Early History of Roller Skating in Marin

By Robert L. Harrison

From a Marin Journal announcement in June 1907 of Professor Harry Archer, appearing on a 25-foot high wire at the San Rafael Skating Rink.

It was in a London stage performance in 1743 where the first use of roller skates was recorded. Some years later, in 1760, an Englishman named John Joseph Marlin invented the first primitive inline skate with small metal wheels. For years, skating was primarily in a straight line because turning was difficult with the primitive early designs.

By 1863, American James Leonard Plimpton had designed the four-wheeled quad skate featuring a pivoting rubber cushion to allow the skater to turn by shifting his/her weight from side to side. In 1884, steel ball bearings were added to skate wheels, reducing friction and increasing the speed for skaters. Since then with hardly any essential technical improvements the design of the quad skate became the industry standard.

In the 1880s rinks opened nationwide as the craze for roller skating exploded. New rinks were built across the Bay Area including in Golden Gate Park and San Rafael. In San Francisco, a roller rink was built in the Park’s Sharon Meadow area. In the “Gay Nineties” skating was considered a chic thing to do.

Golden Gate Park, circa 1910

The fun and hazards while on a date at the San Rafael Skating Rink were vividly described by a skater in a poem in the March 5, 1885 edition:

Oh ! gracious, aint it jolly fun, this flirting round on skates !

The ending of the evening was apparently less entertaining:

— but as to how we came out –I can only say that I hav’nt taken a square sit down since and as for [my date] Mary Ann:

The girl stood on the roller skates,

But then she could not go;

She was afraid to tempt the Fates

Because she wobbled so….

Then came a crash — a thunder sound;

The girl, oh where was she ?

Ask the giddy youth around,

Who viewed her hosiery !

Fashion suggestions for women roller skaters around the turn of the century appeared in a article titled “Costumes for the All-Absorbing Craze.” From the November 25, 1906:

Los Angeles Herald, November 25, 1906, page 35.

A favorite style was a tightly corseted waist full length

Articles providing fashion advice during this era reflected the popularity of the sport for women and men of all ages. A story titled “Why He Shaved” in the September 17, 1896 conveyed a tale by 57 year old Augustus Bacon, United States Senator from Georgia:

The Senator depicts an unfortunate incident caused by a collision with a wayward skater as he was assisting a female beginner. Both the lady and the errant skater attempted to save themselves by grabbing hold of Bacon’s bushy sideburns. He described his predicament this way:

In the early 1900s, in an effort to increase profits, the San Rafael Skating Rink staged various spectator sports events. During November 1906 the ran several advertisements featuring the appearance of Harley Davidson, the “Champion [Speed] Roller Skater of the World.” Davidson — not related to the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company — had won several speed skating events in America, and in 1912 won the World Professional Championships held in London.

The San Rafael Rink also offered roller football, a combination of soccer and lacrosse on roller skates. As described in the July 11, 1907 :

Location of the San Rafael Skating Rink in March 1907, on Third Street, between A Street and Loutens [Lootens]Place.

Later in 1907 management decided to convert the rink to a part-time theater. Several vaudeville acts and films were presented. The effort enjoyed some success as reported on July 13, 1907 by the : “Business is picking up at this popular place of amusement, and vaudeville attractions are to be placed each week.”

Not everyone remained enthusiastic about roller skating. Father Caraher of San Francisco’s St. Francis Church denounced skating rinks as a menace. His comments were noted in the January 29, 1907 :

Father Caraher went on to claim that his discouraging attendance had resulted in the subsequent closure of several rinks.

The popularity of skating continued to grow at the San Rafael Rink. On March 11, 1909 the reported: “Roller-skating is becoming more fashionable and favorite past time with the younger set.” By 1912 the upstairs at the Tamalpais Pavilion in Sausalito, the same property occupied by the Marin Theater from 1943 until 2016, was leased for a roller rink. The rink was on the second level with the “Marin Auto Livery Company” garage on the ground floor. This rink closed in 1913 when a fire left the building unsafe. Several years later the building was sold and refurbished to become a Ford auto repair business.

Unidentified roller skater, circa 1905. Photograph courtesy Library of Congress.

Through the first half of the 20th century the reported several roller skating parties at nearby rinks. More than likely the students at San Rafael and Tomales High Schools enjoyed similar outings. The named the Auto Camp and California Park rinks in San Rafael as destinations. It is not clear whether the two names listed in fact identified the same rink. Another rink frequented by high school students opened in 1940 at the Cocoanut Grove in Fairfax.

There is some evidence that the Fairfax rink closed prior to the end of World War II. Notably a June 1944 advertisement for the Rollerena rink at 836 Fourth Street, San Rafael claimed the Rollerena to be the only roller skating rink in Marin. Apparently a similar short life was also the case for the Marin Roller Rink, a rink that opened on April 17, 1942 at Third and B Streets.

Jocelyn Moss describes the post-1942 history of roller skating in San Rafael in her article “Roller Skating in Marin” published previously in our



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Anne T. Kent California Room

The official Medium account of the archive of Marin County history & culture at the Marin County Free Library http://tinyurl.com/MarinCoSocialMedia