San Rafael High celebrates 125 Years

by Laurie Thompson

San Rafael High School, E. Street location, circa 1900. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

San Rafael High was our county’s first public high school. On July 23, 1888, San Rafael School Trustees approved a resolution which began:

Resolved that a high school be started in the new building…on the the sixth day of August, 1888, under the supervision of Prof. C.S. Smythe….

The “new building” referenced in the resolution was located on the corner of Fourth and Shaver Streets and accommodated lower grades on the first floor and the high school class in a single room on the second floor. According to historian Florence Donnelly:

Only 11 students completed the first term. But students began coming by train from Novato, Sausalito and Ross Valley, while others rode horseback or walked into town from the nearby ranches. (Marin Independent Journal, Saturday, Sept. 19, 1970, p. M6).

Due to the increased enrollment, a two-story addition to accommodate the swelling high school class was added in 1889.

San Rafael’s first high school graduation took place June 5, 1891 in Gordon’s Opera House on the south side of Fourth Street between C and D, with the graduates, five boys and four girls…all delivering addresses. (Florence Donnelly).

Portion of San Rafael High Yearbook Collection in the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.

Eventually the high school student body out-grew their quarters at Fourth and Shaver Streets and funding was approved for a new building to be constructed on the site of an old cemetery on E Street between Third and Fourth. The new high school. which included 15 classrooms, a gymnasuim & assembly hall as well as physics and chemistry labs, opened in 1899 and was also the first home of the San Rafael Public Library.

It was designed by specialist school builders, the Cunningham Brothers, and featured a “Spanish Renaissance” style. Though seemingly “grand” when it opened, the school had many drawbacks and students remembered the dark, dungeon-like gymnasium in the basement and the very uneven grounds littered with broken tombstones from the old cemetery. Eventually, it too, became over-crowded and obsolete and the citizens of San Rafael approved funding for a new structure.

San Rafael High School, Mission Street location, 1931 © 1931 San Rafael Searchlight yearbook.

San Rafael High School, E. Street location, circa 1900When the current San Rafael High School on Mission Avenue opened in 1925,it was surrounded by farmlands on the outskirts of town. Over the years it has expanded in size and scope and now sits in the heart of Central San Rafael.

San Rafael High Yell Leaders, 1951 © 1951 San Rafael Searchlight yearbook.

San Rafael High’s 2014 yearbook ‘The Searchlight” pays tribute to the school’s rich history and reveals the origins of the school’s mascot:

Have you ever wondered why we are called the bulldogs? We received this title quite by an accident back in 1924. During an assembly on October 10th, principal Oliver R. Hartzell spoke about the football team after they had lost a game against Sacramento. Mr. Hartzell said, “we fought like Bulldogs” and since that day the Bulldog has become our mascot….”

Originally published at



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

Anne T. Kent California Room


The official Medium account of the archive of Marin County history & culture at the Marin County Free Library