Marin County Genealogy

Marin County - Our Towns - San Rafael

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

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Bancroft Library - UC Berkeley

The Marin County Courthouse at Fourth and A Streets was built in 1873 and burned to the ground in 1971. The cupola on top, shown in this 1875 photo, was later removed.



The county seat

It grew from a small Miwok village to Marin's own metropolis and favorite gathering spot

By Matthew Stafford

"The other night this writer was in San Rafael and the trim, well-kept and excellently lighted main street made a very attractive appearance. To look up Fourth Street from the union depot reminds one of the 'Great White Way' in miniature." So spoke an anonymous turn-of-the-century correspondent for the "Mill Valley Record", impressed into hyperbole by the big town's urban edge. Over the years, through cattle drives, parades, hangings and shootouts, the town's cardsharps, lowriders, toreadors and Franciscan friars have made San Rafael Marin's most urbane gathering spot.
It's been all of that since San Rafael's first settlers, the Coast Miwoks, settled in an area between today's Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, an enviably sunny location at the base of the region's northern hills. They called this place Nanaguani, and it was said that Yu'-tenm'e-chah, a wiseguy evil spirit, liked to come down from the hills at night and frighten the sleeping Miwoks by touching them.

Frightening figures of another stripe arrived in the early nineteenth century. Across the Golden Gate in Yerba Buena (later San Francisco), the Native Americans at the Mission San Francisco de Asis were falling ill and dying at an alarming rate. The natives, victims of European diseases they had no resistance to, found it difficult to recover in the foggy climate. It was decided to establish a hospital mission in sun-drenched Marin on the northern side of Mt. Tamalpais, where the ocean fog is diverted by the mountain and the hills west of the old Miwok camp. Soldiers, priests and "converted" Indians arrived at what is now the corner of Fifth Avenue and A Street ("in the lee of Mount Tamalpais and beneath a line of rolling, tawny hills," in the words of Father Mariano Payeras) in December of 1817 and established Mission San Rafael Arcangel, the twentieth and next-to-last mission in the chain from San Diego to Sonoma. Appropriately, it was named for the Archangel Rafael, the angel of bodily healing.

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Marin County Historical Society

During the late nineteenth century bicycling became a very popular activity. These are members of a cycling club, the San Rafael Wheelmen, who were photographed in 1896.

The mission compound was made up of a simple two-story chapel and rectory of adobe, hand-hewn redwood beams and red tile. Soldiers and Miwoks lived just outside the compound in their own ranchitos, or little villages. Adjacent vineyards, gardens and orchards covering an area now bordered by Lootens, Lincoln, Third and Fifth avenues produced wheat, barley, corn, beans and peas in numbers that surpassed all expectations, and it was said that San Rafael's grapes were the best in California.

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Looking north on B from Second Street around 1900: the free dining hall is now two doors up from the right corner.

The missions were secularized and converted into pueblos (towns) in 1834 by edict of the new Mexican government, victorious in its overthrow of the Spanish colonials. Half of all Mission lands and property were returned to the Indians and half were put under the care of an appointed administrator. Mission San Rafael (which at this point was another name for Marin County) was divided into 20 land grants and then redistributed. San Rafael pueblo and its environs (22,000 acres including present-day Northgate, Terra Linda, Marinwood, Lucas Valley, San Pedro Point and China Camp) was granted to Tim Murphy, a genial Irishman who also acted as an Indian agent (he spoke Miwok with a brogue) and alcalde of the pueblo. He built a two-story adobe house at what is now Fourth and C streets.

Murphy's most famous contribution to San Rafael history, however, was his inauguration of October 24 as San Rafael Day, which started as a feast to honor St. Rafael Arcangel and over the decades (it lasted 52 years) turned Fourth Street into a riotous scene of dancing, gorging, all-night drinking, horse racing, blackjack, bullfighting (at the Plaza de Toros at Second and B streets) and every other sort of revelry, indulged in by ranchers, prospectors and scum from the Barbary Coast out for a killing.
The area witnessed action of a more violent nature in 1846 as John Fremont and Kit Carson's sweep into California resulted in an attack on the mission that killed three people. California came under American rule following the simultaneous Bear Flag Revolt up in Sonoma, and in 1850, Marin became one of the new state's original counties. Divided into four townships-South Salieto, Boulinas, Navat and San Rafael-Marin boasted 323 inhabitants, half of whom lived in San Rafael, the new county seat.

San Rafael then consisted of Murphy's and a few others' houses, the mission complex, a whiskey mill, the orchards and a schoolhouse established by James and Mary Miller, the town's first overland settlers. Soon after statehood, the first city lots, forty-eight 300-square-foot blocks, were laid out along numbered and lettered streets projecting out from the mission, which also acted as the first county courthouse. The first store in the vicinity opened that November-trappers and ranchers were the principal customers-and within a few months, Fourth Street had a saloon, a boarding house and a post office. (Years later a visitor recalled that "all life and business was conducted on one little street of one little block.") Virtually impossible access to and from the outside world kept the town peaceful, however.

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Bancroft Library - UC Berkeley

The five-story Hotel Rafael located on 21 acres near Dominican College, was an elegant summer resort built in 1887. It was torched by an arsonist and destroyed in 1928.

