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San Anselmo Insights
San Anselmo History

Delve into San Anselmo's rich history, find out what our community is like today, and test your knowledge of the town with some San Anselmo trivia.

History of San Anselmo
Miwok Life
The Legend Of The Sleeping Maiden
San Anselmo's Shady Past
Did You Know? San Anselmo Trivia
San Anselmo Today
History of San Anselmo

San Anselmo's Historical Timeline
1839: Mexico grants Sais family the Canada de Herrera, an area roughly from the Hub westward toward Fairfax and Sleepy Hollow. Sais builds first permanent home.

1840: Second land grant (Punta de Quintin Corte Madera, la Laguna y Canada de San Anselmo) awarded to Juan Cooper covering southern portion of town, including today's "Hub."

1853: Domingo Sais dies. The breakup of his lands begins.

1856: James Ross buys Cooper's land grant. James Ross's descendants still live and work on a portion of his land (Sunnyside Nursery).

1874: North Pacific Coast Railroad starts service between Sausalito and San Rafael via San Anselmo.

1875: Railroad extends line west from San Anselmo to Tomales. Town referred to on railroad maps as Junction!

1876: First school opens on Butterfield Road.

1883: Railroad station renamed San Anselmo after the Punta de Quintin land grant. Railroad officials, eager to see towns and passengers along its line, encourage real-estate activity. 

1892: San Francisco Theological Seminary moves to San Anselmo, and town growth takes off. San Anselmo post office established. First homes receive electricity.

1903: First homes receive telephone service. Electric-rail service starts between Sausalito and San Rafael via San Anselmo.

1906: People flee from San Francisco earthquake and stay. Summertime visitors build permanent homes, businesses open, and trees are planted.

1907: Town of San Anselmo incorporates. An independent volunteer Fire Department is organized.

1908: San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce forms. St. Anselm Church opens.

1911: Town Hall is built, thanks to James Tunstead, who donates the land.

1915: San Anselmo Carnegie Library is dedicated.

1923: Tamalpais Theater on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard opens with Gloria Swanson starring in The Hummingbird.

1925: Worst flood in Marin history. San Anselmo, Ross, and Kentfield suffer heaviest damage.

1937: Golden Gate Bridge opens.

1940: In three days, storms brings 11.38 inches of rain and $10,000 in damage.

1941: Passenger-train service through town ends, followed by freight service.

1945:  Rossi Brother Pharmacy, 535 San Anselmo Ave., Moya del Pino, Spanish-born muralist, is commissioned to paint a fresco secco mural depicting the historical evolution of the pharmacy.   

1948: Carmel Booth first woman elected to City Council.

1960: Old Northwestern Pacific powerhouse at Hub demolished.

1963: Town's historic train station razed.

1967: Grand opening of Red Hill Shopping Center.

1974: Gift of 14 acres of open space for park given to town by Frederick Faude. Fire destroys Robson Estate carriage house.

1979: Town Hall's renovation completed. Robson- Harrington House refurbished for public use.

1982: Town flood brings disastrous results.

2005: A flood on New Year's Day causes millions of dollars in damages to town. Majority of damaged businesses quickly rebuild and reopen.

2013:  Imagination Park.  The San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce's charitable Foundation receives property and resources donated by George W. Lucas to build Imagination Park.  Bronze statues of Indiana Jones & Yoda fountain placed in a water structure center the park attracting visitors and locals to this downtown community gather place. 

Miwok Life
The coastal Miwok Indians lived in Marin long before Mexicans and Europeans settled here. They hunted in the oak-studded hills and fished the fresh waters of San Anselmo Creek. Their artifacts are still discovered near the Hub, suggesting that it was as much a center of activity for them as it is for us today. Here's some history about Miwok life:

  • Origin in Marin County: 3,500 years ago!
  • The three coastal Miwok Tribes: 1) The Hookooeko (Hoo'-koo-e'- ko) of Marin County; 2) the Olamentko of Bodega Bay; and 3) the Lekahtewutko of south-central Sonoma County.
  • Population when Spanish colonizers began building missions and presidios (1761-1823): 5,000.
  • Currency: Traded fine basketry, feather-work and clamshell beads
  • Transportation: Tule canoes, or saka, made from woven marsh reeds.
  • Homes: Called kotchas, domed or conical with grass or tule roofs, or conical redwood slabs.
  • Food: The Miwok fished steelhead and salmon from San Anselmo Creek; hunted deer, elk, and bears from the forests; and ground oak acorns for flour and mush.
  • Cause of diminished population: Diseases introduced by newcomers, intermarriage, and evictions or forced relocations.
  • Today's population: As of 2001, about 400 people of proven Miwok descent are members of the Federated Coast Miwok Tribe.

