WALNUT CREEK -- Walnut Creek is awash in suburban legends.
Not the city, which will celebrate its centennial this year. Everyone knows it is chockablock with upscale shopping, popular restaurants, lively nightspots, parks and parking meters. The creek itself is another story. You may hang out at The Creek (incorporated Oct. 21, 1914). You may have had breakfast at Katy's Kreek. If you came of age in the '60s or '70s, it's quite likely you cruised The Creek. But do you really know the meandering ribbon of water itself? Consider the myths.
Myth No. 1: Some residents are unaware there is a creek.
That depends upon whom you ask.
"Some folks wonder why our city is named Walnut Creek," writes "Bill Slusher" on the "official blog" of the Walnut Creek Historical Society. "You've heard 'em say it -- 'No walnuts, and no creeks!' "
Bill Slusher, by the way, is the name of the gentleman reputed to be the first resident of Walnut Creek, in the mid-1800s. It's unlikely that he is the Bill Slusher who wrote the above-referenced post, since that would make him approximately 182 years old. But you figure anyone clever enough to take Bill Slusher as a nom de plume must have some institutional knowledge about Walnut Creek and, yes, Walnut Creek.
Brad Rovanpera certainly does. Rovanpera served for 24 years as Walnut Creek's public information officer and de facto historian before moving to Virginia to follow his bliss as a docent at Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello. And what he knows is this:
"No one in my 24 years with the city ever asked if there really was a Walnut Creek," Rovanpera said.
Myth No. 2: Walnut Creek has always been Walnut Creek.
This might be more of a logical misconception, since you would have to be a historian or a contemporary of the original Bill Slusher to know otherwise. The creek, Rovanpera said, was originally called Arroyo de las Nueces (Spanish for "Stream of Nuts"). Settlers Americanized the name, calling it Nuts Creek. The young town springing up around the creek was called The Corners.
"There was a guy who built a hotel sometime around 1860-61 called the Walnut House," said Rovanpera, whose book "Walnut Creek: An Illustrated History" makes a fine complement to the city's centennial celebration. "I think a lot of people wondered how the town got its name. It took me a long time to come to the conclusion that it was named after the Walnut House."
As was the creek.
Myth No. 3: There is a 1920s-era car submerged below Walnut Creek in the vicinity of Civic Park.
Possibly, said Lesley Hunt, a member of the Friends of the Creeks nonprofit which works to keep Walnut Creek healthy and clean. "If it's there, it's probably buried pretty deep," she said during a recent walking tour of the creek.
Friends of the Creeks conducts periodic cleanup events -- its next is May 10 -- and is both amazed and dismayed by what is found there.
"Shopping carts, the odd couch," Hunt said. "One year it was all appliances. Mattresses, clothing, Sharpies. A lot of stuff left behind by the homeless."
The cleanup of Walnut Creek began 87 years ago, Hunt said. As the city grew, development encroached closer to the water and people began dumping their waste in the creek.
"In 1927 it was decided they needed to put in a sewage system," Hunt said. "It took them about a decade."
Meanwhile, Walnut Creek's inclination to jump its banks was becoming an increasing concern for residents and business owners. From 1951-71, the Contra Costa Flood Control District and Army Corps of Engineers took several measures -- drop structures, cement diversion channels -- to mitigate flooding. Starting in 1971 and for several years, the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation successfully challenged further changes to the creek, Hunt said. Only when Contra Costa County purchased the Southern Pacific Railway right of way was work completed, with a flood channel dug beneath what is now the Iron Horse Trail.
"It's not pretty," Hunt said while looking at the large, boxy channel into which Walnut Creek flows as it leaves Civic Park. "But it keeps us dry. Most of the time."
Myth No. 4: People know Walnut Creek when they see it.
"I'm assuming it's the one that goes under Macy's?" asked George Lagui, an Orinda resident who lived in Walnut Creek for 10 years.
Technically, no, though it's true that much of Walnut Creek is underground. San Ramon Creek runs under the Macy's store in Broadway Plaza. It meets with Las Trampas Creek beneath Liberty Bell Plaza at South Broadway and Mt. Diablo Boulevard to form Walnut Creek. The confluence is depicted in the plaza, where three strands of colored pavers and tiles merge beneath the water of a fountain. Lagui enjoyed a sunny Saturday afternoon there recently with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
"I normally bike along the Iron Horse Trail and I go right past it," he said, this time correctly identifying Walnut Creek.
Karrie Keegan grew up in Walnut Creek before moving to Lafayette.
"I went to Muirwood (Elementary) School, which is right by the creek," said Keegan, 49, sitting a few feet from the gurgling Liberty Bell Plaza fountain. "When I was a kid I used to spend all my recesses and P.E. watching the ducks on the creek. There were two things Walnut Creek was known for -- walnut trees and a creek. I grew up here and we had both at the time."
With three creeks and their associated tributaries in the area, it can be difficult to know what you're looking at.
"I've been to a couple of creeks," said Noelle Bowman, 29, who lived in Walnut Creek before moving to Antioch. "I know there are some where I lived, in The Arbors."
"I didn't know there was a real creek," confessed Bowman's mother, Kristie Bowman, also of Antioch. "I never thought of that."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.
Friends of the Creeks will hold its next cleanup of Walnut Creek on Sunday, May 10, 8:45 a.m. to noon. For information visit www.friendsofthecreeks.org/articles/annual_creek_cleanup.shtml
Downtown History Walk: Second Saturday of every month, 9:30 a.m.
Centennial Heritage Day at Borges Ranch, celebrating Walnut Creek's early ranch days: Sat., May 17, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Centennial Birthday Festival at Shadelands Ranch: Sat., Oct. 18, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information, visit www.walnutcreek100.com/celebrate/signature-centennial-events/