Hap Magee Ranch Park

Remembering the Past and Serving the Present

Hap Magee Ranch Park is a 16.3 acre park jointly owned and operated by the Town of Danville and the community of Alamo (Contra Costa County). The park is unique in the San Ramon Valley for its historic buildings, informal recreation uses, location on a major regional trail, artistic memorial sites and JPOC (Joint Planning and Operations Committee) governance. Many parks in the valley are beautiful with mature trees and special design features, but none capture the rural ambience of Magee.

Summer at Camp Swain

The property was purchased 130 years ago in 1874 by Captain Isaac and Ann Trasker Swain on behalf of an orphanage in San Francisco. Both Swains thought the children should have a warm place to go during San Francisco's damp summers. In 1911 the San Francisco Protestant Orphanage first brought their children to Camp Swain.

The orphans came to the valley from 1911 to 1952, using the train and then buses. They brought their bedding and a few belongings. At first they lived in tents but eventually several buildings were constructed including a boys house, a girls house and a larger community building (called the Rotunda) once located east of today's I-680 freeway. Today two of the former Camp Swain buildings have been named the Cottage and the Swain Houses.

There are many charming stories about the children's summers in the valley. In one, the children raised their own rabbits all summer; at dinners the last week each child took great care not to eat his or her own rabbit!

One summer in the thirties the campers raised funds for a swimming pool and greeted people with this song:

We are the kids from Camp Swain
You hear so much about!
The people stop and stare at us
Whenever we go out.
We're here to have a real good time,

So come and help us out.
By giving us a swimming pool
So we can swim about!

The Magee Ranch

Hap Magee, a local cattle rancher and story-teller extraordinaire, was the next owner. Hap, wife Ruth and their family came to the valley in 1953. They purchased the orphanage land and built another house and several ranch buildings. When the freeway was built in 1962-64, the land was graded extensively.

Many people today still recall the small rodeos Hap hosted on the northern part of the property. After he passed away in 1985, an option for the property was purchased from Ruth Magee by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) in 1986 and held until 1987.

Hap Magee Ranch Park

The property was purchased from TPL by the County of Contra Costa (on behalf of the Alamo Parks and Recreation Committee, R-7A) and the Town of Danville in 1987, each owning a half undivided interest. The Joint Powers Agreement is dated May 22, 1987. A joint committee (two from Alamo, two from Danville, one chosen by the others) was set up to oversee the development and operation of the park. Both entities committed to provide equal amounts of funds for Magee Park's planning, development and support.

Planning for the park began immediately and the Master Plan was adopted in 1988. Phase I was completed within five years, with Phase II planning objectives still to be completed.

The Master Plan lists eleven goals:
  • To retain and build upon the historic/western character of the site.
  • To preserve and utilize the existing houses to meet community demands for space for the visual arts and private group rental.
  • To enhance and recreate the oak woodlands character of the site.
  • To preserve and enhance the riparian environment. Plant to reduce visual impact of engineered bank stabilization structures.
  • To protect steep creek banks; provide for controlled access to creek
  • To minimize physical and visual impact of park development on neighboring residences.
  • To develop the park to be in character with the predominately natural and rural surroundings.
  • To provide fields for informal sports use.
  • To provide links to existing and future trails and open space systems.
  • To preserve existing vegetation, especially the large, picturesque oak trees.
  • To develop a multipurpose park program which will serve a broad range of park visitors.
Three historic houses on the site have been gradually restored and maintained -- an ongoing process. Danville staff lived in and restored the Swain and Magee houses which are now available to be rented by the public. Since 1995 the YMCA has rented the Cottage for administration and programs, providing a regular presence in the Park.

The East Bay Regional Park District installed a Cor-ten steel bridge (for walkers, bikers and equestrians) over San Ramon Creek in 1993 which connected the Regional Las Trampas to Mount Diablo Regional Trail. The District also negotiated with neighbors and improved a unique trail between Danville Blvd. and the bridge. Artists designed the Orphans' Memorial Drinking Fountain and the Indian Commemorative Site which were both constructed in 1997.

2005 saw two major projects completed in the Park. An elaborate children's play structure with a ranch theme is tucked into the property near the historic cottages and includes a sand volleyball court, water elements, benches and picnic tables. A 1 1/2-acre off-leash large and small dog park with turf, the Canine Corral, is open north of the cottages.

Hap Magee Ranch Park is a lovely gem of a park which meets the needs of a variety of park visitors. With the development of the play structure and dog park, a family tour which brings third graders to the Indian site (part of the third grade curriculum), change is in the air.

Sources: Hap Magee Ranch Park Master Plan (May, 1988); newspaper clipping; JPO documents; Lynn Yaney's article łOnce They Called It Camp Swain˛; Danville staff reports.

By Beverly W. Lane, March, 2006