Sources: The Coast Miwok Indians, by Sylvia Barker Thalman; The Marin Historical Society, San Anselmo Historical Society

The Legend Of The Sleeping Maiden
The silhouette of Mount Tamalpais is said to resemble a reclining woman. A legend of this "sleeping maiden" has a somewhat murky origin. Some swear the tale has Indian roots. But others say playwright Dan Totheroh, who wanted to base a play on the legend, invented the tale in writing the Mountain Play Tamalpa in 1921 after his research dug up nothing. In either case, here's one version of the story:

The Tamal Indian tribe who lived at the base of Mount Tam never traveled its upper slopes because they believed that an evil witch, Ah- Sharon-nee, lived there and guarded her domain with a curse of sickness and death. Even so, the tribe's village suffered a pestilence and widespread death. The Great White Spirit took pity on them and promised health if anyone would ascend the mountain. Yet no one was brave enough, except for a strong young man, Piayutuma.

When he reached Ah-Sharon-nee's lair, he met and fell instantly in love with the witch's beautiful daughter, Tamelpa. Ah-Sharon-nee tried to have Tamelpa dissuade Piayutuma from his quest, but he still refused. Ah-Sharonnee became infuriated and cursed Piayutuma never to return. Tamelpa knew that there was only one way to save her love. Running with all her might to reach the peak before him, she beat him to the top, lay down, and turned instantly into stone. For it was Ah-Sharon-nee's curse that "whoever first reaches the top becomes a part of the mountain."

-Sources: Lincoln Fairley and James Heig, Mount Tamalpais: A History; "The Legend of Tamalpais' Sleeping Maid," by Mabelle Nelson.  

San Anselmo's Shady Past
There's a story that on All Hallows' Eve in 1840, the self-proclaimed El Emperito, or "little emperor," was caught stealing cattle from the Sais family, the emperor's rival for winning the San Anselmo land grant he claimed as his own. They hung him from an oak tree in Sleepy Hollow, and legend has it that the tree and old rope scars are still there-if you know where to look.

  • Daniel Showalter killed fellow state legislator Charles Piercy in a duel at Lansdale in 1861.
  • Alexander Montgomery (the San Francisco Theological Seminary benefactor) was in his fifties when he met Elizabeth Green, just 17. After the birth of their two daughters, Lizzie's family could bear her "situation" no longer and burst into Montgomery's room armed with two pistols (or so Montgomery claimed) and forced a marriage service while he was incapacitated by whiskey. Although it was later annulled, they remarried by common consent two years later, in 1885.
  • The Bank of San Anselmo was held up in 1914 by a bandit who fled on horseback.
  • One of the reasons for San Anselmo's incorporation in 1907 was that residents wanted to control the sale of alcohol and keep the town "dry." "Blind pigs" were places where you could secretly buy a drink with your regular purchase. San Anselmo establishments were known to serve you a cup of whiskey when you asked for "tea."
  • Criminals avoided the "fearless and fair" county sheriff James Tunstead, an imposing six-foot-two-inch, 200-pound man who was "a potent force in subduing lawbreakers and disorder in the county." He also donated the land for Town Hall. Source: The Marin Historical Society  

Did You Know? San Anselmo Trivia
In 1862, William Barber, who owned more than 130 acres in Ross Valley, married Elizabeth Bartlett Jackson, whose father was a discoverer of ether and whose uncle was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote glowingly about the area after a visit with his niece in 1871.

  • San Anselmo's first post office, built in 1892, was said to be the smallest in the state, measuring only seven feet by seven feet. No one but the postmaster was allowed in, so people had to stand outside-whatever the weather.
  • Upper Ross Avenue was dubbed San Anselmo's Little Italy because it was populated by 1906 quake refugees from North Beach who planted grapevines on the hills. Townsfolk used to make wine together, taking the grape press from house to house. On hot autumn evenings, you could smell crushed grapes and fermenting wine in the air.
  • In the early 1900s, San Anselmo's few businesses were clustered along the dusty county roads of today's Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Ross Avenue. When James Tunstead donated land for a town hall and firehouse in 1911, businesses moved to what is now San Anselmo Avenue instead.
  • The town was once a hot spot for filming silent movies, such as Cowpuncher's Law (1911) and Two-Gun Man (1931). Through the 1920s, the sidewalks of San Anselmo Avenue around Mariposa Avenue were made out of wood.
  • San Anselmo's Ongaro Plumbing Company has been a family-run operation since 1932. Same with Sunnyside Nursery, which opened in 1940 and is run by the great-great-grandsons of early Marin pioneer James Ross.
  • The Montgomery Chapel's architecture contains unusual symbols that would have had strong appeal to men steeped in the lore of Freemasonry, as was Alexander Montgomery.
  • San Anselmo once had a miniature golf course, a bowling alley, an iceskating rink, and Arthur Murray's dance studio.

San Anselmo Historical Society, www.sananselmohistory.org
Marin Historical Society, www.marinhistory.org

San Anselmo Today
Today, San Anselmo-which just celebrated its 100th birthday in 2007-is an especially charming place to visit and live. Pacific Sun readers recently voted San Anselmo the "Best Town Other Than Your Own" and "Best Non-Mall Shopping Town in Marin Country." Sunset readers also voted San Anselmo "Best of the West" for antiquing, and the town is still distinguished as the "Northern California Antiques Capital."