Reading the Maps, Number 3: Ross and Kentfield in 1874

by Dewey Livingston

In this series we look at historic survey maps in the collection housed at the Anne T. Kent California Room Maps & Special Collections Annex. The maps featured are posted on line for the reader to see in full detail; note the specific URL in the article. Click on the arrows in the upper right corner of the map to expand the image, then further enlarge or shrink using the + and — buttons.

The Town of Ross got its start in a different location than the one we know today; 150 years ago, it was a private estate. The first town, known as Ross Landing, was located downstream, where College Avenue crosses Corte Madera Creek today. When trains on the North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPCRR) started running through the Ross Valley in early 1875, the tracks bypassed the village of Ross Landing by a quarter mile. The nearest depot -one of the few original 1875 NPCRR stations- was called Tamalpais, echoing the name of the adjacent Kent Estate. Rail officials later established a depot farther north on the Ross Estate.

The Anne T. Kent California Room’s collection of unrecorded survey maps includes dozens of early maps of Ross and Kentfield. One of the most interesting is entitled, “Lands of Mrs. Ann S. Ross Near Ross Landing”. The map was evidently made in preparation of the subdivision of much of her land holdings.

Detail from a survey made c.1874 of the future Ross and Kentfield. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

This map is not dated, and we are not even sure if its surveyor/author was Hiram Austin, although it rests in Austin’s collection. It appears to date from around 1874, when the NPCRR was under construction. Despite some damage to the map, there are a number of significant pieces of information, including the “smoking gun” associated with an investigation regarding the original location of Corte Madera Creek.

The survey map depicts all of the land owned at that time by Mrs. Ross, widow of James Ross both of them Marin County pioneers. Ross bought the entire Rancho Punta de Quentin in 1857, and his heirs sold most of the rancho to other parties within decades. Familiar names such as Worn, Makin, Kittle and Dibblee are among those heirs and purchasers. The map covers the portion of Ross Valley from modern-day Kentfield and Kent Woodlands on the south to the San Anselmo border on the north, and from the entrance to Phoenix Lake Park on the west to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. on the east. We’ll start on the west edge (left side) of the map.

Immediately outside of Mrs. Ross’s property is a building marked “Carrs.” Ross Landing laborer Jeremiah Carr lived here with his family, wife Lodema and six children. This is not to be confused with the legendary (note the word “legend”) roadhouse known as the Pink Saloon on the road to Bolinas about fifteen years later. According to local historian Garrett Scales, “a somewhat notorious saloonkeeper by the name of Joseph Escallier” opened a short-lived and illegal saloon and 20-acre family-oriented resort called Lagunitas Villa in 1889, providing a popular stopping point for travelers and Bay Area people. With rumors of a bordello and general saloon-style misbehavior, the gentry of Ross-according to a 1976 oral history with the late Doris Schmiedell-was greatly disturbed by the place they referred to as the Pink Saloon in tony Ross. A group of prominent local men bought the property and in 1903 the Lagunitas Country Club was established there, using the old saloon building as the first clubhouse. There are a number of holes in the story, as Scales has noted, but the Lagunitas Club-which in no way resembles a “Pink Saloon”-remains active today.

A fine painting depicting Ross Landing at the time the survey map was made. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Notice the gate depicted east of Carrs, indicating private property controls, and “Mound Hill,” a place-name likely long forgotten. It is possible that the “mound” was a huge Indian midden, of a size not unknown in the area at that time. Who lived in the house drawn on the top Mound Hill is not known. Today, a house at 198 Lagunitas Road occupies the little hill.

Lagunitas Road has been newly laid out, replacing the old road that is depicted as running south of the new-and still used-road. That old road was largely used for hauling timber out of the canyons to ships at Ross Landing, and was also one of the routes to Bolinas, a thriving coastal port in the early days of the county. The old Lagunitas roadway passes through what became private parcels graced by fine homes today; we wonder if there are any traces in the yards of these residents? And, notice the “old cabin” at the foot of the hills-who lived in it back then, and in whose back yard are its remains? It was located roughly on today’s Madrona Avenue east of the corner of Woodside Way.