Access improved after the first ferry run between San Rafael and San Francisco was established in 1855; within a decade, San Rafael had gained enough of a reputation as a balmy-weather resort town to warrant the establishment of a special 20-passenger stage run from the San Quentin ferry landing. Within a few years the stage was replaced with San Rafael's first railroad. Hotels, a telegraph office, three private schools, stables, Marin's first newspaper office, a barber, three lawyers and a doctor sprang up along Fourth between A and E. At Fourth and C was the office of Louis Peter, the French nobleman, physician, horticulturist and reputed finest swordsman in all of California.

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You could catch a stagecoach to Bolinas on Fourth Street in San Rafael. Then as now, it was a mighty long trip without the benefit of road signs.

Across the street was Tim Murphy's adobe house, where county business was conducted until 1873, and just up Fourth was the log jail where hangings were conducted from a nearby oak tree. The dead were buried on the grounds of the mission.

The main business of San Rafael, however, was livestock. The surrounding hills were home to thousands of head of cattle, the principal source of beef to San Franciscan and gold prospector alike, and it was common to see the herds driven up Fourth to the slaughterhouse on San Rafael Creek or overland through Sonoma, Marysville and Sacramento to the Sierra foothills.

San Rafael's glory days began with the arrival of the countywide railroad in 1870, established to tie the San Francisco building boom in with the railroad founders' West Marin lumber interests. For almost a century newcomers arrived in town via the gorgeous Union Depot at Fourth and Tamalpais. It was easier than ever to attract wealthy San Franciscans to San Rafael's warm climate; luxurious resorts like the Tamalpais and the Rafael were popular indeed, and the town's population tripled between 1874 and 1880. (One of the newcomers was Ambrose Bierce, who lived at Fourth and E for two years.)
In 1874 San Rafael was incorporated as a town of 160 acres, and the first meeting of the board of trustees was held above a C Street saloon. A volunteer fire department was established nearby; unfortunately, the firemen found themselves 100 feet short of hose at their inaugural fire and watched helplessly as the structure burned to the ground. An elaborate new Greek Revival county courthouse was erected with cupola, columned portico and, just inside the front door, a gallows. All of San Quentin's executions were carried out here, including that of murderer Lee Doon; convivial onlookers nearly rioted in their mad scramble over the body for souvenirs after the hanging, and thereafter executions were performed at Sandy Q instead. Fourth Street got gaslights in 1875, and Gordon's Opera House opened soon afterward.

1893's new crop of trustees outlawed many of San Rafael's Wild West traditions, including the cattle drives up Fourth and San Rafael Day and its accompanying bullfights. The main drag's mud and dust were brought under control and so, eventually, was a perpetual mosquito problem that got so bad at one point, doctors recommended avoiding the town altogether. A new city hall and post office were erected, as were two cinemas, the Lyric and the Palm.

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Marin Historical Society

The city of San Rafael, increasingly wealthy and full of civic pride, threw a wing-ding celebration with this 1885 Fourth of July parade down Fourth Street. Note the floats.

The 1906 earthquake and fire shot San Rafael's population up from 4,000 to 6,500 as refugees from San Francisco raced for the suburbs. Two of them opened memorable businesses: Billy Shannon, the boxer, who ran a restaurant-bar with a small ring for exhibition prizefighting, and the Carson Glove Company, which became San Rafael's first industrial company. The first electric streetlights-elaborate chandelier-type fixtures-were installed in 1914; electric streetcars were rejected by voters as "too noisy." Three years later, thousands of onlookers lined Fourth Street to cheer Company D of the Fifth Infantry as they marched down to the Union Depot to head overseas and whip the Kaiser.

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Bancroft Library - UC Berkeley

At the turn of the century, folks enjoyed swimming and boating in the canal near today's Third and Irwin Streets.

Postwar San Rafael was a quiet place of stately homes, small shops, hitching posts and water troughs. But the rise of the automobile was affecting change (the city's worst-ever traffic jam was a 10-mile bumper-to-bumper tie-up on Labor Day 1930), and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the post-World War II baby boom ensured San Rafael's growth after decades of studied tranquility. Fourth Street was widened in the 1930s, and in 1941 the highway, covering five city blocks as well as Irwin Creek, opened to ease the new traffic flow.
Fourth Street suffered a blow in 1957 when fire destroyed a block of businesses between D and E streets, but downtown has undergone other, more positive changes in the past few decades. The old depot was lovingly restored in 1971 and now houses the Whistlestop organization. There were merchant-sponsored redevelopment projects in 1963 and again in the 1970s, and Fourth Street's been repaved at least twice by Ghilotti Brothers, a company with a San Rafael pedigree dating back to 1914. The street itself gained international fame in 1973 as the lowriders' main drag in George Lucas's "American Graffiti".
A good way to fully experience the San Rafael of today is to wander through the Farmers Market extravaganza that closes off Fourth Street every Thursday evening through September. This good old-fashioned block party features freshly baked pies, fabulous pickles and preserves, big bouquets of technicolor flowers, musicians of every stripe and genre, gyros and pad Thai and corn on the cob crying out to be barbecued, and every sort of herb, root, spice and nut you've never heard of. Smack in the middle of all this multicultural urbanity rises the gorgeously restored Rafael movie palace, a city landmark for much of this century. Welcome, in other words, to Marin's own metropolis.

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Marin Historical Society

Microbreweries are popping up all over, but they are not a late 20th-Century invention. Here several stalwarts sip the suds of the San Rafael Brewery in the late 1890s.

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