Marin County Genealogy

Marin County - Our Towns - West Marin

Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.



A checkered past

Coastal towns bustled with activity, fortunes were made and lost and booze flowed freely


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Thomas Barfield in Mount Tamalpais, A History

Bolinas was a thriving waterfront early in Marin history. Lumber, cordwood and even eggs were barged into Bolinas en route to San Francisco. This photo was taken in 1873.

Marin's rugged coast is where the county really began. It was the first Marin region our initial visitors encountered; as early as 1579 a freebooter of an emissary from Good Queen Bess by the name of Sir Francis Drake stepped ashore
and claimed the place for England. Bolinas was a thriving port long before the bayside hamlets had a dime to their name. Most importantly, the countywide railway that brought settlers and villages to Marin was established to haul lumber from the area's thickly forested hillsides to sandy, wind-swept San Francisco as it erupted overnight into a world capital.

In 1852, for instance, Hiram and Noah Carey settled in present-day Nicasio (the county's geographical center) and built a sawmill, producing lumber they would haul to Ross Landing and Novato for schooner shipment across the bay. Two other mills followed; they thrived as well. By the 1860s the town hosted a school, church and hotel whose Chinese chef, Jim Sam, was a cowpuncher-gambler of local renown. A post office was established in 1870, and (unrealized) plans were afoot to move the county seat from virtually inaccessible San Rafael to Nicasio. By the turn of the century the town had itself a blacksmith, butcher, saloon, general store and dairy.

The coast redwoods meant something besides lumber: paper. In 1853 Samuel P. Taylor, a 49er from Boston, came to Marin to scout out material for his thriving San Francisco lumberyard and discovered Daniels Creek, a bountiful Nicasio Indian fishing ground. Taylor leased (and later bought) 100 acres from coast grandee Rafael Garcia and constructed the West's first paper mill out of machinery that was shipped from the east via Panama to San Francisco, by schooner to Bolinas and by ox sled (over a Bolinas Ridge road built for the purpose) to the creek, dammed by this time to power the mill. Before long the enterprise was supplying every San Francisco newspaper with its raw material, this in the days when newsprint was the only media game in town. The paper product was important enough that a watch was posted atop Telegraph Hill to light a signal fire when the Bolinas schooner-and its precious cargo-was sighted approaching the Golden Gate.

The thriving mill sprouted into an entire town, Taylorville, with a hundred workers, a rooming house and a store. A dairy, an orchard and a chicken ranch were built nearby. Taylor bought 1,800 acres of timberlands and imported jute from Calcutta, wood pulp from Norway and discarded rags from England (to which, it is said, clung the first thistles seen in Marin) to feed his mill's hungry maw. The paper's tortuous journey via ox cart and schooner was simplified in 1865 when the Olema road was built all the way to San Francisco Bay.

Even better was the narrow-gauge coast railroad, built in 1875 by Taylor, Warren Dutton, Judge James McMillan Shafter and other West Marin bigwigs to establish and popularize their large land holdings. Taylor added a hotel and post office to his municipal enclave and created a campsite so popular it hosted the first Bohemian Club Jinks in 1878. The mill, meanwhile, was replaced with a bigger, better model that produced manila wrappings, ballot and book paper and bags of all sorts as well as newspaper stock.

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Chuck Ford Collection

The Mailliard family sold lots along the railway that grew into San Geronimo, Woodacre and Forest Knolls. Photo from 1915.

It all went to hell when San Rafael investor William T. Coleman diverted water from the creek for one of his subdivisions, un-powering the mill and rendering it useless. Taylor died in 1886 (two of his brothers drowned en route to the Alaska gold rush 10 years later); the mill burned to the ground in 1916. Samuel P. Taylor Park was created here in 1945 across 2,600 acres.

West Marin wasn't all about lumber, of course. Nicasio pioneers John and Jacob Short grazed cattle in the area in the 1850s, a portent of things to come. Forty-niner John Keys started growing potatoes in present-day Tomales in 1850, sending his produce down Keys Estuary and over the Tomales Bay bar for delivery to the outside world. Railroad founder Warren Dutton's immense locomotive warehouse just outside town was a bustling symbol of the region's importance. By the time Pt. Reyes Station and its post office and train station were established in 1891, the village's location in the middle of the West's verdant pasturelands earned it immediate geographical-commercial cachet. (The Fallon Creamery alone shipped 30,000 gallons of milk a day at its height.) Nearby, an old Indian village was purchased wholesale by the Marconi Wireless Company to serve as its Pacific Coast receiving station in 1913. (Synanon took the site over in 1964.)

