What’s in a Name? ‘Ellen Crag’ Avenue

File Photo -- Far be it from us to criticize anyone — especially when it comes to typos — but this street sign is misspelled.
File Photo -- Far be it from us to criticize anyone — especially when it comes to typos — but this street sign is misspelled.

What’s in a Name? ‘Ellen Crag’ Avenue

On the Main Island between Grand and Hibbard streets sits a one block long road known as “Ellen Crag Avenue” if you read the street signs. A crag is defined as a steep cliff or rugged rock face. Not exactly a common sight in Alameda. So what is going on?

Well for one thing, we have a typo in our midst. The signs printed with “Ellen Crag” contain an error. For the record, Google Maps lists the street as “Ellen Craig Avenue.” These signs have recently grown in importance due to the Buena Vista Avenue detour and hence, I’ve been passing them more often and it irks me each time.
So who was Ellen Craig? Well, for one thing, Ellen Craig was a steam ferry boat.

When Alameda’s founders, Gideon Aughinbaugh and William Worthington Chipman, set up the town of Alameda at the intersection of Encinal Avenue and High Street in the 1850s, with the intention of selling real estate and raising crops, they had to create infrastructure so potential homeowners and farmers could access their new lands.

According to Imelda Merlin’s Alameda: A Geographic History, Chipman wrote in his diary on Jan. 19, 1855, he “felt that once a wharf was finished and a road leading to it, he and Aughinbaugh would ‘have the place certain’ that is, people would come in and buy lots when they knew that they could commute across the Bay.”

The duo would host picnics, give away watermelons just for taking a look, or offer lots at two-for-one. Still, sales slumped because ferry service to the East End of Alameda was slow, unreliable and inconsistent. Imagine trying to get to work in San Francisco and your ferry boat ended up lodged on a sandbar until high tide returned.

And who was partly to blame for this? Why, Ellen Craig. After two or three months of being misled by some potential ferry partners, Chipman tracked down a “suitable” ferry he and Aughinbaugh could own themselves. The boat, mentioned just once by Merlin, was almost immediately renamed the Peralta, after the Mexican family who sold Chipman and Aughinbaugh Alameda and Bay Farm Island — and the name Ellen Craig vanishes from the record. Until it ends up misspelled on a street sign.

The Peralta promptly proved not particularly suitable as “frequently [she] blew a hole in her boiler or burst a blister which laid her up for repairs. Chipman attributed these defects to soft English iron,” according to Merlin. “Steamer accidents in the 1850s became common occurrences, as in the course of only two years Chipman mentions about a dozen episodes with loss of life ranging from two to several hundred [in his diary].”

So then, who was Ellen Craig the person? I don’t think we actually know.

The Livermore-Amador Genealogical Society maintains the Record of Deaths in Alameda County, California, Book D, 1895-1901, online which shows a dubious connection to the story. On Aug. 10, 1899, an “Ella” Craig passed away at the age of 47. That places Ella’s approximate birthdate in 1852. Could the Ellen Craig have been christened to mark the birth of a shipbuilder’s new daughter?

The listing includes details that Ellen Craig was a White female who was born in Vermont. Chipman was also a Vermont native. Coincidence?

Finally, the listing shows Craig died “anacimic” which turns up no real definition and seems that if it wasn’t some archaic term for a disease, must have been a typo for anemic. So perhaps this story both starts and ends with a typo.

If anyone knows anything about the real Ellen Craig, feel free to write ekos@alamedasun.com.