Epiphany on Founders' Rock

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Some use them for inspiration, others use them as as screensavers - the College of California trustees even used one in 1866 in naming the prospective site for their first university. After much contemplation as to what to name the city of Berkeley, the trustees turned to a quote.

Berkeley is not named after a tree or a flower or a past president, but rather after Bishop George Berkeley of Cloyne, Ireland whose quote, now plastered all over Berkeley history books, grabbed the trustees' attention.

As most students learn on campus tours, UC Berkeley was originally the College of California in Oakland until 1868 when it was chartered the University of California and moved to a new site.

Frederick Billings, one of the first trustees, is accredited with naming Berkeley. As the story goes, in May of 1866 he, along with other trustees, was standing on Founders' Rock gazing at the bay, when the view inspired Billings to recite Berkeley's poem.

"Westward the course of empire takes its way, the first four acts already passed, a fifth shall close the drama of the day, Time's noblest offspring is the last," he read from the poem.

This, the last line of the poem, prompted the trustees to name the site of the college after the author.

"I think one of them yelled out, 'Who wrote that?'" says Richard Schwartz, author of Berkeley 1900 and local historian. "That was the line that got them. That's what they went with - a gut reaction."

While some say this story is only fiction, John Stansfield, an assistant archivist at the Berkeley Historic Society, agrees with Schwartz.

"One of the gentlemen was musing and quoted this line from Berkeley and said, 'That's great - let's name it Berkeley,'" Stansfield says.

The author of the acclaimed quote, George Berkeley, is of English descent but was born in Ireland. In 1726, he came to the United States to raise money for an educational institution he was planning to establish in Bermuda. Berkeley reached Newport, Rhode Island in 1729 but never succeeded in founding the university.

"He was a great thinker, and a very learned, scholarly man," says Holliday Cullimore, a reference specialist at the Doe library.

It was Berkeley who introduced the famous question of whether a tree makes any noise if it falls in a forest where no one can hear it. Berkeley, an empiricist, denied that any matter exists except by being perceived.

Stansfield notes that Berkeley's proposed college was meant for the Native Americans who inhabited the East Coast.

"He was an educator - he wanted to bring education to the natives of the colonies," says Stansfield.

While Schwartz believes that the only reason Berkeley is known here is for his poem, Stansfield thinks otherwise.

"(It was) a tribute to him and to his poetry and to his concept of educating people," Stansfield says.

In his Charter Day address at UC Berkeley in 1917, Professor George Palmer noted how the bishop embodied the university's ideals.

"It was once seen that this name precisely expressed the ideals which they desired for their new city," Palmer said. "They meant that this place should be consecrated to thoughtful study, to public spirit, to the enthusiasm of humanity."

Before inspiration struck Billings, his fellow trustees had difficulty finding a name for the city.

"As to the name of the site, we all worked away at it," Billings wrote in a letter to President Daniel Gilman in 1873. "Berkeley came to me as a sort of inspiration, and I knew it was the name, proposed it, and they all saw its fitness."

Although Billings named Berkeley that day on Founders' Rock, the trustees did not approve the name until a meeting in San Francisco on May 24, 1866.

Berkeley's street names are also named after scholarly men of the 18th and 19th centuries. In mapping out the city, the trustees decided to name the streets running North to South alphabetically after male American scientists and the ways running East to West alphabetically after American "men of letters."

College Avenue was once called Audubon, named after John Audubon, author of "The Birds of America" and for whom the National Audubon Society was named. Bowditch is named after Nathaniel Bowditch, an American navigator and mathematician. Telegraph Avenue, before the surge of street vendors and gutter punks, was called Choate after Rufus Choate, 19th century American lawyer.

Bancroft is named in honor of George Bancroft, often called the father of American history, while Channing is named after William Ellery Channing, a 19th century Unitarian minister and educator.

Shattuck Avenue, once called Guyot, was renamed after a pioneer settler who, according to Schwartz, was planning to travel to the Northeast until he saw Berkeley, was awe-struck by its beauty and decided to go no further.

Bishop Berkeley is known today as an "eminent philosopher and a patron of learning." Although Berkeley was not able to set up a university in Bermuda or in Newport, he helped establish many other Northeastern universities, including Kings College in New York, now Columbia University, and the College of Pennsylvania, now the University of Pennsylvania.

A New York City school is named in his memory, as is Cloyne School in Newport, Rhode Island, and Berkeley School in Bermuda.

Cloyne Court, the student co-op on Ridge Road, is also named after the bishop's birthplace.

"(He is) one of the most interesting figures in our literature," wrote Arthur James Balfour, British philosopher and statesman, in 1897. "(His writings) perpetuate his fame as one of the most admirable of English philosophers."

Billings, who moved to Woodstock, Vermont in 1866, is today known as one of the college's most generous donors of both time and money. He gave the university a portrait of Bishop Berkeley which once hung in a room of California Hall, reminding students of the man whose poem led to the naming of Berkeley.


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