Further inland, the San Geronimo (Spanish for "Saint Jerome") Valley was enjoying its own particular affluence. Back in 1846 one Adolph Mailliard, grandson of King Joseph Bonaparte of Spain (no less), married Annie Ward of the "Boston" Wards and 20 years later bought the valley sight unseen from his in-laws for $50,000. He and Annie hotfooted it out here from their New Jersey estate to check out their new property and settled in. They built a modest home, sent for their prize horses and cattle (which arrived via Cape Horn and eventually the brand new transcontinental railroad) and hired Portuguese immigrants to care for them. Adolph gave the newly arrived coast railway a 60-foot right-of-way through his land for a buck, land for a train station (built in 1875) for $400 and the Marin County Water Company Lagunitas Creek water rights in perpetuity for $1,200.

Two of the couple's more prominent visitors were Julia Ward Howe, composer of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and Alexander Graham Bell, who strung the first telephone line in California between the house and one of the barns. There were many other callers: Sunday excursionists who discovered the valley's balmy pleasures and arrived in droves around the turn of the century. The Mailliard children (the couple had died in the mid-1890s) thereupon partitioned the area, built a grocery store and several cottages and put 40 lots along the railroad up for sale. Further tracts (Lagunitas in 1907, Woodacre in 1913, Forest Knolls in 1914) followed.

The cultural changes that swept the world after World War I affected San Geronimo, too. In the 1920s flappers "scampering half naked among the trees, conducting revels at night and starting fires" scandalized the locals. In response the railroad shut down four local stops and the problem-and most of the tourists-went away. At the Woodacre station things were so sleepy the train barely bothered to slow down; passengers had to jump aboard a moving car with a boost from the conductor. By 1933 the train was gone for good.

Over the previous half-century railroad had made its way as far north as Tomales, lingering en route to make a name for Olema. An itinerant sort named Benjamin T. Winslow named the place in 1857 ("ole" is Miwok for "coyote") and erected a store, bar and post office soon afterward. But the train made the town, and several other saloons (and a few houses, one of them Judge Shafter's impressive mansion) sprang into being along its tracks. One of these Gilded Age hotels was used as a barracks during World War II. Nearby Marshall (named for the Marshall brothers, who built a hotel along Tomales Bay in 1870) thrived as well.

So did the coast towns. Overland pioneer George Dillon started a seaside resort west of Tomales as early as 1856. Captain Alfred Easkoot, the first county surveyor, established another one to the south in 1871 (later Willow Camp, today's Stinson Beach). Speculator Frank Waterhouse built his Granda Vista subdivision in neighboring Bolinas during the same era; resort hotels soon followed. (Guests arrived via stage and schooner despite the more than occasional Duxbury Reef shipwreck.) And among his other enterprises, Judge Shafter planned a glorious hotel in present-day Inverness with a ferry run to the railroad. Although the hotel was never built, wealthy San Franciscans and well-to-do retired couples built sumptuous hotels in the area and turned the town into an exclusive enclave by the turn of the century.

Given its inaccessible nature, West Marin was less affected by the 1906 earthquake than the rest of the county. (Sociologically, that is; the quake's epicenter was in Tomales, and in addition to destroying the railroad boom town's bank and church, it left geological scars that are impressive to this day.) What really stirred up the area was a 1964 master plan for West Marin complete with resorts, marinas, airstrips, a four-lane highway and a planned influx of 20,000 people.

The plan was rejected in 1971 after conservationists bought up tracts of real estate along Bolinas and Tomales Bay, the Audubon Society purchased a thousand acres of Bolinas Ridge land and the feds created the Pt. Reyes National Seashore in 1962 and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area 10 years later. In 1973 the board of supervisors limited West Marin development to one house per 60 acres.

Nowadays West Marin is just about as tranquil and remote as it's ever been; more so if you remember the wild nights in old Olema and saucy Bolinas, the Lost Generation's San Geronimo revels, the lumberjacks and seafarers and the narrow-gauge railroad. Grazing bovines and rejuvenated forests have inherited this sleepy, lovely land.

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© Copyright 2007 Ron Filion and Pamela Storm. All rights reserved.