A later map, dated 1886, shows the same area covered by the c. 1874 map after it was subdivided: click here. On this we see the large lots created by surveyor Austin on both sides of Lagunitas Road (westernmost “Lot S” is the Pink Saloon property), and plenty of other items of interest.

An excellent photograph of these scenes is found in a circa 1895 photo album owned by the Shaver family and now in the collection of the California Room. See it here. In this view from Bald Hill, we see Lagunitas Road passing through grassy pastures, with the redwood forested hills to the south and Ross Landing in the distance.

On the map, notice the spring and water trough marked at the sharp bend in the new road, and also “Grove Hill” southeast of that bend. The old wood road passes south of the hill through a small passage, the route of The Bridge Road off of Willow Avenue today. The houses shown on Grove Hill are located today on Armsby Circle.

North of the new Lagunitas Road is Phoenix Creek and Albert Dibblee’s property. Dibblee was a wealthy San Francisco merchant who built an estate he called Fernhill. After his death in 1895 his land was divided into large lots, one of those today being Branson School. His heirs built Glenwood Avenue, which linked Lagunitas Road with points north.

South of the new road is what is called both Ross Hill and Green Hill, heavily forested. Over the ridge, marked by a “Line Along Redwood Ridge” is Albert E. Kent’s estate, today’s Kent Woodlands. Kent bought this property from Mrs. Ross in the early 1870s. Notable here is the “Cooper House Tract,” which refers to land grantee Juan B. R. Cooper, who built a house on the site later occupied by the Kent mansion. Cooper sold the rancho in 1850 to Benjamin Buckelew.

The real meat of the map is its right side, showing Corte Madera Creek, the new rail line-depicted as three parallel lines-and the “San Anselmo Valley Road,” today’s Sir Francis Drake Blvd. between Kentfield and the San Anselmo line. The only properties marked east of this road are the George A. Worn estate, called Sunnyside, and the “Geary Lot” where Dr. John Fitzgibbon Geary built an estate called “The Knolls.” Sunnyside is today the Marin Art & Garden Center-the barn used by Ross Valley Players and the Octagon House, home of the Ross Historical Society’s Jose Del Pino Moya Library, are the only remaining buildings from Worn’s time-and the Geary property later became Emile Toussin’s summer resort and the Altamira Tract.

The Ross depot around the turn of the century. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

West of the county road, the “Wheat Field Tract” clues us into the presence of a wheat field-farms in Ross?-with a street leading to it. That street was eventually extended to the San Anselmo border, named Wordsworth Avenue, and later renamed Shady Lane. The eastern part of Lagunitas Road crosses two bridges over two creeks and a building is depicted on the railroad company’s 1.4 acres, which is the original Ross depot. It appears that later surveyors added the penciled information on the map, including this railroad parcel and building; although a flagstop called Sunnyside was located here after 1875, a depot and grounds were not established at Ross until 1882. South of the depot is a “side channel” that is now in the area of Ross Common and Ross School and would have been filled to create level ground.

Continuing south, a street crosses the creeks to Mrs. Ross’s home grounds. In pencil is a new driveway leading directly to the house, with a turnaround and a road heading north to Lagunitas Road. Southeast of the street-which no longer exists-is a knoll with a house, and a 14.5-acre “Vegetable Garden.” This is Giovanni Chiappari’s farm. Chiappari leased the land around 1874 and bought it the next year-he was 21 years old and had come to Marin only five years earlier from his native Italy. He and his brother Luigi sold their produce in San Francisco. Another street leads southwesterly across the creek; this is roughly today’s Laurel Avenue next to College of Marin.

