Early Roads In Marin (The Sir Francis Drake Highway)

The history of Marin County, California is rich and varied. Below is an article written by an early settler recounting his memories of the area as a boy. The article is fascinating and informative. A brief description of the author is included at the end of the article.

Early Roads in Marin
by Payne J. Shafter

I see by the papers that the people of San Rafael are going to have a great meeting at Point Reyes Station to celebrate the completion of the highway from San Rafael to that point.

Permit me to tell you some of my early recollections of the road. I came to Marin in 1860 with my father and brothers. We came by sail boat into San Rafael creek. We had two saddle horses.

We went from San Rafael by a road—little more than a trail, past Fairfax, up the valley to where it ends and climbed a winding road up to the top of the hill, which divides the San Rafael Valley from the San Geronimo. It will be well for school children to remember the Spanish name of the water shed, El Puerto Suella De San Geronimo, which means the Gate to the County of San Geronimo.

We continued down the valley following the right hand side of the San Geronimo “Loke” which in Spanish means the San Geronimo creek, to Lagunitas, keeping on the right bank of the creek as I remember, until we passed the paper mill, which was built in 1853, then crossing the paper mill creek where Jewell ranch is located and climbing up the hill by a trail down the line of the present fence belonging to Valente Bloom, on to the road leading to the town of Olema where we stayed over night with Mrs. Winslow, who kept the first hotel there. At that time the only one. Levy and Freelander had the only store. That house and Juan Garcia’s were the only two houses in the town that I can remember, except the hotel where the Winslow’s lived. From there we went by the road which runs in front of Colonel Langdin place, he being close to the edge of the hill, to the head of Tomales Bay at Piedmont, where Steve Lampshere lived with his wife.

We climbed the hill at Piedmont by way of the ridge, went down to where the Muddy Hollow Ranch is, over on to Swain’s Flat where the Post Of f ice is now located. Captain Josiah Swain lived there in a house largely built from the wreckage. of vessels on the storm-swept coast between Point Reyes and Tomales. There we two boys stayed f or a couple of years spending our vacation from the school.

There were three ranches on Point Reyes at that time and a Mr. Buell had a ranch near the point, Captain Swain was in the middle of the flat. There was some man whose name I forget had the ranch on Tomales Bay.

The land was covered with wild cattle. Many a man was driven to take refuge on a rock or up a tree from these wild animals. That was the first road, if your choose to call it such, that I remember.

In a year or two Americans began to come into this locality and roads were built—rough roads, mud holes in winter—to bridges made of the trunks of trees which held their places when there was no storms to sweep them away.

My father built the first bridge over the creek to Point Reyes Station. When I came to Marin there was no Point Reyes Station where it is now. We had to come from Petaluma over the shoulders of Black Mountain, follow the ridge to the north and then come down to the crossing of the creek where the new bridge is now being built. Charlie Hall, a veteran of the Mexican War, when the tide was in and the water was high, ferried people across 25 cents a passenger.

I have seen a little steamer called the “Elk” come up the creek to this crossing.

Sam Taylor, because there were no roads in the early days, 1853, sent the machinery for his mill by water up to Bolinas, from there he packed it, piece by piece, on horses and mule back along the ridge above the paper mill creek, down to a road which he improvised to the site of his mill and there he built the first mill on the coast. He made his paper from rags, gathered by Chinese for him in San Francisco and Oakland. These rags were shipped by schooner to the head of Tomales Bay and there sent by ox team over to the mill. His paper was shipped back by ox team to lighters waiting at the crossing, which took the paper on the outgoing tide to schooners waiting to take the paper to San Francisco.

There were three morning papers published at that time in that city, the Bulletin, The Alta California and the Morning Herald. Now any daily would consume all the paper which was produced from that mill in one day.

Before the bridge to the paper mill was built, it was necessary to ford the creek below the dam.

My father was going down one night when the creek was a torrent, driving a double team. Father asked some of the men at the mill to see that he got safely across, but they refused to go with him. He went alone behind the gallant team. He drove them with their heads up stream, belly deep in water and by their sure feet and the grace of God reached the other shore safely. one of the horses he drove, called “Rob Roy” I have buried on the hillside close to my old home, near the town of Olema.

Of course as the San Geronimo Valley was filled with settlers the roads were improved. The grade up White’s Hill was made, bridges were put over the stream and the road up Tocoloma Hill was made. We had to go through the creek before a bridge was built to use this road. Moses Hobbs was one of the first road masters, Joe Gambeni was the best. In season and out of season, with little or no pay, he kept the road open. Joe Francoli was his able assistant.

I think as I bring this article to a close of my dear friend Mike Cochrane, for whom I used to write, to his memory I dedicate this story.”

Payne Shafter’s article was written on the occasion of the dedication of “The New Sir Francis Highway”. San Rafael Independent, November 18, 1929: “The New Sir Francis Drake Highway Formally Opened with the Words, “I Christen Thee Sir Francis Drake Highway.”  This article is taken from the San Rafael Independent, November 23, 1929. Reprinted in the Marin County Historical Society Bulletin, December 1993, pp. 19–25.

About the author: “Describing the difficulties of early-day travel in Marin County, when saddle horses, pack mules and ox teams were the principal means of transportation, Payne J. Shafter, one of the oldest and best known pioneer residents of the north bay region has written an interesting account of the time when the only highways in Marin County were pack trails and bridle paths. Shafter came to Marin County in 1860.”

The above article is from the Marin History Museum website, www.marinhistory.org.