Marin County Genealogy

Marin County - Our Towns - San Anselmo

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



Location, location, location

Early entrepreneurs tried manfully to sell real estate here, but it was considered too far out



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Marin County Board of Realtors

In 1908 you could pick up a nice San Anselmo lot for $350 - and pay it off with easy terms. Realtors set up shop along Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and waited for customers.

You could say it's always been about real estate in San Anselmo. This sleepy little railroad burgh couldn't give away plots of land at the turn of the century in spite of the enthusiastic efforts of real estate developers and the North Coast Pacific Railroad, which had financial interest in promoting a new town along its Marin County route. During the 1880s, you could pick up a few acres for what it now costs to heat your house for a year, and still nobody wanted to buy land all the way "out there." Bet they feel sheepish now, eh?

Originally part of the giant land grant bestowed upon Domingo Sais in 1839, Red Hill and its surrounding acreage sat in a wilderness. Sais built a hacienda atop a hill and raised his family there, and parceled off the land here and there to pay the bills. Word has it that Sais wasn't the shrewdest businessman and lost much of his wealth before he died under mysterious circumstances in 1853. His family was left in legal and financial confusion, and the demise of the Sais dynasty was good news for those looking to pick up some large tracts of land for a fair price. One such buyer was Dr. A.W. Taliaferro from Virginia, who gave Lord Charles Snowden Fairfax the area west of San Anselmo as a wedding present.

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Electric trains took commuters from The Hub into San Francisco in 55 minutes, including a 32-minute ferry ride.

When the railroad finished laying tracks from Sausalito to Cazadero in 1875, San Anselmo was the junction spot where the line split east and west. This spot is still called the Hub, and many of us still sit there every day during the morning commute. The town was known only as "The Junction" during the first years of the railroad until officials changed the name back to San Anselmo in 1883 because it sounded classier.

Because of the trains, San Anselmo became a favorite picnic and camping spot for visiting San Franciscans (the history books do not report these picnickers to be as rowdy as the ones in Fairfax, however). Bernard Brenfleck, who is responsible for planting the magnificent magnolia tree that still drapes gracefully over the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross, provided lovely campsites near his orchard. Herman Zopf sold supplies from his grocery store near the Hub, allowing campers to use the faucet in back for their drinking water. People spent the whole summer on the creek, escaping the fog of the city.

As popular as San Anselmo was with the tourists, none of them wanted to move there permanently. When two hundred Sunnyside homesites went up for auction in 1887, the railroad advertised them in every waiting room and ferryboat cabin on the route. They might have had better luck trying to sell the Golden Gate Bridge (which would have been quite a feat, considering there wouldn't be a bridge for a number of years to come). Even San Francisco's most powerful auction house, Easton & Eldridge, couldn't interest anyone in 10 percent down. Meeting the trains were shameless salesmen waving catalogs and sales contracts for prospective buyers. It was rather embarrassing. Finally, San Rafael philanthropist A.W. Foster bought up 14 acres and donated it to the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which opened in 1892 with 20 students.

September of 1892 brought electricity to the town, but there wasn't much to light up. James Tunstead had a mansion downtown, and banker Minthorne Tompkins had some nice digs east of Red Hill. There were a couple of uninteresting hotels, the Ancha Vista and the Linda Vista, but no school. The Presbyterian Orphanage (now Sunny Hills, a center for troubled teenagers) opened in 1900 with a donation from Robert Dollar.

Dr. Henry DuBois owned Red Hill and the Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery on the other side. Corte Madera resident and "San Francisco Argonaut" editor Frank Pixley found it highly amusing that a doctor would own a cemetery and teased DuBois relentlessly in the pages of the newspaper, according to "Making of Marin" author Jack Mason. Poor Dr. DuBois became the town laughingstock when he hired immigrant labor to build a road over the hill in the 1880s. His horse and buggy got stuck before it made it to the top, but the jagged road remains a way up to one of the best vistas in Marin. Walking shoes are recommended.

No matter how hard investors tried to stir things up, there just wasn't much shakin' going on. And then there was. The 1906 earthquake shook some sense into those stubborn San Franciscans, who flocked into San Anselmo ready to relocate. Suddenly, spacious plots in the middle of nowhere away from the city seemed very attractive. The population grew to 1,000 within a year, and San Anselmo was incorporated in 1907.

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Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Library

The stately towers of San Francisco Presbyterian Theological Seminary have dominated this hillside in San Anselmo since 1892, although the school was actually founded 20 years earlier.

The push for incorporation came when San Rafael wanted to bring San Anselmo and Ross under its greater community wing, pointing out that this move would cut down on government costs. Some were outraged; San Rafael had saloons, and San Anselmo residents didn't want that element in their growing little community. There were absolutely no purveyors of liquor in San Anselmo, except a downtown joint known as the Tea Pot, where the tea wasn't what the queen of England drinks every afternoon, if you catch my drift. Apparently, not everyone was opposed to a watering hole or two because the vote was close for incorporation, 83 to 79. The first ordinance the new city council passed prohibited the sale of liquor-except by a grocer through the back door.

During this time, the North Pacific Coast Railroad floundered financially and was restructured as the North Shore Railroad. The old narrow gauge was widened into a modern double track with electric trains, and San Anselmo had a fast, clean, comfortable commute to San Francisco for the next 40 years. According to Robert Paulist in the "Marin County Bicentennial Almanac", rush hour time between the San Francisco Ferry Building and San Anselmo was a crisp 55 minutes, including a 32-minute ferry trip. Let's see the carpool lane beat that on Friday afternoons!

San Anselmo has grown steadily ever since into a lovely family-oriented community. It has a high school, a thriving business district, a stately library and over a hundred antique stores. It's also part of one of the most well-to-do real estate markets in the United States. Those real estate folks knew San Anselmo would catch on eventually-and how it has!

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