Satellite view of Ross and Kentfield with changes in the creek in blue. © Google Earth

At the lower right corner of the map is Ross Landing (noted as Ross’ on the map and other early accounts). James Ross and his son -also James- created Ross Landing at the head of tidewater as a port to ship lumber and farm products. The major part of Ross Landing is east of the “Saucelito Road” (today’s College Avenue) and not depicted on the map. But adjacent to the bridge is “P. Smith’s Lot,” a smaller lot at the corner with two buildings, and a larger parcel with a hill and C-shaped building. The latter is George Butler’s estate, now the site of College of Marin. Peter Smith was a pioneer merchant of Ross Landing that can be credited with making the oft-rowdy port into a respectable town. At this time, Ross Landing was one of only a handful of established towns in Marin (others were San Rafael, Novato, Tomales, Nicasio, Olema, Bolinas and Sausalito) and was among the most important for commerce. The two buildings on the corner were the home of French immigrant Paul Treanton, pioneer ship captain of old Ross Landing, and his family. His corner later became a gas station, then Taqueria de Marin, and now an entrance to the college.

See illustration #3 for a good view of Ross Landing at the time of the map’s creation.

At the very bottom of the map the road and railroad come together. A “Rancherie” is depicted, which was a huge Coast Miwok midden. The small shell-and-burial-filled hill was excavated in 1874 to build the Tamalpais depot, and soon entirely eliminated for a home site owned by the Kent Family. Today that triangle is occupied by a gas station and the Woodlands Center. The small road forming the top of the pie is today’s Stadium Way-named for the former football stadium located north of it-originally a “wood road” into the timber stands in the Phoenix Lake drainage.

Running roughly northwest to southeast across the map are the parallel twin creeks, rail line, and county road. Following the bottom of the valley is the path of least resistance for transportation. The road was in place very early-no doubt soon after Ross Landing was developed in the 1850s, and stayed east of the creek. The rail line was constructed in 1873–74, and here the story gets most interesting.

During 2010, the town of San Anselmo tapped geomorphologist Laurel Collins of Watershed Sciences to perform a historical analysis of Corte Madera Creek, in order to establish the early settlement channel characteristics and physical landscape changes that have contributed to flood issues, particularly those that occurred four years earlier. After much study of maps, photographs, documents and extensive field work, she came to the conclusion that historical Corte Madera Creek during the 1800s had been located farther west than the modern creek alignment. The downstream channelized segment of Corte Madera Creek that was later placed in concrete in 1969 did not alter the upstream creek by the depot. The latter was likely done circa 1874 during railroad construction.

Ms. Collins found evidence of the creek’s altered course at the site of the pre-1874 channel. Evidence included mature riparian trees lining an abandoned moribund slough with appropriate hydraulic geometry on the west side of the valley, now called Murphy Creek. She deduced that the railroad company, in order to pursue a straight line and establish the new railroad grade and its attending Ross Depot on sufficiently high ground, had cut off the natural alignment of Corte Madera Creek north of Lagunitas Road and diverted its waters into a constructed ditch that cut through higher ground of an adjacent alluvial fan of Kittle Creek to the east. She had little documentary proof, no “smoking gun,” but the signs on the ground- Kittle Creek alluvial fan topography, lack of Corte Madera Creek floodplain features, and lack of mature streambank vegetation-were compelling and accepted. She later wrote that long-neglected Murphy Creek “could play an integral role for increasing fish habitat and possibly function as a fish bypass under certain flow conditions.”

A few years later, this map turned up in the California Room’s new survey map archive. The “smoking gun” had been found! The map clearly labels the western creek as “old channel of the arroyo” and the eastern-present-day-reach as the “new channel of the Arroyo San Anselmo.” This old and forgotten map has contributed to our understanding of flooding problems in the Ross Valley, and also offers potential solutions for the future.

(The disruption of the original channel north of Lagunitas Road is seen in the 1886 map, linked above.)

Also notice, on the 1874 map, how the old channel makes a sharp turn to the east, then north (through today’s COM parking lot), and then joins the new channel as it makes a loop under a bridge in Ross Landing. That loop was straightened in the early twentieth century, so today’s College Avenue bridge adjacent to College of Marin is farther south.

In conclusion, this map is important in many ways as it documents early landforms and drainage to the benefit of scientific study and planning; early settlement and development, landowners and acreage, to the benefit of Marin history buffs; and, in general, opens a window into the Ross Valley of 150 years ago.

The author, who is the map archivist at the California Room’s Map & Special Collections Annex, is indebted to Laurel Collins, Garrett Scales and Richard Torney for their assistance in preparing this article.

Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.

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