Muldrow City: Dreams With No Foundation
by Dewey Livingston
Muldrow City is the metropolis on Tomales Bay’s shores that never came to be. Chances are, many trusting men lost their shirts on the deal. Col. William Muldrow was known as a consummate shyster. The only clues we have of his ambitions at Tomales Bay is the curious place name, “Muldro [sic] City,” on the coast survey’s 1859–1863 map of the bay, and a lone newspaper article. That map shows a few buildings and fenced enclosures. An 1862 map of Henry W. Halleck’s properties shows much more: six houses, a hotel, and John McKnight’s 13-acre chicken farm but doesn’t give the settlement a name. By that time, Col. Muldrow had fled to his next dishonest schemes.
William Muldrow was a Kentuckian — as were many of the settlers in the vicinity of the Marshall brothers’ ranch — born in 1797 at Muldrow Hill. When Muldrow came to Marin County he was a new widower; his wife, Elizabeth, had died in 1858 after giving him six children. By the time of his arrival, he had a reputation as a “visionary, fool, swindler,” according to a biographer, who defended his name by calling him a “first-class promoter…his type probably sold apple orchard leases in the Garden of Eden.” The biography makes clear that he was a schemer from an early age, including reaping $200,000 from investors in lots on a swamp in Missouri. When he moved to Missouri he used his persuasive powers to get investors in new businesses or real estate dreams and manufacturing his inventions. In one report, he was said to have invented prefabricated houses. Muldrow started a failed salt business and developed the breaking plow, but never made much money. He started the troubled Marion College in Missouri, on borrowed funds. In the early 1830s he laid out a “great city” on the banks of the Mississippi River, to be called Marion City. The 515 lots were in a swamp, but Muldrow and his major investor saw it as the “Seaport of the West,” with a railroad connecting it to the Pacific Ocean at a time when there were but three miles of railroad track in the United States. He collected almost $200,000 from gullible buyers, investors and speculators.
As hundreds of settlers moved onto their lots, a flood swept through, washing away much of Marion City. An attempt at rebuilding proceeded but was fruitless in the face of a fire and a cyclone that followed the flood, and within years the place was nothing but, according to a local historian, a “squalid steamboat landing.”
Like many a man after such failures, Muldrow headed to California to strike it rich in the Gold Rush. He settled in Sacramento and within years was involved in land deals and court cases; he was to sue people indiscriminately. He made headlines when he claimed all the land from Cape Mendocino to Point Reyes in 1856, showing papers to prove that he been deeded that land, which had formerly been under Russian control, by John Sutter. He still made the claim while in Bodega in 1859, when he offered land for two dollars an acre, including to the people already settled there: “No one has yet bought from him,” reported the Daily Alta. “He wants the cash down, or unconditional notes, and gives nothing more of title than a quit claim deed.” At the same time, he seemed to have had a hand in the creation of a vigilante group of about 30 men called the Marion Rangers who, according to the Alta, brought “a posse of armed men from San Francisco to dispossess the settlers on the Smith Rancho,” part of the lands that Muldrow claimed were his.
It was around this time that Muldrow showed up on Tomales Bay, placing his name on the Halleck land. The first and only use of the name Muldrow City is on that 1859 federal survey. In February of 1860, Muldrow announced, in a statement that was covered by newspapers around the state, that he was creating a town to be called Tomales City. He chose a location that offered adequate bay depth for ships to dock, with relatively level land for a small “city.” In that year’s census he is listed as a “ranchero” living in a home with a schoolteacher named Mr. Wigham and Wigham’s wife and three children, Apalena, Villa and Virgil. Tomales City attracted a picnic excursion in 1861, where 200 participants arrived on the steamer Union Star and “ate lunch and drank beer.” That’s about all we know about the place.
Having failed in his schemes — both locally on Tomales Bay and the four-county coastal claim — Muldrow went back to Sacramento, where his famed “Muldrow Title” laid nebulous claim to ownership of dozens of city blocks. Col. Muldrow spent most of his years there in litigation; at one point he initiated seventeen lawsuits in one day. In old age he returned to Missouri, and when “Old Bill” Muldrow died in 1872, according to a history of Missouri, “he left his estate so complicated that the administrators were twelve years in settling it.”
What of the residents of short-lived Muldrow City and vicinity? The Irish bachelor brothers James and Edward Commins located at the northern end of Muldrow City before 1860 and hired Michael Kirk as a farm laborer; Kirk was married to the daughter of prominent Marin and Tomales Bay landowner James Miller; the couple and their two children Mary and Joseph lived on the small ranch. The Commins brothers milked a large number of cows and also operated a busy slaughterhouse. James Commins served on the county Grand Jury in 1864. The Commins families moved on to the Sausalito area by 1870.
Missourian S. W. Preble farmed oats on a 200-acre parcel that his wife Lydia bought from Muldrow — heaven knows if the Colonel had apt title in order to make that sale — and the couple worked alongside Lydia’s father. The farm, located immediately south of Muldrow City, produced 2,500 bushels of oats in 1860, and the milk from 13 cows were evidently sold to a neighbor for butter making. The family shipped their product from the southern point on the ranch, where they had a storage barn. The same day the Prebles bought in, so did Joseph Wilson. The Prebles’ deed was probably fraudulent, and Sam Nowlin ended up owning the ranch.
E. Lindsay, hailing from Iowa, had control of 162 acres next to the bay, and three milk cows. Lindsay ran the hotel at Muldrow City, and perhaps the milk was for customers.
Chicken farmer John McKnight, a native of County Down, Northern Ireland, purchased a bit less than thirteen acres at the site of Muldrow City from Henry Halleck in 1862. He outlasted all the other settlers at Muldrow City — a newspaper described him as “a harmless old man [who] lived entirely alone” — but was stabbed to death in his house on March 16, 1876, a period when several murders had occurred on Tomales Bay. His alleged assailant was Blass Talamantes, a local man of native descent who lived a few miles away. The murder trial caused a sensation in Marin County. Held in Olema in Justice W. O .L. Crandell’s court, the trial included some chilling testimony. When he was arrested Talamantes asked, “Is this for murdering McKnight?” Talamantes’s twelve-year-old stepdaughter, Marianna Sanchez, testified that he came home on the night of the murder and burned his clothes in the stove, and told her he would kill her if she told anyone; he also brought two chickens, which they ate, and more the next day. Despite this testimony, Talamantes was released for insufficient cause, a verdict that shocked many of the local people. McKnight’s little farm was absorbed into the surrounding Nowlin ranch.
Only a few scrubby eucalyptus trees mark the spot of the potentially great Muldrow City. In the 1960s landowner Hans Angress proposed a major development, including hotel, marina and luxury houses there, but the ensuing local controversy, which saw neighbors and newer residents at odds, shut down his plans. The property is now an undeveloped part of Tomales Bay State Park.
Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.