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Crystal Amber Industrial Sand Factory and Railroad Buffs

Berkeley Cement Plant 1, ink & watercolor
Berkeley Cement Plant #1, ink & watercolor

This cement plant/sand factory takes up a square block of West Berkeley and offers a wealth of sketching opportunities. We were there as the sun was setting and everything was glowing for about 45 minutes and then suddenly it was too dark to see.

The factory’s site on Second and Virginia used to be a white sand beach (not the desolate industrial area it is now) and First Street (now Highway I-80) ran along the Bay.

Berkeley Cement Plant #2, ink & watercolor
Berkeley Cement Plant #2, ink & watercolor

In 1855 the Pioneer Starch and Grist Mill opened in the same spot but later burned down.  And that begs the question: what is grist?

While searching for more information about the factory I came across a railroad buff forum ( where they describe watching trains deliver to the plant. I don’t understand most of their lingo but appreciate their enthusiasm for railroads:

One of my favorite memories was watching a flying switch drop at Crystal Amber back in the early 90’s. I used to bicycle from my house in North Berkeley to Aquatic Park next to the SP main.

The cab to cab SW1500’s were facing eastbound. They accelerated and then cut off the two hoppers, went into the pocket track and then the brakeman threw the switch. The other brakeman rode the two hoppers while the fireman flagged Virginia St. The switcher set then coupled back onto the hoppers, shoved past Cedar St and then pulled them down past Berkeley Ready Mix, then shoved them into Crystal Amber.

As the crew was walking back, I said to the brakeman “nice flying switch”. He was a bit surprised and replied “you liked my drop?”, to which I replied “Yeah, I liked your drop”. Ahh the memories.

Cement Plant at 2nd & Virginia, Berkeley; ink & watercolor
Cement Plant at 2nd & Virginia, Berkeley, journal spread; ink & watercolor

If you’d like to see more sketches of the factory by my sketch buddies they are on our Urban Sketchers Bay Area blog here.

6 replies on “Crystal Amber Industrial Sand Factory and Railroad Buffs”

The sketches are so great, Jana. I would have loved to take photos of those powerful structures glowing in the sunset, but I would have felt too daunted to try sketching.
I love your lingo with the guy( I really like YOUR drop). Now to go over to look at the San Fransisco sketches.


Yes, Raena, As I already wrote, I am always blown away by the beautiful power of such buildings. But to sketch them? Terrifying prospect…


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