1876 Centennial Sketch of San Rafael

By Robert L. Harrison

As the celebration of the first 100 years of national independence approached, Congress adopted on March 13, 1876 a resolution urging the people of each city and county throughout the country to create a record highlighting their community including its history over the first century. Shortly after, on May 25th, President U. S. Grant followed with a proclamation calling the people’s attention to the Congressional recommendation for a Centennial Sketch.

Stereographic view of San Rafael taken by Edward J. Muybridge, circa 1873. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

The request of Congress was not overlooked in California. Sketches were prepared for most of the counties of the Bay Area and many other California communities. In San Rafael, responsibility for preparing the town’s historical summary was assumed by Jerome A. Barney who along with his father founded and published the Marin County Journal until he sold it in 1872. But suddenly on June 15, 1876 Barney was taken ill and just two weeks later at age 42 died before the sketch could be completed.

While Barney’s work on the official centennial sketch of San Rafael was not completed, an interesting description of the town appeared in the May 25th edition of the Journal. Originally published in the San Francisco Call on May 18th, it presents a short history of the town and an inventory of 1876 businesses and public facilities. The piece begins by imagining a visitor from San Francisco arriving by ferry at San Quentin and then taking the train into town:

Central Hotel in San Rafael, 1884. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

“The hotels of the town are five in number, and as the first thing a man thinks of or looks for when he visits a strange town is a hotel, it may be well to consider San Rafael in this regard. At least two of the hotels have been recently renovated throughout…. all of them have an aggregate of 175 rooms, either pretentiously or comfortably furnished. At the most expensive one, board for man and wife, with a suite of rooms, is $100 [about $2,400 in 2021 dollars] per month.”

The article continued:

“The statistics of San Rafael may be briefly summarized, and are as follows: Population, 1,500. Considerable building is in progress. Mr. Irwin is completing a Centennial block at a cost of $25,000 [$600,000 in 2021].” Churches were listed for the Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists.

1884 lithograph of a school house in San Rafael, likely the B Street School which was located on the southwest corner of B Street and Fifth Avenue. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

“The public school building is a credit to the town and accommodates 185 pupils. The teachers are all ladies…. Female accomplishments are provided for by two well-conducted seminaries.”

“The two banks have a capital of $100,000 [$2.4 million in 2021]. Two newspapers, the Herald and the Journal, supply vigorous local literature. Four groceries prevent people from starving to death, and there are two other establishments that unite the sale of dry goods and groceries. Two milliner shops keep the ladies looking handsome; there are two butcher shops, two barber shops, two carriage factories, and a sawing and planing mill.”

“Street lamps and gas impart an air of civilization to the various thoroughfares of the place. They are well graded and being composed of sand and gravel, they dry off quickly. Heretofore gasoline has been used in the lighting of the streets, but within a month or two past, coal gas has been substituted.”

“The Chinese population numbers about two hundred, and though so few, the good citizens of the place would like to get rid of them. The picnic grounds at Fairfax and Laurel Grove are largely patronized, and are favorite places of resort.”

Stereographic view of San Rafael by Edward J. Muybridge, circa 1873. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

“A common Council, City Marshall and night watchman legislate and secure peace and order. Fires are extinguished by a hook and ladder company. The water for San Rafael is brought from the foot of Mount Tamalpais, and is pure and refreshing. The pipes for it were laid about two years ago, and they also supply the State Prison at San Quentin….”

The author of the 1876 article was less than factual about local climate conditions, providing readers with a rather exaggerated view of what to expect:

“The location of San Rafael is remarkably adapted for sanitary purposes. It is well drained naturally, and has a thoroughly perfected sewage system…. Heated by the sun, and dry almost continually….they [the winds] take out every drop of dampness, and ensure for the regions beyond a clearness, dryness and rarity of atmosphere that is healthful and delightful.”

In the 145 year old article’s brief history section, the reprehensible views of that period are readily apparent: “The Indians of the country surrounding were wild, bold and intractable. Friar Juan Amoroso undertook the task of converting them to Christianity and civilization….They were ungrateful, hostile and dangerous. They made war on the good friar, and one occasion his little garrison of four soldiers were forced to dire extremities by fierce attacks.”

Despite its less than total objectivity, the May 1876 article presented an interesting summary of San Rafael in the country’s centennial year. It was particularly welcome due to the missing Centennial Sketch of the town recommended by Congress and the President, but unfinished for San Rafael because of Jerome Barney’s untimely death.

Also missing, or at least greatly subdued, was San Rafael’s celebration of the Centennial on July 4, 1876. The Marin Journal made no mention of the town’s annual July 4th celebration, an event usually involving a parade, picnic and several patriotic speeches. Across Marin County in Tomales a “Grand Concert and Unique Centennial Celebration!” was extensively advertised. The ad in the June 22, 1876 Journal continued: “On which occasion to signalize our due appreciation of the near approach of the Centennary [sic] of our beloved country, we have put forth every effort to offer a varied and as we hope an enjoyable entertainment. Admission — — One Dollar [about $24 in 2021].”

It is quite possible the 1876 Centenary in San Rafael turned out to be a relatively quiet day because across the bay, San Francisco staged a sensational pageant. The city’s celebration included a naval battle on the bay with ships and forts firing live ammunition at a scow, an artillery barrage and cavalry charge at the Presidio, a 44 vessel regatta and race, and a 10,000 person procession including the Governor, Mayor, and top commanders of the State Militia and United States Navy. The Festal Day was capped by a Masque Carnival Ball with prizes for best costume.

Among those viewing San Francisco’s remarkable celebration were no doubt some from San Rafael. For those folks July 4, 1876 was anything but a quiet day.

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