as the Hub of Innovation
Livermore continues to be a hub of innovation. In fact, the State of California recently designated a unique public-private regional partnership located in Livermore as an “iHub”. The partnership, called the i-GATE (Innovation for Green Advanced Transportation Excellence) National Energy Systems Technology (NEST) Incubator, was created to foster new technology companies and the creation of jobs in clean energy, green transportation, and high performance computing.